Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 43

Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 43: Too Many Exclamation Points!

Exclamation points! Woohoo! Yeehaw! Is there any punctuation mark that could possibly be more fun for writers to use? (Okay, so there is the interrobang, but that’s still kinda the same difference.) Exclamation points are there to help us express our big emotions: excitement, joy, anger, passion. Naturally, we want all those big emotions in our stories, so why not use that wonderful ol’ exclamation point with liberality?

(If you intuited a big, fat because coming up, then congratulate yourself on your fine-tuned Spidey senses.)

Why not use exclamation points? Because exclamation points are the ball-peen hammers of the writing world. Wielded at just the right moment in a story, they can be brutally effective. But overuse them–or use them incorrectly–and the reader is likely to walk away from your book with a headache.

The 3 Ways Writers (Shouldn’t) Use Exclamation Points

There are three basic ways in which you can use exclamation points in your fiction. Sometimes, these exclamation points will be legitimate. But more often than not, they’re simply going to be overkill.

1. Exclamation Points for Emphasis

Sometimes you need to make sure you’re getting a point across to a reader. There’s a reason signs that read “Toxic Waste!” and “No Trespassing!” and “10,000 Volts!” usually end in exclamation points. The exclaimers add that extra emphasis to make sure readers get the idea this is really serious stuff!

In fiction, this kind of emphasis is usually unnecessary and even jarring to readers. A single exclamation point in a sea of periods is going to jump out at readers and perhaps even nudge them out of their immersion in your narrative. Even more telling, if you’re relying on your exclamation point to get the emphasis across, that may be a sign you’re using the exclamation point as a crutch–instead of implementing word choice and sentence rhythm to deliver the message to your discerning audience.

For Example

Lt. Ribbentrop waited outside the general’s office and fidgeted with his tie. He just had to get a promotion! This was his last chance! If he got busted back to sergeant, what he would tell his parents? They would be so disappointed in him!

Are you feeling how important this meeting is to the lieutenant? Or are you maybe just feeling a little overwhelmed?

2. Exclamation Points for Hilarity

You might also find yourself wanting to stick in an exclamation point to help indicate something you’ve written is supposed to be funny. F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said the following about exclamation points in general, but it applies particularly to humor for obvious reasons:

Cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.

Consider how you tell jokes when you’re face to face with someone. After deftly delivering the punchline, do you let out a mighty, “Ha!”, slap your knee, and say, “Ba-dump-ching!”? And, if you do, how’s that working out for you?

It’s the rare joke–especially a written joke–that doesn’t benefit from subtlety. Readers enjoy being given the opportunity to comprehend a joke (and sometimes just to comprehend that it is a joke) by themselves. If the author immediately gets in their faces (“Did you see that? It was a joke! How funny was that!”), they miss the opportunity to discover the humor for themselves. That’s rarely going to be amusing.

For Example

While waiting in the hallway outside the general’s office, Lieut. Ribbentrop saw Col. McPhonzie exit the elevator. The colonel stepped right on top of a banana peel! Lieut. Ribbentrop held himself stiffly at attention and tried not to laugh. But then the colonel fell flat on his face!

Let’s assume the old banana-peel gag tickles your funny bone to begin with. Did the exclamation points make the joke funnier? Or did they just get in the way of your natural response?

3. Exclamation Points for Excitement

Finally, you might occasionally be tempted to punctuate your epic action sequences with an exclamation point or two–just to communicate the vibrant excitement of the moment. But… you’ve probably already guessed by now: this isn’t such a good idea either.

Ultimately, this is just a variation on the “exclamation points for emphasis” idea. You’re trying to convey excitement, danger, tension, or abruptness. But in using an exclamation point, you’re forcing the emotion on the reader in a way that isn’t organic to the scene or the writing itself.

Everything that happens in an action scene will fall somewhere on the “excitement” scale. Naturally, you can’t end every sentence in that scene with an exclamation point. Sticking one in randomly only unbalances the overall equilibrium. Instead, focus on choosing vivid words (especially those action verbs) and adjusting the pacing of your sentences to guide readers to an effortless understanding of your scene’s excitement.

