The Ellipsis . . . In Fiction

As a writer, your main job, strangely even more important than writing, is learning. That’s why I write about different techniques on Tuesday, not to teach any of you per se- that’s just a pleasant side effect – but to teach myself the techniques. To talk about any of these topics I take some of what I already know and then do a bunch of research through text documents and internet sources.

So this weekend, I got tagged on something I thought I knew. Ellipses. I thought I knew how to use this overtly pain in the butt punctuation mark because I’ve had editors tell me over and over that they should be used a certain way, which is not how I was doing it. How do you write ellipses? “…” right?

Nope – they said, they should be used thusly: “. . . .” or “. . . ,” or “. . . !” or “. . . ?”  Essentially: dot space dot space dot space punctuation mark.

This weekend I was relaying this completely solid information to my peers and they corrected me, as well they should have.

No, they said, that’s outdated like the double spaces after the end of the sentence. It’s now an auto formatted thing and you’re encouraged to use that. (I’m paraphrasing, not actual quotes)

As you can imagine I was just a little embarrassed, but I’m a big girl and I learn my lessons well when embarrassed so no harm folks. But I have to say what gets to me in situations like this is not the shame of being called out for being wrong, just simply being wrong is enough. I absolutely H-A-T-E passing on ill-gotten information. I don’t hate being wrong because of some foolish pride fantasy, but simply because I’ve passed along bad information that could confuse someone else. Alright folks, there’s more than enough confusion in the writing game without me adding to it, thank you very much.

Fine, I admit my ignorance. So, I looked up the guidelines I should have looked up more thoroughly before I took editors’ words for it. And what did I find? That I’m not the only one confused by the ellipses rules. I’m not going to get into non-fiction or academic writing because those guidelines are actually pretty clear. Informal or Fiction writing is less clear.

A Writer’s Reference (Seventh Edition) by Dianna Hacker and Nancy Sommers, Bedford/St.Martin (c) 2011 states on page 290:

“The ellipsis mark consists of three spaced periods”

On page 291 it states:

“The ellipsis mark may also be used to indicate a hesitation or an interruption in speech or to suggest unfinished thoughts”

In  The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation (Tenth Edition), by Jane Straus  (c) 2008 pretty much explains that the three-dot auto format computers use these days are correct.

Okay, so according the most up-to-date grammar sources I have my friends were correct. Three dots, no spaces, no extra punctuation mark. Sweet. (Again, fiction or non-formal writing academic writing does require an extra punctuation mark in some cases)

Now that we have the how to use them cleared up, we move on to the when to use them.

Oh wait, this just came in…

No one has really clear guidelines on when to use them in fiction writing.
How Not to Stick to a Wall from
They say that it’s fine to use them to indicate a trailing off or incomplete thought. But I’ve seen it in narration as well as dialogue. I get dialogue as characters are often as incoherent as we are. But is it just as acceptable in the narration? This is where I get foggy. Personally I try to avoid using ellipses in my narration, and I’ll go out of my way to reword the sentence to avoid them if I find my thoughts trailing off. But I suppose it’s left up to which narrative mode you’re in and whether or not it is a critical aspect of the story.  For instance, if the narrative mode is first or third person selective, then I can totally see them leaving thoughts hanging all over the place. But what about 3rd person omniscient or even limited omniscient should there be some sort of expectation that thoughts shouldn’t trail off, that the all-seeing narrative voice wouldn’t be lost for words?

Wikipedia’s explanation of ellipses includes writing icons such as Earnest Hemingway and Virginia Wolfe, who used the ellipsis as a device to allow the reader to fill in the gaps of the narrative with their own imaginations. It states that Hemingway’s “Iceberg Theory” displays his purposeful use of omission to allow the reader to become more involved in the story, while others theorize that it was a device to allow him to distance himself from his characters. (isn’t that an interesting juxtaposition)

And so, like most things with writing, ellipsis like other punctuation marks, tools, modes, and methods, are most effective when used with precise determination and sparingly.

Until next time…


Word Count 815


8 thoughts on “The Ellipsis . . . In Fiction

  1. Jorge says:

    This is a bit old now, but I just stumbled onto it when looking whether ellipses should have a space after, or not, in fiction.

    What I do not have a doubt about is why one should use the precomposed “…” character instead of three dots or, even less, spaced dots. The clearest explanation is in this very post, if viewed on a screen of width 1024px (at least on a Mac with Safari or Chrome today), even if you did not explicitly write it: line breaking rules. This post title at the right is being split like this:

    The Ellipsis .
    . . In Fiction

    Which is unequivocally wrong. An ellipse is a unit that should never be split. That is what the ellipse character is there for.

    • Well, unless, that is, you insert non-breaking spaces between the dots (which you apparently did not, and really, should, if you prefer the visual style of spaced dots no matter what).

      You can enter non-breaking spaces on a Mac with option+space. Entering the ellipsis character varies depending on keyboard layout: the rather obvious option+period on Spanish ISO, option+colon on US. No idea on other OS.

  2. I like ellipses…and I spend a lot of time getting yelled at for it. 😀 Thankfully, most of these show up in first drafts. After a second time around, I can usually figure a better way to express it. But I’ve always felt that rules exist to be broken, especially in the writing world.
    Excellent post! This should be required reading for editors, so everyone can get on the same page already!!! 😀

  3. I am so glad that you addressed this. I was worried about the same thing following this weekend. I confess that I use ellipsis (ellipsiseses? ellipsi?) and let Word auto-correct me since I don’t know all the grammar rules as well as I should.

    Also I died laughing at that gif and watched it probably longer than I should have.

    • Yeah, and see, I have obsessed over the last two years over this damn pm because my editors made such a big deal about it…and they were wrong. Good grief! I think ultimately you’re subject to what your editors and publishers want according to their own style guides but it sure would be awfully convenient if they would all agree and then stick to it. But, that’s art for you, right?!

      LOL, I know right…I’ve been waiting for just the right time to use it. It makes me laugh.

      Thanks for stopping by, Nicoserene. Always a pleasure to hear from you.

  4. I shall confess here that these three little dots are probably the LAST thing I ever thought of when writing. Good to find out about it though. And I TOTALLY agree with the “overtly pain in the butt punctuation mark” thing :).

    • Lol, thanks Lilly. You’re one of the few poetesses I’ve seen not use the hell out of ellipsises. But then, your writing’s breadth and depth hardly lies in the punctuations, rather your punctuations lay solely in the words and magnificent imagery. I’m gushing, sorry. But you’ve written prose before. What do you do for pauses or trailed off thoughts? Are they not as popular in Romanian prose as they are in American? (curious)

      Thanks as always for dropping in, Lils! 🙂

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