The Unabashed Joy and Infinite Possibility of…

…the ellipsis.

When I logged on to Medium this morning, my eyes drifted to the Top stories on Medium list on the right side of the page. At number 5, I was treated to this little gem of truncation:

Medium will not be held responsible for the actions of moonshooters.

Just a little bit of murder with my morning coffee, you know? And I was shocked, for just a second, until I thought about it a little more.

I mean, it’s obvious! Why should moonshots be different from any other endeavor? If you want to make a game-changing omelette, you have to break a few eggs. Why didn’t I think of it before?

The Secret to Moonshots? Killing…

of course!

The full title of Astro Teller’s lovely piece is actually The Secret to Moonshots? Killing Our Projects. But for an exhilarating, thrilling moment, I thought somebody was finally taking a stand, planting a flag in the ground and getting real about what it takes to innovate in today’s world: straightforward, premeditated, cold-blooded murder.

The title was just cut off for space. Common practice, really. Facebook and Instagram both have mechanisms for truncating posts—hiding mouthfuls of text behind an ellipsis, with a link to reveal the remainder. This is better for your Social Media Experience, because it means when your uncle posts his lengthy status update / manifesto about Comdrade Obama’s nefarious plans to take all our guns and use them to perform late-term abortions, it doesn’t take up like three scrolls in your News Feed.

That’s how the platform wants to play it, so it’s up to the post-er to make you want to click through. Coming from the world of advertising, where it’s all about that clickthru, I’m acutely aware of the struggle. We call it good ads “thumbstopping” content. Scroll, scroll, scroll—we only have seconds (if that) to grab your attention.

Did you catch that?

But we usually try and grab users with a call-to-action: “Shop Now” or “Sign Up” or “Learn More.” The ellipsis isn’t a call-to-action; it’s an open question. No indication of where you’re going, no promise of where you’re going to land. The ellipsis could be covering anything. And I think that’s why I love it so much.

Take Astro’s truncated article title, for example:

The Secret to Moonshots? Killing…

Hidden behind those three little dots are a thousand different articles. Killing what? Your demons? Other moonshooters? A virgin under the light of a waxing gibbous moon? What could possibly live up to the mystery of that ellipsis?

It can change the whole timbre of a statement or a conversation. Imagine getting a text message from your partner – just a quick note, out of the blue, to say hello. The text says, simply, “hi.”

Or, it says:

hi…

WOAH. What the fuck is going on here? What’s wrong? What did I do? WHAT AREN’T THEY SAYING?

Here’s another one: your boss sends you an email with the subject line “About today.” First reaction, easily, is that it’s some kind of agenda, or a recap of some meeting. But when you toss an ellipsis on there:

About today…

Obviously, that changes things completely. Because you’re getting fired.

The ellipsis is a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a series of dots.

It’s not all doom and gloom, of course. The ellipsis isn’t necessarily hiding a negative, or an ulterior motive, or a “but.” Which reminds me of a funny story:

In December, I was working on an Instagram campaign that hinged on the idea of fitness resolutions — exercise more, add some distance to your run, park farther away, that kind of thing. And towards the end of the campaign, I had a more general, aspirational line: “Go farther.” Beautiful landscape, some copy, and a line that ended, “This year, go farther.”

A couple of hours after the photo went up on the company feed, somebody from PR stopped me in the hallway, unable to hold in her laughter. She’d taken a screenshot of the post before making a quick change to the copy, and she just had to show me.

There it was: the beautiful photo, my aspirational copy—and a truncated last line:

This year, go fart…

As a writer, I get a little techy about some platform deciding to cut off my words, or to hide them behind some dots—after all, somebody might get the wrong idea about killing, or flatulence. But I love the ellipsis, intentional and otherwise, because it beckons you to do something, whether it’s to go deeper or make a guess.

The ellipsis may be a question that needs to be answered, but it can also be a choose your own adventure. It’s a moment waiting to happen. The seconds between lightning and thunder.

It’s a great piece of punctuation, and with great punctuation comes great responsibility.

Just be careful how you use it…