For Example

Before the elevator door could close behind Col. McPhonzie–and before Lt. Ribbentrop could completely swallow his laughter–a dozen men in ski masks swarmed out of the stairwell! They started spraying with their AK-47s! Lt. Ribbentrop hit the deck. Oh, no! They got the colonel!

I don’t know about you, but I’m not getting “deadly stakes and awesome action” out of this so much as I am “amateurish melodrama.”

3 Times You Should Use Exclamation Points

It is, of course, about time for a caveat. Just because the exclamation point can be easily abused doesn’t mean you should expunge it entirely from your writing. There are at least three instances in which you will be justified in using exclamation points in your writing.

1. To Indicate Raised Voices

Just like all caps, exclamation points are always going to be the written equivalent of shouting. Therefore, sometimes it will be important or even necessary to use an exclamation point to get across the idea that your character is speaking with a raised voice. As a very general rule, exclamation points are more useful in dialogue than in narrative, but they should still be used with caution and not as a way to escape the burden of crafting text that gets the point across on its own merits.

For Example:

“Stand to attention, soldier!” the general shouted.

2. To Make Fun of Your Characters

And also to make fun of yourself, your prose, or the subject of your writing in general. Audiences usually accept multiple exclamation points as a signal not to take anything that’s being said very seriously.

For Example:

The drill sergeant entered the barracks. Wrinkled linens! Unpolished boots! Dust in the cracks! Oh, the horror!

3. In Writing to Children

Here’s the fundamental premise of exclamation points: they’re a blunt instrument. As a result, they’re often used (consciously or unconsciously) as a way to talk down to readers. This is rarely appropriate in writing for adults; but it’s occasionally acceptable when writing for very young children.

For Example:

Bobo the Bear went to visit his friend Gregory the Goose.

“Hello, Goose!” he said.

“Hello, Bear!” said Gregory.

General Guidelines for Using Exclamation Points

Before we sign off on today’s writing mistake, let’s first go over a handful of important general guidelines for actually putting exclamation points to use:

1. Use Them Sparingly

This is the mother of them all when it comes to exclamation-point rules. When in doubt, leave ’em out.

2. If You Must Use Them, Use Them at Intervals

When you do find it necessary to use exclamation points, make sure you’re not piling them all into the same paragraph, one after the other. Avoid ending more than one sentence in a row with an exclamation point. If you’re writing a lengthy speech for your character, in which he’s basically shouting the entire thing, you don’t need to adamantly punctuate every single sentence. Instead, focus on either the first sentence (to immediately let readers know the character is shouting) or the last sentence (since most impassioned speeches necessarily build to a climax).

3. Don’t Use More Than One at a Time

Don’t use more than one exclamation point at a time! In professional writing, it is considered poor form to use two or more exclamation points at the end of a sentence!!

4. If You Must Use More Than One, Always Use Three

However, if you have good reason to use more than one (e.g., you’re excerpting the diary of your teenage protagonist), use three. Not two!! Always three!!! Don’t ask me why; it’s just prettier that way.

Naturally, it’s fine to let loose with those exclamation points in the first draft. Fire away and get all that enthusiasm out of your system and onto the page. But when it’s time for you to start editing, be aware that your better choice will almost always be corralling those exclamation points and making your prose do their work instead.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Are you addicted to exclamation points? When do you feel it’s appropriate (and not) to use them in your fiction? Tell me in the comments!

Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 43

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. I read somewhere that you’re allowed ten exclamation marks every 80,000 words.

    Personally, I dislike them so much, I try to avoid them entirely. Avoiding exclamation marks is like a wrting exercise; it forces you to find the right wording for your prose or dialogue, so that the words speak for themselves. After awhile, you get better at it, in that you recognize that your wording isn’t powerful enough.

    To me, too many exclamations marks is the sign of a newbie writer or of someone who doesn’t realize (or, in some cases, respect) that there is a craft to writing good fiction. I suspect many agents feel the same way.

    Same goes for using italics for emphasis, in my opinion.

