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Writer Question: When to Use Exclamation Points

By December 17, 2010

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Because exclamation points often turn up in dialogue (the subject of the December writing challenge), I wanted to re-run this post, which covers a discussion about them that grew out of the May writing challenge.

This week, a writer had some very good questions about exclamation points in response to some feedback on her challenge submission. I wanted to share it because exclamation points were all over the place this month and because my feedback really didn't address the matter very well. Her question was, "When a person makes an exclamation, do you not then use an exclamation point? . . . I merely ask how to show awe or wonder or surprise. Writers are harder put to do this, I guess, than actors in a movie, because we can't put emphasis on words. Granted, in my story the exclamations are actually more musings than real outbursts, but what if they weren't? What if a charactor came upon a traffic accident? How does a writer show intense feeling? I have heard before about overuse of exclamation points, but have never understood it."

For a clear explanation of when to use them, I turned to the masters. Strunk and White had this to say on the matter: "Do not attempt to emphasize simple statements by using a mark of exclamation." Thus, to be grammatically correct, "It was a wonderful show!" should be "It was a wonderful show." But as the reader suggested, there are times when exclamation points are completely valid: with "true exclamations or commands." So, "What a wonderful show!" is a grammatical use of the exclamation point, as is, "Stop!" Donald Hall adds this: "Avoid using them frequently, or they diminish in effect, like a vague intensifier." If you're waffling between the exclamation point and the period, ask yourself whether the sentence is a true exclamation or it's just a statement. If you're still in doubt, err on the side of the period.

But even if you're going to edit out that exclamation point, it's useful to note the impulse behind it. Maybe the prose hasn't shown the excitement warranted by the scene. That's good information for you to have. This means that you have to figure out how else you might show awe, wonder, or surprise. One way to do this is to think of your character as an actor. How do actors show these feelings on stage? Show your readers those feelings just as an actor would.

For example, Sara Gruen handled a pivotal moment in Water for Elephants this way:

"Oh Jesus," I said, suddenly understanding. I stumbled forward, screaming even though there was no hope of my voice reaching her. "Don't do it! Don't do it!"

To show us the urgency the character feels, she has him stumble forward and start screaming, though he knows it's already too late. The exclamation points are reserved for the commands in the dialogue. (Read more about how to describe action.)

In addition to showing the character's reactions, we can also tap directly into the character's inner life. You can tell your audience how your character feels in that moment -- that her mouth is dry or her stomach is churning. And through these descriptions, the reader will experience the shock, awe, or excitement in a visceral way, in a way they never will by just seeing an exclamation point. (In fact, a superfluous exclamation point is very likely going to pull your reader out of the moment, the opposite of what you want.)

But I've been going on long enough. Any other observations or opinions on the exclamation mark or on showing heightened emotion in prose? I'd particularly love more examples of how we show a character's wonder or distress. As the writer commented, it's actually very hard to do. (And again, thanks to this writer for pushing for a fuller explanation.)

Comments
May 31, 2010 at 12:47 am
(1) Patrick says:

I have to laugh every time I see an entertainment tabloid. Every headline has not just one, but multiple exclamation points. Surely, they’ve used up their quota by now.

Thank you for that guidance, Ginny. Using exclamation points can be confusing; especially when we put our characters in extreme situations.

May 31, 2010 at 10:58 am
(2) fictionwriting says:

I think it’s pretty safe to say that they have used up their quota by now, I agree. Good example. (And I’m glad the article was helpful.)

June 1, 2010 at 1:11 pm
(3) book publishers says:

Great advice and example, so many people use exclamation marks out of context. I agree.

June 2, 2010 at 12:14 am
(4) janalma says:

Thank you for the article. I was truly confused about this, and now for the first time, I think I got it. I appreciate your clarity in explaining it all. Hurray!

June 2, 2010 at 9:32 am
(5) fictionwriting says:

Glad it was helpful, Janalma. Also, I wanted to thank you for all the good feedback you’ve been leaving this month. I know I’m speaking for many people.

June 5, 2010 at 4:18 pm
(6) Darkenwulf says:

I use one general maxim in writing: Nothing is forbidden, if you can use it well. Look at all the so-called experts who decry the use of the adverb. Used “sparingly” an adverb in a story or article can make it work. The same with the exclamation point. The use describes and emphasizes an extreme happening. Used judiciously it can be very effective.
My personal feeling, though, is take the extreme condition and translate through words in which you don’t need it. This should be the sign of a good writer who knows the art of words and doesn’t need to resort to the dreaded “!.” However, to totally nix it – is wrong.

December 17, 2010 at 5:57 pm
(7) starrpoint says:

Thanks for the clear explaination! One of the most overused things in writing today!!!!

!!!!!

LOL!!

December 20, 2010 at 4:24 pm
(8) fictionwriting says:

Glad it was helpful. !!!

December 22, 2010 at 3:05 pm
(9) Carrie Bailey says:

Do you think that applies to the ellipse “…” as well. I can’t seem to stop using it… I even started an ellipser’s anonymous group on twitter… Is the effect, the profundity diminished?

December 23, 2010 at 8:59 am
(10) fictionwriting says:

Yes, I do think it’s overused, and that it does lose its effectiveness as a result. It’s a habit I also fall into from time to time. Thanks for raising the issue!

January 12, 2011 at 5:37 pm
(11) MARIANA AIONESEI says:

I could not help myself following the “!” sign in the article and comments.
I think that a dialogue displays a large palette of hidden feelings and situations, like a stairway toward darkness, the flight getting less and less visible, even to the author’s awareness. My point is that the “!” sign cannot and may not express all the flight of stairs.
Like: “Really! / Really? / Really…”
English is not my mother language. But try to read that “really” with a loud voice. My instinct says that using “…” is a way to deepen your writing.

Great challenge, Ginny! And here it is no space but for exclamation sign, to describe the lessons I personally am taking from you.

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