When I’m reading for pleasure, I enjoy novels just as other readers do. I don’t edit or proofread my way through; I actually enjoy the adventures, the characters, and the emotional ups and downs. But just like every other reader, I get ticked off by poor plotting or unbelievable character behavior.
I can also get distracted by punctuation. Most of the time I ignore an unusual punctuation choice. The author uses semicolons improperly? Not usually an issue. Commas in the wrong places? Everyone does it. Such punctuation doesn’t interfere with my enjoyment of the story.
But the book I’m reading now—traditionally published by an author well known in the genre—is so full of exclamation points that I feel like I’m being slapped by them every other sentence and sometimes three, four, and five sentences in a row.
I want to tell the characters and the author STOP YELLING AT ME.
Yes, the overuse of exclamation points is so overwhelming that it comes across as characters yelling. But yelling for no reason. Almost every statement accompanied by an exclamation point is a simple declarative sentence, no special punctuation needed.
Compounding the problem is the fact that this isn’t the quirk of a single character; such a quirk could be argued to be legitimate, a way the character presents him- or herself. But because every character speaks in exclamations—so far, eighty-some pages in, every character has exclaimed the most common comments as if they’re beyond excited about what they’re saying—the quirk belongs to the writer and not to a character. And it’s a practice, habit, or deliberate choice that needed attention in the rewrite or edit stage, well before the book was published.
And no, I’m not exaggerating when I say that every character who speaks utters dramatic exclamations. At least that’s what the punctuation would tell the reader. The practice is both unnecessary and annoying. The presence of so many exclamation points goes beyond being noticeable. The excessive and unnecessary punctuation marks create a negative impact for the reader.
Okay, that’s me reacting as a reader. As an editor, I’m going to suggest that you don’t overwhelm your readers with an overabundance of any punctuation mark, especially the unusual or less common ones—colon, semicolon, dash, parentheses, and exclamation point.
Punctuation, even when used correctly, can stand out in a negative way. And the less common the punctuation, the more noticeable the poor use or overuse will be. Any mark used too often can stand out when it should instead do its business without drawing attention to itself.
We can talk about other punctuation another time—we recently looked at too many questions and question marks in a story. But today I want to suggest that you keep exclamation points to a minimum, especially in adult fiction. And that you reserve the marks for true exclamations, typically voiced in dialogue.
In this book I’m reading, characters even think in exclamation points, as if they’re constantly yelling in their heads or exclaiming without speech. It’s odd to repeatedly see a character thinking so loudly or excitedly, especially when what he or she is thinking isn’t exciting but is instead quite ordinary thought.
An exclamation point on its own doesn’t automatically convey excitement, so simply adding one to a sentence doesn’t create emotion or passion. The context and story situation, tension and conflict, and word choices, word order, and sentence construction can all help a writer create a dramatic moment. And once those devices are used, an exclamation point is often unnecessary.
Yet the exclamation point is a legitimate punctuation mark. But it shouldn’t be used to pump up what’s lacking in the words themselves. It shouldn’t be used to fill in for the absence of strong character responses. And it definitely shouldn’t be used when a sentence is a simple declaration, a mundane comment or observation with no excitement or drama to it.
I was going to offer a few examples from the book so you could get a sense of what I’m talking about, yet out of context, the misuse of the exclamation points isn’t necessarily evident. Almost any sentence could be an exclamation, depending on the circumstances. What I want to stress concerning the use of exclamation points in this book is that there is no need for most of them. The phrases and sentences are plain declarations, not emotion-laden exclamations or bellowing.
There are paragraphs of dialogue containing four and five exclamation points. Characters engaged in normal conversation pass exclamation points back and forth as though they’re playing hot potato. One of the pages I read after I began writing this article had 13 exclamation points. Thirteen. That’s exhausting to read—I can only imagine how exhausting it is for characters to speak and think that way for page after page and moment after moment. It’s as if the characters are constantly surprised or unnaturally but steadily ecstatic.
Such speech, such behavior, is unrealistic. Also, since even the most common declarations have exclamation points attached, everything is given prominence or a pseudo-importance, meaning that ultimately nothing stands out.
Children’s fiction can use more exclamation points than adult fiction can. The use of the punctuation mark is one way of showing new readers what’s exciting to the character. But adults and experienced readers don’t need a visual every other sentence.
And even if one character speaks in exclamations, not all of them will. Three and four characters certainly wouldn’t need to exclaim four and five lines of dialogue in multiple paragraphs on the same page.
To reduce the number of exclamation points when they’ve been overused, I often suggest that writers take them all out of a manuscript and then read the story from hard copy, adding exclamation points as necessary. The number is often greatly reduced, leaving only those that are actually necessary and useful.
There’s no correct number of exclamation points per book, but you might find that you don’t need more than a dozen or two in an 85,000-word story. One story may require ten times that many while another story may not need even one.* The use of exclamation points is part of a writer’s style and is a reflection of the needs of a particular story and the genre. But the point is to be deliberate about their use, using them only as necessary and not as a decorative flourish. Use word choices, sentence structure, and character dialogue and actions to create the mood or tone necessary for the scene. Don’t throw exclamation-point confetti onto a page of text and assume that the punctuation will do the work of creating tension or excitement.
