Episode 41: Exclaim It

I won’t deny it. I dislike exclamation points, a distaste that I blame upon Dr. Allen Weir—the man who first helped me learn that fiction needs to breathe. His point was valid, and I’ve been anti-exclamation point ever since. It is a bit of in irrational irritation perhaps, but there is a reason for my bias.

First, consider what the exclamation point represents fundamentally. It means, basically, that the sentence that precedes it should have been in an excited tone. Spanish is much better at signaling this (the exclamation point comes—¡upside down!—before the sentence), but in English the reader doesn’t know to get excited until after the sentence is over. This is annoying and draws the reader out of the world you’ve created.

More than this, though, exclamation points violate the show-don’t-tell rule. Basically, if you use an exclamation point, you are telling the reader to be hyped up. Your job as a writer is to hype the reader up with what you’re saying, not to let that funny straight-and-dotted thing at the end of the sentence do your job for you. Let the character’s actions or the amazing pronouncement do the hyping.

To show you what I mean by all this, imagine throwing in that end mark on some random sentences:

“Yes, you can use my stapler!”

Somewhere, there’s a man swimming with only one flipper!

The rate of depreciation is directly invariable to the time that the equipment is (a) used in the office and/or (b) stored!

Obviously, these are extreme cases (absurd, some might say), but the exclamation point adds nothing. Some context, however, makes all the difference.

Glenda finally sighed, rolled her eyes, and slammed the stapler down. “Yes, you can use my stapler.”

We suddenly realized in horror that someone went into the intergalactic goo unprepared. Somewhere, there’s a man swimming with only one flipper.

The crazed accountant laughed hysterically and pulled at his hair. His eyes were wide as he spoke. “The rate of depreciation is directly invariable to the time that the equipment is (a) used in the office and/or (b) stored.” He ran off trying to hold in his laughs and snorting.

As I hope you see, the exclamation point wasn’t what showed excitement. It was the situation itself. So, come join the writers and editors holding out against the exhibition of exclamation points (WE HATE EPs) movement with me.

Okay, it’s your turn. I do want to hear defenses of the old e. point if you’ve got them.


8 thoughts on “Episode 41: Exclaim It

  1. I, too, get so frustrated by how many exclamation points appear in marketing text. “BUY NOW! FREE! YOU’LL NEVER GET THIS DEAL ANYWHERE ELSE!” It’s almost like typing in all-caps, just without the yelling.

  2. I agree that exclamation points are often overused, and need to be doled out judiciously. However, there is a change in tone that an exclamation point creates that is sometimes indispensable; it puts an emphasis at the end of the sentence, and therefore implies a certain rise in intonation.

    For example, there is a real difference in how one would read ‘Glenda finally sighed, rolled her eyes, and slammed the stapler down. “Yes, you can use my stapler.”’ and ‘Glenda finally sighed, rolled her eyes, and slammed the stapler down. “Yes, you can use my stapler!”’ The first one sounds angry and cold; the second sounds like she is shouting.

    I also think that some sentences would look extremely silly without an exclamation point; for example,

    “My baby,” Suzy shrieked hysterically. “You can’t take my baby.”

    Your critique that an exclamation point can draw the reader out of the world when used without forewarning, though, is a good one. ¡I wish we used the inverted exclamation point in English!

    • Thank you for stopping by and sharing these excellent points, and I agree that there are times that the statement could seem odd if the exclamation point is left out (perhaps because of our expectations). While I try not to use them in my own writing, I don’t delete all of them when I edit. Some writers use them well and with discernment, and that is what I’d like to encourage—in my own hyperbolic way.

      As for me, the 1 key continues to get little use on my keyboard for that.

  3. As long as it’s a short sentence, I do not personally get drawn out of the world by the exclamation point. Perhaps it is that I “read” that far ahead of where I am processing the text, so I see the exclamation point before the voice in my head gets to the sentence.

    The rest of what I was going to say was covered quite nicely by KJ. When read aloud, the sentences that DESERVE an exclamation point sound quite different without it.

  4. I think you meant precede, not proceed.

    I use way too many exclamation marks. At least in the first draft. But then I do a “search and challenge” for them as part of the polishing process and look to see if I can either leave them out altogether, improve the context, or whatever. Sometimes I leave them in, for the highly subjective reason that I think it works better that way. But I’m not going to fight an editor over that. I’m a little more concerned that I might get an editor who doesn’t fight me enough.

  5. I also dislike exclamation points– they’re cheesy in reveals, they don’t like narrative, and they can usually be clarified (as in your examples) in dialog.

    That said, I do use them in internal dialog.

    One of my two POV characters in my latest project has a paralyzed face, muffling her emotions and giving her a serious speech problem on top of it all. Writing her has a very internal feel to it– reason, logic, memory, and feeling are all jumbled up together outside of the scenes-proper.

    Unlike the rest, internal dialog doesn’t have clarifiers. Emphasis is used with italics, the length/pacing of the sentences, and sometimes, yes, exclamation points. In fact, thinking with an exclamation point at the end is usually a sign that the thought comes with more enthusiasm than rationality, and I can infer the character’s convictions and more subtle weaknesses this way.

  6. As a thought, why not just use the inverted exclamation point anyway? It doesn’t seem like it would be terribly confusing, other than in a “Why the hell are you doing this, writer-person?” sort of way.

    I mean, it’s not like we’ve strayed from stealing random bits and pieces of vocabulary in the past. Why not bits and pieces of grammar?

  7. I must agree with KJ in regards to Glenda and her stapler. The initial reading is a shout of exasperation, irritation, annoyance. The second reading is told. Heck, in the second reading, I think I’d leave out the sentence altogether and have her gesture dismissively towards to thing and walk off.

    Otherwise, thank you for the reminder!!

    Kidding. Sorry, just kidding. It was just too easy a set-up.

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