Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Ellipsis vs. Dash Usage in Fiction

by Sherry Wilson

The question I get asked most often by writers is whether they should use a dash or an ellipsis. This is also something that I often see misused in fiction—sometimes even in published fiction. Once it is explained, you’ll find it a relatively simple concept.

The Dash

The dash is a very useful tool when writing fiction. It can replace commas, parentheses or colon and is more informal in its usage. The dash can be written as two hyphens in a row--like this or as an em dash—like this. Your word processor might convert the two hyphens to the em dash automatically as you type. There are no spaces before or after the dash.

A dash can show a shift in thought or to set off an important element in a sentence.

She laughed—a knowing sound—and leaned back in her chair.
For the most part I’m happy with it—or at least I was.

You can also use a dash in place of a colon to make the text less formal.

Example: He liked to play instruments—guitar, violin, piano, and trumpet.

A dash can be used in place of parentheses.

Example: The whole class—about thirty students—received brand new instruments.

The dash is a very useful tool in your writing, but should be used sparingly. It draws the eye and thus emphasizes a phrase in a statement. But if there’s a dash in every sentence, then it loses its effect.


I often see ellipses misused in fiction—sometimes even in published fiction. The ellipsis does not show a break in thought. It is used to show a thought that trails off and is left unfinished.

Example: I remember that day back in May… Well, it isn’t really important.

There are no spaces before the ellipsis. You leave a space after the ellipsis when it begins a new sentence.

The other use for the ellipsis is in quoting from something and you only want to use part of the source. If you leave out something in the middle, you use the ellipsis to show that something has been left out.

Example: “To be, or not to be: that is the question … Be all my sins remember’d.”

Ellipses are rarely used in fiction. If your character’s words trail off as he notices the tornado heading straight for him, then you’ll need to use an ellipsis. It is a useful tool when used sparingly.

Okay, grammar lesson is over. Back to work . . .


  1. thanks, that was very helpful! :)

  2. Thank you for your blog! I gave it a follow. I found you while searching for some very specific ellipses info as I'm editing a short story for The Oddville Press. I've had an editor insist that a space come before the ellipsis when she edited my own fiction. Hmm. I hear different things from different people. If you get a chance, you can stop by my blog and give it a follow--www.alittleliterary.blogspot.com. Thanks again!

  3. Hi IFW, I have missed you! I have been gone, not you. But, I am back and I am writing, again. Life kicked me in the, but, I will never let it keep me down. I enjoyed the blog and went through a few to catch up. Watch for me! I am praying this time is when the 'Dream Comes True!'