Using Ellipses and Dashes in Fiction

editors-cornerBy Chris Saylor

Today’s post comes from a request. In a comment, Kassandra Lamb wrote, “I am a tad lost on the subject of dashes. Could you do a post on them, Chris? When to use each…”

So this one is for you, Kassandra, and for everyone else who is also confused about how to use dashes. Because they’re so similar, I’ve also added ellipses.

Ellipses are the three dots (…) that you see in place of omitted text (nonfiction) or at the end of sentences (fiction). In nonfiction, ellipses are used, as indicated above, to show that a certain amount of text has been omitted from a direct quote. In fiction, ellipses are used to show that a thought or bit of dialogue trails off. For example:

My brain whirled through the implications of what she was saying. She claimed that she was the heir to the throne, but that meant…

There are three types of dashes that you can use: hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes.

A hyphen simply connects two or more words that form a compound adjective. Here’s an example from a novel I edited for a client. I’ll bold the hyphenated words so you can see what I’m referring to.

I straightened my already-straight jacket and plastered what I hoped was an I’m-not-at-all-affected-by-how-good-looking-you-are smile on my face. I wasn’t here to date. I was here to bury my uncle. (From Emily James’ A Sticky Inheritance)

An en dash is used to indicate a range or a relationship.

student–teacher relationship

An em dash is used to indicate a parenthetical phrase. A parenthetical phrase is an aside or an added thought or piece of information.

The windows were too small to climb out—a protective measure against people climbing in—and that left her only the front door as a means of escape. (From Marcy Kennedy’s upcoming Scottish historical fantasy Cursed Wishes)

It’s also used to show that a piece of dialogue has been cut off midstream.

“But you said you wouldn’t—”

“But Chris,” you might say, “how do I know when I’m looking at these types of dashes?” The answer is pretty simple. Below are the types of dashes.

Hyphen: – (the hyphen/dash key on your keyboard)

En dash: – (CTRL + minus sign in Word)

Em dash: — (CTRL + ALT + minus sign in Word)

Do you have any questions or any other aspects of grammar for fiction writers you would like to see discussed? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll be sure to address them.

Every Saturday for the foreseeable future, I’ll be here in the Editor’s Corner, simplifying some of these grammar concepts for you and showing you how they specifically apply to your fiction. Coming up next week is my Homophone of the Month (rein vs. reign).

Want to hire Chris for a proofread or copy edit? You can find out more about him at, or you can email him to talk about rates and availability at christopher.saylor21 [at] You might also want to check out the book he co-wrote with Marcy, Grammar for Fiction Writers, available at Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, or Apple iBooks.