I want to indicate a dramatic pause in the narration of my fiction, but the rules I've read say that ellipses are reserved for "" quoted dialog.

This would be the example I'm looking at:

Normally he could tolerate it by spending his day in the far reaches of the forest or hiding in his office that he’d built in the mountains to the south, but now he had to... talk to people. People he loathed talking to.

  • Hmm, somehow I think it would look better if you remove the elipsis and italicize 'talk' because this is what appears to be the main issue for 'him'. In my mind, using the elipsis like this makes it seem like the above snippet is from someone in your story telling the story.
    – Jerry
    Apr 23 '15 at 5:42
  • In fiction narrative many things are OK when they work, remember that most of the time, even ostensibly in third person, narrative is a stream of the character's thinking. As such this way of writing is fine, but in this instance I agree with Jerry that italics for emphasis would be better.
    – CLockeWork
    Apr 23 '15 at 8:00
  • Possible duplicate of writers.stackexchange.com/questions/14522/…
    – CLockeWork
    Apr 23 '15 at 8:01
  • Agreed, this isn't a duplicate, just closely related to the linked question. @what Close votes can't be retracted, but they will expire in time. Apr 27 '15 at 5:03
  • 1
    @What, retracted :)
    – CLockeWork
    Apr 27 '15 at 8:12

Ellipses are used differently in academic or non-fiction writing and narrative fiction.

In academic non-fiction, ellipses indicate that the author has omitted part of the citation. In narrative fiction an ellipsis indicates a pause in spoken language. (I'll come back to that.)

Other options for indicating pauses or breaks in spoken language in narrative fiction are the em-dash ("—"), but also colons and full stops.


A speaker hesitates briefly, maybe because he is trying to think of the best word:

That was...unfortunate.

(This is very similar to a "voiced pause" filled with "err" or "hmm" or "um": That was, um, unfortunate.)

A speaker is interrupted and does not finish his sentence:

That was—

A speaker pronounces each word separately (imagine him beating his fist on the table with every word):

That. Was. Unacceptable!

A speaker pronounces each syllable separately:

The word is un-for-tu-nate, not unfornutate.

A speaker makes a brief pause, emphasizing the first word:

That, was unfortunate.

And so on.

Now, I said – and you read – that pauses are made in spoken language. Pauses in written language take the form of a line of whitespace between paragraphs or a chapter break, both of which often indicate that some time has passed:

... and went to bed.

In the morning ...

But spoken language must not necessarily be limited to dialoge enclosed in quotation marks. Some narrative fiction, for example, is written in a style mimicking spoken language, giving the impression that the narrator is not writing the tale, but verbally relating it to an audience. Often there is a framing narrative that explains who is telling the story to whom and under which circumstances, but often this is only implied within the narrative itself.

Much of first person narration is of this type, where the narrator is not telling a tale with a detached, unemotional voice, but rather he or she is emotionally involved and sometimes even exclaims in surprise or – hesitates to continue (as I just did, with the en-dash, for effect).

Here is a quick made up example, with two pauses in the narration (signified by an ellipsis and an en-dash, respectively):

"Hey, Betty."
Oh my God! Ben!
"H-hey, B-Ben," I stammered. I felt...excited, I realized in surprise. Since when was I excited about – Ben?

It is certainly not the best writing, but I am sure you have encountered similar pauses and breaks in your reading. They are especially common in first person Young Adult fiction.


Ellipses can appear in the narration outside of dialoge, if the narration is supposed to represent spoken language.

In the example you give in your question, the ellipsis is perfectly fine, in my opinion, and gives the (short) text an appearance of being thought or said by a person (of whom we will learn more in the course of the book), instead of neutrally reporting events in the manner of a recording machine.

I did not follow your link to check if you criticism would still stand with this information, because that was not part of your question and did not appear relevant to answering it.

  • Good answer. One thing I would like to add, though, is the formatting around ellipses. The "dramatic pause" variety usually is not presented with spaces on either side. For instance: "'That was...unfortunate,' he understated." However, when used to indicate omission of a portion of a quote/citation, they usually will have spaces: " ... or to take arms against a sea of troubles and, ... end them." Apr 23 '15 at 13:29
  • One additional, somewhat common usage: transitioning a thought between two paragraphs. As follows: <para>Ben was having trouble deciding what to do today. On the one hand, he could waste the day playing video games. Or he could...</para> <para>...go outside and play football. Yes, he thought, that's what I'll do.</para> (Sorry for the funky formatting, comments don't allow linebreaks it seems.) Apr 23 '15 at 13:31
  • One small quibble: I think a "dramatic pause" ellipsis is perfectly valid in non-fiction, at least in non-fiction where presentation of opinion is appropriate. For example, I wouldn't be surprised to see a political editorial that concluded, "In this dispute, Senator Jones has clearly shown honesty and integrity. Senator Brown ... has not." In a sense this follows the rule about "narrative": such an editorial would be understood to be the narrative of the writer, and not a purely objective report of events.
    – Jay
    Apr 23 '15 at 13:39
  • I would like to add that the example you posted of an ellipsis being used outside of quoted dialog was an example of internal dialog which I already understood could use an ellipsis to demonstrate a pause. Apr 23 '15 at 15:56
  • 1
    @MikeFrazer Thanks for the heads up! You are completely correct about the spaces. I corrected that. In German (my mother tongue) the standard is to always have spaces around ellipses (and em dashes, and I always forget to use English rules when I write English. As an additional complication though, typesetters sometimes us a thin space where we think there is none.
    – user5645
    Apr 23 '15 at 16:32

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