ellipsis (narrative theory) Ellipsis is a function of writing and speech where words can be omitted and the meaning of the statement or the sentence will still be understood. In writing, the punctuation for ellipsis is three full stops… The concept of ellipsis is also used in relation to story narration in film and can be used to understand narrative techniques for screenwriting, filming and editing. In narrative theory what is here called ellipsis is identified as gapping. The term gapping has no general usage, but might become used in relation to narration in film although ellipsis indicates the same function, but without a formal theoretical framework.
In the narration of a film the events of a story are subject to spatial and temporal ellipsis, and this is a significant and continuous process within film narrative. At the script stage there are scenes that continue without ellipsis, the action of the character/s is carried from one location to the next with no sense of interrupted time, or more usually there is ellipsis, the ending of one scene and the beginning of the next is understood as a gap in time and often story location.
What is important here is that when the screenplay is written it will be with the anticipation that the audience will understand the ellipsis between the scenes in terms of narrative, so the screenwriter has to know what needs to be in the scripted scenes for the ellipsis to be comprehensible.
To example this issue in the joining of two scenes: In the first scene a woman is at a graveside, in the next scene the same woman is moving furniture out of a house: this ellipsis is likely to indicate that the funeral is connected to the action at the house, but if the story narration is that the woman’s mother has died and the woman is clearing out her mother’s house then this specific narrative information, the purpose and meaning of the scene and its action needs to be narrated in some form at the funeral or at the house. The audience needs to know that the daughter is attending the mother’s funeral. The audience needs to know that the daughter is at her mother’s house. Cutting from the graveside to the house will not in itself convey this information.
Confusions will occur if the ellipsis is not prepared: when ellipsis fails there’s a gap, a problem in the narrative, and the audience will make a conscious effort to try and overcome the incoherence, while at the same time being aware that the narration in the film has a problem: the audience will be confused about the action they have seen.
With neophyte screenwriters there are often issues with ellipsis. Scenes in themselves compress story: action and dialogue are constructed so that significant story events are brought together. Even if a film is constructed as a single shot, and perhaps especially if it is a single shot, which is presented as a real-time story, the significant story events will need to occur in succession: this is not to suggest the pace of the story, how fast the story events seems to occur is the key issue, but that story narration continues and progresses with an understandable narration. Where there is ellipsis, in an edited narrative, when time and location changes from scene to scene, a problem occurs when a screenplay has multiple scenes that provide little or no clear story progression: a woman is at funeral, a single location scene with a single action, narrating a specific story event: a woman attending a funeral. Or instead of just one scene for this story event several scenes: a woman is a passenger in a chauffeured car, the car arrives outside a building and stops, the woman gets out and goes in, the woman enters the building and there is a foyer, the woman reads a sign, stating Chapel of Rest and goes into a chapel. A hearse with a coffin is being driven down the road…. Here there are several scenes for the same story point when ellipsis can convey this narration in just two scenes. What a successful screenplay does is narrate a story, so each element of action will convey story action. In imagining a funeral scene a writer will almost certainly envisage a range of events, but then needs to decide which ones narrate the story for the construction of the narrative: what will be shown on film. Using ellipsis, refining story elements through scene construction, is important for clarity of narration.
In screenwriting controlling ellipsis is a particular skill. Screenplays often run over length in their first draft with scenes that are too long with too many scenes for the running time of the film. When scenes are cut, removed to shorten the script, this editing out of scenes is effectively a process of creating ellipsis. However, scenes cannot just be removed from the screenplay to shorten it, and what needs to be done is to identify how to tell the story with fewer scenes and to use ellipsis to move the story forward with the audience being able to fill in the gaps in narration. In a badly narrated film where a scene change in the story disrupts the narrative then this needs to be thought through by the screenwriter to try and integrate it into the story.
A failure of ellipsis can occur, and is often noticed by the audience when a commercial feature film has been shot and edited and then runs very long in terms of screen time, so it is edited down with scenes being removed before the film is released: scenes can be cut successfully and the narrative remain coherent, but often the cut, removed scenes are missed and the narrative is disrupted: the audience knows that something is missing: This is a failure of narration and a failure of ellipsis.
