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Ellipses…Guidelines for Their Safe Use In Fiction

Deviating from the weird and wonderful, the next two blogs will deal with writer business. I know. I feel your pain. But I receive so many hits on my blogs on ellipses and em dashes, it’s time to update. I’ve procrastinated long enough. 

Much confusion surrounds the use of ellipses — a series of three dots/periods in a row. And understand, the confusion is not just on the part of writers, but editors as well.

I love to use ellipses in my writing, but most editors don’t seem to like them, or don’t know how to use them, and offer the recommendation to use them sparingly. As hard as I try, I get three or four or more wrong every time I send a manuscript to my editor.

I hope you and I evolve into such competent users of ellipses we feel confident enough to tell our editors, Nope you are wrong. (Dreaming. I know.)

Drawing from several resources, I created the following guidelines. Please note that these guidelines are for writing fiction.

(Probe Note: Guidelines for the use of ellipses in non-fiction or the academia world are clear.)

Ellipses, Or … Dot, Dot, Dot

For our purposes: An ellipsis is a literary device, a punctuation mark, used:

  • to show a break in continuity
  • or the trailing off in a character’s dialogue — either spoken or internal — as in hesitation or interruption of thoughts.
  • in narration, the ellipsis might show the unfinished thoughts of a character.
  • to show indecision, faltering speech, or an incomplete thought

Below are a variety of common ellipsis uses. I took these from books I’ve read.

(ProbeNote: Check out the differences in the spacing of the dots from various authors. Each author uses a different way to space ellipses! No wonder there is confusion.)

Examples of Ellipsis: In Internal Dialogue

Right now it all seems like an awful lot of work. A long row to hoe. A high mountain to climb. A . . . a . . . But he can’t think of any other similes. — Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King

He realizes she’ll never watch another reality show. It’s sad . . . but it does have its funny side. — Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King

I lay where I was, looking at her. Some small soothing in me was yammering at me to try to pick up the pieces … explain … apologize … make some reparation for this terrible conduct.” — Godbody by Theodore Sturgeon

Examples of  Ellipsis: In Dialogue

  “I know. Just…you were going to find out later, and I didn’t want you to think I’d been jerking you around. What?” Oz managed. His right eye was blinking hard. He felt weak. — The Intruders by Michael Marshall

He realized that the man was wearing gloves. “What are you…” The man put his face up close. — The Intruders by Michael Marshall

  “Perhaps outdoors … the pool, that will be it. She likes the pool. I’ll go with you.” — More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon

Examples of Ellipsis: In Narration

Key around his neck . . . hurry. Both hands on the chain, legs under her, snatch. The chain broke and she fell backward, scrambling up again. Turned around, confused. Trying to feel, trying to listen with her numbed ears over the crackle of the flames. Side of the bed . . . which side? She stumbled on the body, tried to listen. — Red Dragon by Thomas Harris

The weeks went by and broken tissues knit and the wide flat body soaked up nourishment like a cactus absorbing moisture. Never in his life had he had rest and food and … She sat with him, talked to him.  — More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon

Guidelines to the Safest Way to Use Ellipses

(But No Guarantees )

  1. Use the ellipsis in spoken or internal dialogue to show hesitation or trailing off of a thought.
  2. Use the ellipsis in spoken or internal dialogue to allow a question or accusation to hang in the air.
  3. Use the ellipsis in spoken or internal dialogue if the character cannot finish the thought or can’t bear to speak her/his/its thoughts.
  4. Do not use the ellipsis with dialogue that is interrupted by another character. Interruption in a character’s dialogue by another character is shown with an em dash. (I give guidelines for use of the em dash here.)
  5. If you are unsure, restructure the sentence to avoid use of the ellipsis.
  6. Editors don’t like ellipses and each editor will give you a different opinion on the correct usage. (If you don’t believe me, google ellipsis and see what you find.)
  7. Readers probably won’t analyze whether you have used ellipses correctly, as long as you don’t interrupt the flow of your prose with a bunch of dots.
  8. More noted authors appear to use ellipses in spoken and internal character dialogue and less often in narration.

On Spacing

If you check out the spacing of ellipses used by the authors above, there are different formats used by the famous.

  • King and Harris use: space, dot, space, dot, space, dot, space EXAMPLE:  There was a little boy . . . Danny.
  • Marshall uses: dot, dot, dot with no spaces EXAMPLE:   There was a little boy…Danny.
  • Thurgeon uses: space, dot, dot, dot, space EXAMPLE:  There was a little boy … Danny.
  • And I have even seen other variations: dot, dot, dot, space EXAMPLE: There was a little boy… Danny.
  • Some even use punctuation after the dots. EXAMPLE:  There was a little boy… . Danny. (I find this confusing when I read. It interrupts the flow. But I’ve seen it done. Such as:  Did you see that  little boy… ? Danny, I thinkAnd,  There was this boy… ! Danny.)

What do we use?

King’s style is indicative of The Chicago Manual of Style: space, dot, space, dot, space, dot, space. And you will find this even in his more recent novels like The Institute (2019) and Outsider (2018).

Marshall’s style is correct according to the most up-to-date information available: dot, dot, dot with no spaces and no end punctuation. Because of the wide use of computers and Microsoft Word/Office — which offers a keyboard shortcut to the ellipsis — this is the accepted spacing for modern times.

Eons ago, teachers taught us to double space after ending punctuation marks before beginning a new sentence. Now, we are told to only use one space. This appears to be the current status of the ellipsis. Less is more.

As for me, I will use the dot, dot, dot with no spaces when writing my novels and novellas. It’s evolution, you see. And way the heck simpler. Plus, the editing program I use suggests this as the recommended style.

(However, you may have noticed in my blog I use space, dot, dot, dot, space; like Sturgeon. That’s because of the font and theme of my blog. The spaces make it easier on the eyes to read.)


  • Using Microsoft Office for a Mac, click on option (alt) and semicolon. And Voila! An ellipsis appears. 

If you have other hints or suggestions for use of the ellipsis, please share. I love hearing from you. If you have a different computer and word program and know a keyboard shortcut to the ellipsis, please share. 
Clara Bush
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5 replies on “Ellipses…Guidelines for Their Safe Use In Fiction”

I love running across a good ellipses when I read. I like to imagine the word, spoken aloud, then the sound travels to my ear and into mind where it …

Thank you for posting, J. Marin. Beautifully said.
I love ellipses as well.

You sound like a writer. Are you?

I put your name into the magic jar for the drawing on November 20.

Good luck!

Thanks for the information on ellipses. They are my favorite to use, and I probably use too many. Most times I’ll do the space dotdotdot space.
Oh, just wanted you to know, I loved reading your ghost hunt stories series. 🙂

Hi b,
Thank you for your comment and reading my blog! I have been enjoying your blog as well and I love the variety of your posts and your beautiful photographs. Let’s keep in touch! —Clara

Thanks so much, Clara! Just now seeing your comment. I really appreciate that you enjoy seeing my posts, too! 🙂

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