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Monday, May 6, 2019

How to Use an Ellipsis Properly in Fiction

Ever wonder why some ellipses seem to have three dots and others have four? Some have spaces between each dot and some don't? Why sometimes you capitalize after an ellipsis and other times you lowercase?

To be honest, I don't think most of us were taught properly how to use an ellipsis. I know I wasn't. I remember being in college and getting my paper corrected for that reason, but not getting a full explanation for what I did wrong.

I see a lot of writers who don't understand all the rules of ellipses either (and they may not even be aware that they don't fully understand them). So although I typically don't do posts on punctuation and grammar, I thought it might be helpful to do a quick one on ellipses.

Some of you may be wondering what an "ellipsis" is. It's a fancy name for the three dots or "periods" you see in writing ( . . . ). The word "ellipsis" is Greek for "omission," which is what it does. It shows that something has been omitted or left out.

Now with research papers, this might be obvious. Maybe you are quoting a source and don't want to quote every single word of it, so you use an ellipsis to show that you left some stuff out. Like this:

Full quote:

“You know you’re in love when you can’t fall asleep because reality is finally better than your dreams.” - Dr. Suess

Quote with omission:

“You know you’re in love when . . . reality is finally better than your dreams.” - Dr. Suess

In fiction, we usually aren't quoting sources. But the ellipsis works in similar ways, it conveys that something is omitted. This might be something directly omitted. Mamma Mia uses this method well:

July seventeenth, what a night. Sam rowed me over to the little island. We danced on the beach, and we kissed on the beach, and . . .

The ellipsis is used to imply they got intimate, but that part is "omitted."

Other times things are omitted because they are incomplete--maybe an incomplete line of dialogue such as when a character trails off.

"I started to go to the school, but . . ." she trailed off.

Or an incomplete thought.

Would she actually want . . . ? she wondered. 

Or maybe something is "omitted" for the sake of something else, like a character trying to censor or tone down his word choice.

"Sarah is really very . . . fanciful, isn't she?" David said. 

In pauses like this, the ellipsis may convey thinking. It's completely fine to use them that way.

In rare occasions, an ellipsis might be used to indirectly convey the passing of time.

She ate . . . she drank . . . and she went shopping.

And you may occasionally see them used other ways stylistically, but these are the main situations. 

In a sense, though, in all these examples, something is omitted, whether it's directly, or indirectly, like an incomplete or changing thought, or actions in between.

When used smartly, ellipses can be powerful in fiction because they convey more than what is on the page, and that is vital to good storytelling.

Too often, however, newer writers just throw them in because they like the feel and sound of them or the long pause, or even in some cases . . . because they are lazy. Make sure if you use them, they have a point.

Now let's get to the technicalities. Years ago, I used to be confused that sometimes ellipses seemed to be three dots and other times four, and I didn't know when to use which. Ellipses are three dots. However, if it comes after a complete sentence, you still use a period.

I was so hungry. . . . chicken, cereal, tofu, pasta--all of it sounded good.

 If it follows an incomplete sentence, you don't use a period.

“You know you’re in love when . . . reality is finally better than your dreams.” - Dr. Suess

If the words after the ellipsis are the start of a new sentence, you capitalize them. 

 "They treated me like . . . Want to go to dinner?" she asked suddenly.

(Worth noting, however, is that the Chicago Manual of Style has some examples where it isn't, but it's usually best to stick to these guidelines.)

If not, you don't.

When it comes to spacing before and after an ellipsis, handle it how you would a regular word.

Sarah was really very[space]. . .[space]fanciful

"I started to go to the school, but[space] . . .[no space]" she trailed off.

One exception to this is if there is a question mark following.

Would she actually want[space]. . .[space]? she wondered.

According to The Chicago Manual of Style, ellipses should have a space between each dot.

Would she actually want[space].[space].[space].[space]? she wondered.

 However, in APA style, there are no spaces between dots.

Would she actually want ... ? she wondered.

Fiction typically follows The Chicago Manual of Style, but you may still see the ellipsis with no spaces, especially since word processors sometimes reformat ellipses automatically. So while technically they should have spaces between each dot, you probably aren't going to get reprimanded if you don't. Even The Chicago Manual of Style notes that some places will be fine with the no-space ellipsis. I use spaces because that's how I was corrected by a mentor once.

One more thing: Ellipses do not signify an interruption. 


"I wish . . ."
"Shut up!" Mike interrupted.
 Use em dashes for that.


"I wish--"
"Shut up!" Mike interrupted.

Dashes are another subject.

But hopefully now you know how to handle ellipses!


  1. I don't believe I have ever seen this handled so thoroughly and perfectly! Thank you for this.

  2. Thank you for this! I've always used them but I needed confirmation I was utilizing them correctly. I'm more than a little relieved to see "...?" is alright. This was very helpful.

  3. Okay, just a little thing to check. I want to make sure I'm doing this right. Is it:

    1. Some things, like this, are debatable or preference. Personally, I would do the top one, but you can make a case for either.

  4. I am editing writing by someone who likes to use ellipses too often. Sometimes twice in a paragraph, and again in the next paragraph. Is there a legal limit,or should I allow them all? thanks!

    1. There isn't a hard and fast rule for how often to use them, but if you feel there are too many and it's not helping the text, I would let the writer know.

  5. I love using ellipses in my writing because it feels like and works so well with my voice. I've not seen another piece that better explains the proper way to use them. I try not to overuse them and don't believe I do, but this certainly validates my usage. Thank you.


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