In film temporal and spatial ellipsis is present throughout: it's a function within scenes and between scenes. Again, even if a film is made as a single continuous shot, in what appears to be real time, events are controlled and compressed in the script, and the filming, the single shot, needs to narrate the action of the story if the narrative is to be coherent: a single shot can't show all the action in the scene so effectively there is spatial ellipsis: the single shot will show only certain actions and events on screen, and others, off screen have to be understood, effectively be constructed by the audience.
Moving to consider ellipsis within scenes, rather than between scenes. In nearly all films there is temporal and spatial ellipsis in the blocking of action and in the editing and this is controlled by the continuity system. A scene that is felt to contain action with continuous time will in fact be subject to ellipse and a scene with a number of actions that happen over a period of time will be narrated in what is effectively a sequence of micro scenes that represent action over a period of time.
To example story action shown through a sequence of micro scenes and the use of continuity and ellipsis in this context: in a large dining room a dinner table for twenty guests is to be prepared with linen, silverware and crockery. In the film this is narrated with the following sequence of shots: ONE: A large dining table is bare, a servant arrives with linen and they begin to lay the table. TWO: A second servant arrives with crockery, they reach the table and story events have progressed, the table linen is nearly completed. THREE: a third servant enters with crockery and story events have progressed again, the first servant is no longer in the room and the second servant is finishing setting out the crockery. The screen time for the laying of the twenty-seat table is less than twenty seconds, compared to the story time/real time for the task, thirty minutes. Watching the film the audience will understand the events through ellipsis, and this will be supported by the continuity, establishing that the setting of the table is a continuous action: the lighting of the room will be consistent, or if the task were to take several hours, then the lighting could be changed to indicate a significant passage of time. To progress the scene with continuity of action: SHOT ONE: the first servant is shown entering, and then at the table they start laying out the linen, but the dining room doorway is excluded from the final framing of shot. The shot cuts to the doorway: SHOT TWO: it is the same doorway that the first servant entered, the same light, so the same room. The second servant, clearly not the first servant, enters with crockery, so that story action has progressed, and the second servant moves to the table revealing that the first servant has nearly finished laying out the linen, and the audience now understands that there has been an ellipsis in time between the first shot and the second, and during this ellipsis the table linen has been laid. SHOT THREE: A third servant, clearly a different servant, enters the dining room with silverware, they are shown at the doorway, and then move to the table: the linen is laid on the table, the second servant is about to finish, the first servant is not present in the room, so must have left the room, but this is not shown. The audience construct the action of the story, they understand that the first servant has left and the filming and editing of the separate entries, three separate shots, makes this a coherent narrative construction. The audience fill the gaps, understanding the ellipsis.
The written screenplay to indicate the action will indicate: Three servants lay the linen, silver and crockery on a large dining table, but the screenplay doesn’t indicate how much screen time it will take to narrate this action, the technique for filming the scene or the use of ellipsis. In terms of the dining room scene being a failure of continuity and ellipsis in filming, this will happen if the lighting changes so that it’s unclear that the scene takes place as a continuous period of time, it’s not established that it’s a large table in the dining room, so it’s not clear what the story event is: setting a large dining table for a formal dinner.
Continuity of editing will fail and disrupt the scene if the first servant enters the room and begins to lay the table and the framing of the shot shows the servant at the table and also doorway into the room: the shot of the table laying continues and then the second servant enters. Due to this framing of the shot, the doorway and both servants can be seen, and because of this the shot cannot be cut to create an ellipsis as this would present a jump cut: losing continuity of action, the action of both servants is in the same shot, so a cut will move the action forward, but the change in the action of the laying of crockery and cutlery on the table will jump on the cut and be a visible jump in time. The use of the micro scenes with, clearly separated events for the scene, enables time to move forward in a scene with continuity, its not simply a question of joining shots with different events together.