    Both are telling the reader what to think or how to react. They don’t allow the reader to make a contribution or to really get involved in the story.

    Thanks for this post. It needed to be said.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I think that guideline may be a *little* excessive. I ran a check in my latest manuscript (140k words) to see how many exclamation points I used and was shocked to see that there were around 500. As you can see from the article, I am death on unnecessary exclamation points and only use them in dialogue anyway. But when we say “use exclamation points sparingly,” that “sparingly” has to be viewed within the context of the overall manuscript.

      • Lots of writing guidelines are excessive, right?

        I thought about the verb ‘to shout.’ I don’t think I’ve used it very often, even though I write thrillers… you’d think people would shout a lot in a thriller, but I guess they don’t.

        They scream or shriek sometimes, but, again, not a lot.

        Maybe I’m doing it all wrong.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Probably because they’re too busy whispering as they’re trying to escape all the bad guys. 😉

  2. Maybe I’m lucky, because I don’t like exclamation points (in storytelling), so I used them very seldom (I use them a lot in my personal writing, instead). Most of the time, I just don’t use them. It’s a question of personal preference. I don’t like semicolons either and I never use them. I always use periods.

    But honestly, even if I use a lot of exclamation points in my personal writing (emails and socials), I never feel the need to use them in narration. I think this is because, while in my personal writing I feel like I should add my feelings to my discourse (I use a lot of emoticons as well), in my narration the context already offers that.

    That’s the big difference, I think. So maybe what we should do is trying to differenciate our personal voice from our narrative voice as much as possible.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, social writing is totally different. It’s an informal tone that doesn’t require the subtlety of formal narration.

  3. Alfred Zwanitz says:

    I always had a strange dislike for exclamation marks and of course, when I started writing I stayed away from them as far as possible.

    The problem came when I also found out that I have a dislike for adding ‘he shouted’ at the end of direct speech so if one of my characters suddenly raises his voice, I tend to add an exclamation mark.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Same here. As a general rule, if the indication of a character’s loud tone is necessary, an exclamation point is often the subtler, less intrusive indication. But just one, at the end of the speech, is usually enough.

  4. “4. If You Must Use More Than One, Always Use Three”

    Hooray! I’ve been doing them right!!!

  5. I try to use them sparingly, very, very rarely in narrative, but more frequently in dialogue. For me, for my genre, I don’t think they serve much use in narrative, but oh boy, watch out if my characters are arguing.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Even then, I find exclamation points work best when they’re emphasizing short, punchy lines of dialogue. Otherwise, the emphasis at the end can get lost if the line of dialogue is too lengthy.

  6. Fine points here. I’ve always used them mainly to highlight a highly emotional scene or dialogue! (Just kidding with that, I couldn’t resist)

  7. When I was told I was only allowed seven exclamation points for my entire life, I said, “No way!” Ever since, I have been hoarding my remaining six.

    I taught myself to type on a typewriter from a time when typewriters had no exclamation point. To make one, you had to type an apostrophe, backspace, and then type a period. That discouraged using exclamation points. It also indicates how rare exclamation points used to be in writing that they did not bother putting them on typewriters. (Although, that might also suggest the number 1 was rare. To type a 1, you had to type a lower-case L.)

    In one article I read, an acquisitions editor commented that the first thing he did when reviewing a manuscript was look for exclamation points and question marks. If he found any, he tossed the manuscript. His excuse was that these punctuations are often misused or overused and anyone using them probably does not know how to write.

    Needless to say, exclamation points are rare in my writing, but I will use one if I must.

  8. I was reminded of this scene from Seinfeld: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VSKn8RlD7Is

  9. I personally don’t like exclamation points in narration. If I really need to use one, then I will first exhaust all the other possibilities of word choice, sentence structure and rythm, and only then will I use one. However, in dialogue, I tend to use them quite often, so maybe I need to cut them down a bit.

    So, this is a message to everyone: Use exclamation points sparingly!!! And don’t overdo them!!! 😛

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Exclamation points are much less problematic in dialogue, period. But our stories will rarely be the worse off for paring them down, even in dialogue.

