Since I’m currently making a push to (try to) finish up a couple of the books I’m writing, I thought that this week I’d put up a short section from one of them.
The book itself is geared mainly toward beginning fiction writers, but many of the general ideas are applicable in other areas of wring as well. I’ve certainly seen the potentially damaging effects of mistimed exclamation marks in nonfiction nearly as often as in fiction.
Figuring out the proper use of exclamation marks can be challenging. It has little to do with grammar, and much to do with the tone of the sentence – and thus more to do with an author’s individual style and choice than with hard and fast rules. However, it is still very possible to misuse them, and when it happens it can greatly detract from the impact of your writing.
Exclamation marks are very useful in showing excitement, anger, indignation, humor—it’s an intense punctuation mark that can completely change the feel of a sentence. But along with that very fact can come a trap for writers to fall into.
Far too often, I’ve seen sentences that could have had a wonderful emotional impact made to sound instead cheap and melodramatic by an exclamation mark inserted where it shouldn’t have been. It looks as if the writer, doubting the ability of their words to convey the right impression, has used an exclamation mark in order to make sure the readers know that this is a dramatic or surprising moment. There are times and places where the exclamation mark is needed or useful for that purpose, but it can be very frustrating when an author becomes dependent on it in order to convey the emotion of a scene—all the more so when the words alone were doing a fine job, without the additional “help.” I have seen perfectly interesting stories ruined by exclamation mark abuse.
Please, don’t overuse the exclamation mark! See, I don’t dislike the things – I use them often myself. But in the narrative of a story, they should generally be used very, very sparingly. Overusing them can actually dilute their effect, leaving you with nothing to convey the kind of big impact you want when you come to the moment where you really do need one. That, or they can give the impression that the writer is either very hyper or trying to heighten the emotional effect of their story by sheer energy—as if, if they seem excited enough, the reader will be, too.
It’s like the “big,” intense words: if you use a word like “agony” to describe what a character who has a sliver in his finger is feeling (unless it’s meant to be tongue-in-cheek, or to demonstrate just how little he’s used to pain), what do you have left to use if he breaks his arm? If you use an exclamation mark for every exciting moment, it’s not going to stand out when you come to a moment of real climax.
And, even in a very dramatic moment, understatement can most often pack far more of a punch than the excitement of an exclamation mark. Respect your readers; let them figure out for themselves that this is exciting, or dramatic, or important.
Now naturally, dialogue and characters’ internal thoughts are a different matter. There, it’s much more often appropriate, and even necessary, to add an exclamation mark to show the tone and emotion. More often than not when a character speaks there’s some kind of emotion involved, and frequently an exclamation mark is the only, or the best, way to convey what those emotions are.
That said … there are writers who can’t seem to end a single sentence of dialogue without an exclamation mark (and keep in mind, this is even when they’re writing characters who are notoriously calm, level-headed, and generally quiet). Again, don’t overdo it. Keep in mind the personality of the characters you’re writing. Even among the most highly strung and talkative, few are the characters who live in that kind of espresso-fueled non-stop excitement, be it anger, fear, joy, indignation… Eventually they’re going to crash, and when they do it isn’t going to be pretty.
Keep in mind the situation, as well.
For instance, normally if someone were to say something like, “He just stood up, said goodnight, and walked away,” it would not be worthy of an exclamation mark. People do that every day, and other people don’t get too excited about it. On the other hand, taking circumstances into consideration, it’s entirely possible that the character speaking would have good reason to be upset about it. Or maybe even overjoyed. And, if the person who just said goodnight and walked away happened to be someone supposedly confined to a wheelchair, who had refused to speak to anyone for years, that would quite probably be something to exclaim over. Or maybe not—depending on the personality of the speaker, and their level of shock.
So, moderation in all things, keep in mind who’s talking (or thinking, of course), think through the circumstances, and consider carefully before you use an exclamation mark. If it helps, think of it as if you’re only allowed a limited number of exclamation marks, which have to last you your entire life—save some in reserve for important occasions.
One additional note, which most writers won’t need, but those who do, need to be aware of as early as possible. When you do use them, only one exclamation mark is needed at a time. Adding more only looks unpolished and unprofessional, it doesn’t multiply or enhance the effect a single exclamation mark will give you.
Exclamation marks are wonderful things, and I wouldn’t want to frighten people away from using them. But as with anything else, there can be too much of a good thing, and it’s all the more likely to happen with something as attention-grabbing and potent as an exclamation mark.