It’s perfectly possible during production to film all the events for a scene, what is set out in the screenplay, for the action to take place in real life, for the events in the scene to be acted out for the purpose of filming and then in editing these shots cannot be edited to make a coherent sequence which can be narrated into a coherent temporal and spatial narrative: who did what, when, where, how is lost. The continuity system controls what is in the scene and enables events and actions to be left out, and without this system there will be shots with events, but the conventions story narration will be lost: the shot will not connect in a narrative form.
Ellipsis can be used not just to carry events forward, but significant story events that can be left off screen: the audience can speculate what has happened in the ellipsis. In life not all events that have understood to have taken place are directly experienced, but we know or rather create a knowledge that things exist and occur even though we have not seen them: ellipsis, gapping, uses this cognitive function in the construction of a narrative, but there needs to be signs, signals, clues for what is not seen to be subject to conjecture, speculation. What happens off screen cannot simply be assumed by the filmmaker to be understandable to the audience. This can create the problem where the filmmakers think that the audience will understand off screen events, but then this does not happen.
The example of the dining room scene indicates when an event of a significant duration, thirty minutes to lay the large dinner table, can be narrated as a twenty second sequence, but ellipsis can also occur even when a scene is understood to have no compression of time. To clarify this issue: First, a dialogue scene is edited and has a running time of two minutes, it's a scene that is apparently in real time, two people in the same place having a continuous conversation, but the scene can be re-edited down to less than two minutes, and it will still be thought to be in real time: the duration of shots can be changed and still produce the perception of real-time event. Again, the continuity system makes this possible.
For a scene filmed as a single shot there is no requirement for continuity of action and dialogue, the actors can talk over each other, gesturing and positioning as they wish, but if this is done with a dialogue scene being shot with changing, multiple set ups with different framings for the same shot on a character: the scene with actors talking and gesturing with no continuity of action the scene will not edit. To shoot coverage, a scene shot from several angles, actors do not overlap their speech, they control their position and gesturing, limiting their movement so that specific actions take place at very specific points on the scene and on a set a script supervisors will check and monitor this continuity. Screen acting is disciplined for continuity. When continuity is in place the running time of a scene, its screen time can be shortened or extended and still appear to be real time. What this control of continuity in the filming of coverage allows for is editing to construct a compression or extension of story time: effectively real time is created in the editing process: one can identify this as control of duration, but it is a process of ellipsis.
The first edit of a dialogue scene will nearly always run long in terms of screen time, because the sense of realism and narrative in the scene is connected to seeing the individual shots that were made for the filming, how the scene was actually performed, but once this stage of editing is complete the sequence is judged in terms of its screen narration, shots can be shortened and removed, and the story action is actually clarified: what is usually lost, is subject to ellipsis, is usually the general actions of the scene, those which don’t make specific plot points related to the story action of the characters. So, shots showing arriving, leaving, undertaking physical movement in the scene. This editing, creating ellipsis, can extend to smaller actions: there are two characters talking one makes a cup of tea, the shot starts them showing to pour the tea, the shot cuts to the other character who is watching the tea being poured, and the next shot shows the cup of poured tea and being offered: using this editing method the time and action of pouring the tea is lost, and this is an ellipsis. The precision of the continuity allows this control.
When a scene is shot and the control of continuity on set is poor it will be necessary in editing to show actions in full, crossing the room to arrive, sitting, pouring a cup of tea, offering a hand to shake. This laboured sense of story and editing can be seen in many first films and even in early cinema when the continuity system for filming and editing were not in place. Probably the best way to view an example of this ellipsis is to view a rough cut of a scene and then the final edit of a scene, the story may be the same but the narration is not: continuity of action and dialogue during filming and then in editing, maintains the coherence or the narrative with ellipsis
A key issue for all storytelling is what to include and what to exclude to tell the story effectively, and what is implicit in this selection of events is gapping: the audience will fill in gaps if the story is narrated to support this. In film, ellipsis is part of the narrative technique of the screenplay and this extends to the blocking and filming of scenes and it continues through to the editing. Ellipsis is essential for storytelling, its narration. In spoken language and written language this has been learned and is in constant practice: the techniques of ellipsis in film narrative also needs to be learned and understood, so that it can be applied during screenwriting, filming and editing.
Copyright: Eugene Doyen 2019