Such abandon may have readers gritting their teeth and wondering why every character is yelling all the time, even in their thoughts.
This is definitely an area for restraint.
When to Use Exclamation Points
• Use exclamation points for exclamations—commonly in dialogue, sometimes in thoughts, and only rarely in general narration. By general narration here I mean actual narration and not dialogue masquerading as narration. Some narration is actually a character’s (or the narrator’s) lightly veiled monologue directed at himself or at the reader, and you could just as easily use exclamation points in such text as you would in spoken dialogue and thoughts. We use exclamation points much less often for description, for the depiction of action, in back story, and in summary than we do in dialogue unless we’re including character reactions or opinions in the same bit of text.
The sky was angry, a contrast to only moments before. The clouds had expanded and now wrestled with one another for space. Rain burst out of those clouds with an explosion of fury.
Mara couldn’t even cry. Her wedding dress, the hem already brown with mud, was plastered to her body.
What a horrendous day! Without warning, rain had burst out of the sky. Mara couldn’t even cry. Her wedding dress—the stupid twenty-thousand-dollar gown she just had to have—was now a wet rag.
I’m not saying that you’d never use an exclamation point in narration, just that they are many times more common in dialogue and thoughts.
• And rather than have every character bellow out their speech, emphasize only a few exclamations by a few characters or reserve exclamation points for key emotional outbursts.
• Rather than use exclamation points in three or four sentences in a paragraph, try using the mark once to highlight one phrase or sentence.
Now, if a character is actually yelling multiple sentences, that’s a different situation. Exclamation points are welcome, even multiple marks, when they’re truly needed.
• Use exclamation points after interjections.
“Hey! I was using that.”
• Use exclamation points for commands.
“Drop it right now!”
• Use exclamation points to indicate a raised voice.
“No, no, no!” she wailed.
• Use exclamation points to reflect almost any strong emotion, including dismay, surprise, urgency, fear, and enthusiasm.
Dread rushed through her in a wave of heat when she turned back to the waiting officer. “I left my wallet in my other purse!”
“Tommy actually won!”
• Use exclamation points for rhetorical questions. (Question marks and periods can also be used.)
“So you can’t you help me!”
• Use the exclamation point to show excitement that’s already there; don’t use it to try to foment excitement.
• And unless you’re deliberately using exclamation points for an effect—a rare effect—don’t have characters yell every sentence or add so much emotion to their words that they speak every sentence as as exclamation.
Can something like the following example work? Maybe. If the circumstances demand such punctuation and the setup isn’t used again and again without restraint.
“Lisa! I told you I didn’t do it!” She always deliberately misunderstood! “It was the burglar when he went racing through the house! He broke your lamp!”
But even exaggeration can be toned down or tweaked, leaving the emotion still as potent.
“Lisa, I told you I didn’t do it!” She always deliberately misunderstood. “It was the burglar! He broke your lamp.”
Particulars and Conventions
• In fiction, one exclamation point at the end of a sentence is sufficient. There’s no range of excitement conveyed by the number of exclamation points. Exceptions for the portrayal of e-mail and other character-generated writings.
• We typically don’t pair an exclamation point with a question mark. Maybe every so often in children’s fiction such a practice can be used for effect. But just as we wouldn’t pair an exclamation point with a period, there’s no need to join it to a question mark. Decide on one terminal mark or another.
The interrobang (‽) keeps searching for acceptance, but its use isn’t widely accepted.
I know that we’ve all seen exclamation points and question marks stuck together; I’m not saying the use is an impossibility. I am suggesting that a better practice is to be decisive and choose one over the other. Decide whether your character is asking a question or making an emotional exclamation. If you need to show multiple emotions or reactions at the same time, use words, sentence structure, and even multiple sentences to convey your meaning. Fiction isn’t a newspaper story or an advertisement where you don’t have room for expansion and expression, where you can’t actually say what you mean using all the words necessary. Fiction’s a different animal; use all your tools to convey even the slightest nuances.
• Don’t use both an exclamation point and a period at the end of a sentence.
“Give me back my dog!.” X
“Give me back my dog!”
• Don’t use both an exclamation point and a comma in dialogue before a dialogue tag.
“I did it!,” Victor said. X
“I did it!” Victor said.
• Don’t use both a comma and an exclamation point midsentence whether the text is dialogue or narrative.
The boy’s a thief!, she thought, upset again. X
The boy’s a thief! she thought, upset again.
• Don’t pair exclamation points with a dash used to show dialogue that’s cut off.
“It can’t be missing—!” X
“It can’t be missing—“
• Don’t imagine that every emotional sentence or emphatic utterance needs an exclamation point. Readers are quite able to glean emphasis from context and the words themselves.
• Consider limiting your use of exclamation points to shorter sentences and phrases that can be spoken with a single breath. The mark is pointless for exclamations that peter out before they end or that are read without the emphasis of the exclamation point because it’s so far from the beginning of the sentence that the reader doesn’t know it’s there.
The exclamation point in this next example doesn’t work. It comes too late to be effective, and the speaker couldn’t possibly speak the entire sentence emphatically.
“She raced over the hill and jumped into the creek without hesitation—getting soaked up to her waist—and followed the trail into the trees on the other side, Darlene chasing her the whole way, promising retribution and bellowing threats with that loud voice of hers, like you know she does when she’s angry!”