  10. When doing interviews with my clients for ghostwriting projects, I have the added benefit of hearing them exclaim during their responses. One client in particular is a sassy African-American woman who passionately relates her story as we talk. As you point out, though, that doesn’t mean those exclamations automatically find themselves in the writing as punctuation. In fact, every time I see an exclamation point in my first edit, I ask myself, “What am I not doing in the description or dialogue that I should be doing to show, not tell, the emotion?” That step usually eliminates most exclamation points while improving the writing and, therefore, the experience for the reader. Thank you for these excellent directives.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is a great question for all writers to be asking themselves as a test for exclamation points. Exclamation points are a legitimate and important punctuation tool, but they can too often end up being a crutch–which is what we always need to be guarding against.

  11. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

    It’s the magic number! 😀

  12. Absolutely! And as with all crutches – they are all too easy to rely upon when we feel a little lazy as editors or writers. Thanks for helping to keep us on pointe!

  13. Okay, I confess. I love exclamation points!! 🙂

    Seriously though, after reading this, I read through an old short story of mine I was editing over the weekend, and I stripped about half the exclamation points. The story is written in first-person present-tense, so there are places even in the narrative where I left them because I felt they really needed to be there. It works with this particular story because most of the narrative is my protagonist’s own internal monologue.

    As I said, though, I did have too many. There was one paragraph in which four sentences in a row ended with an exclamation point. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sounds like you made the right choice. 😉 When in doubt, just pull the exclamation point, re-read the sentence, and see if you’ve lost anything. More often than note, you don’t lose a thing.

  14. Jim Arnold says:

    The first book I read on how to write was by some prof who taught a very high-brow way of writing. From the way he puts it, he pretty much loathes exclamation points. Said they should be used maybe no less than 200,000 words apart.

    I got his drift. These punctuation marks should be used at a minimum.

  15. Thank you for this! I see this with a lot of beginner writers, and my general rule is exclamation points should be dialogue-only in novels. But that’s a great point about the “making fun of your characters”–they can definitely work if the story is told in a whimsical voice!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, voice is deciding factor. What would be inappropriate in a dark psychological thriller might not be in a satire.

  16. Joe Long says:

    I see you certainly used a lot of italics to make your point about exclamation points!!!

  17. I employ the same guideline with exclamation points and passive verbs: Make a conscious effort to avoid them, and they’ll appear naturally when needed. For the most part, exclamation points bump me out of the story, so I typically remove them when I edit. This not only keeps me from using them too much, but forces me to use words that speak for themselves without the added help of dramatic punctuation. Then again, they definitely have their place.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Great rule of thumb–and I can attest that it works. Passives and exclamation points are both on my no-no list. But does that I mean I *never* use them? Definitely not. As you say, they show up where they’re needed.

  18. Less is often more!

  19. I rarely use exclamation points, but when I do, I end up cutting them out in the editing process. I can probably count on one hand how many exclamation points are in my books.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Smart. Nothing wrong with adding them in the first draft. But most of them should probably end up on the cutting room floor.

  20. My rule is simple: never-freaking-EVER put an exclamation point outside of dialog.

    (At least, not when I’m writing fiction, and I guess caveats #2 and #3 make sense if my style ever goes that way; fair enough.)

    Thanks for that Fitzgerald quote. I do a lot of critiquing, and it just became my go-to summary for how wrong basic !!-ing is.

  21. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

    Hard to beat a good Fitzgerald quote! <-- Exclamation point

Trackbacks

  1. […] Sometimes you need to make sure you’re getting a point across to a reader. There’s a reason signs that read “Toxic Waste!” and “No Trespassing!” and …read more […]

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  3. […] Most common writing mistakes, part 43: Too many exclamation points! K.M. Weiland, Helping writers become authors. […]

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  5. […] 3rd Red Bull in a row. However much you want to convey excitement and immediacy, it’s almost never a good idea to resort to using caps and exclamation points. Caps, especially, in addition to making things harder to read, also mess with your coastline, aka […]

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