It’s extremely easy to use the exclamation point.
In fact, you should never use such a banal device to draw the attention of your readers to what you’re writing!
Never!! Not even in non fiction!!! Or rather, especially not in non fiction!!!!
Well, if the exclamation point has to be used so sparingly as to appear no more than a few times every 100.000 words, then, you might think, it would be better to discard it altogether.
But there’s always a but. Especially in the realm of rules about grammar and language.
In fact, writers love giving advice about writing–after all, for them it’s a way as good as any other to keep debating about what they love most. But this doesn’t necessarily mean you should follow all the tips they toss off.
The reason is simple. Writing is such a personal endeavour that there’s no guarantee of sorts that what works for someone will work just as well for you.
This means you have to find your own style. And this includes also deciding how you’re going to treat those pesky little buggers otherwise known as punctuation marks.
Of course, in most cases you don’t want nor need to rewrite all the punctuation rules from scratch. Rather, you might feel the need to bend some of them on particular occasions. To apply them according to your sensibilities.
The case of the exclamation point is a perfect example. There are writers who use it quite sparingly, and others that are definitely more liberal about its use.
Writers who use it sparingly include Elmore Leonard, Ernest Hemingway, Tony Morrison, Neil Gaiman, and Chuck Palahniuk.
Instead, among those who use it in a decidedly more liberal manner we can find Tom Wolfe, Jane Austen, James Joyce, George Orwell, and J.K. Rowling. (for a more comprehensive list you can have a look at Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve by Ben Blatt.)
This fact alone should make it clear from the get go that the abundant use of the exclamation mark is not at all a telling sign of an inexperienced writer.
However, it should also make it clear that you must know perfectly well what the punctuation rules are if you want to use the exclamation point more freely. Because in this way you can bend the rules with artistry rather than awkwardness.
In any case, it can be interesting to notice that even Elmore Leonard used 49 exclamation points every 100.00 words. Maybe he wasn’t an enthusiast of its use, but he didn’t refrain from using it when he thought it was necessary.
When to use the exclamation point
1) Let emotions soar
In dialogue, exclamation points can be used to indicate strong emotions (shock, excitement, urgency, exasperation).
“Take the money!” Albert yelled. His eyes shone with greed.
My mom pointed at me her long finger. “First, clean up your room!” she said.
“They’re all dead!” Susan whispered.
“They’re coming!” Andrew said.
However, it is important to notice that each of the above examples can be rephrased to avoid the appearance of any exclamation point! Yes, like these!!
“Take the money,” Albert’s eyes shone with greed. He had never seen so much money together.
Glaring at me, mom pointed at me her long finger. “First, clean up your room,” she said.
Susan brought her hand to her mouth. “They’re all dead,” she wined.
Andrew paled and his jaw dropped. “They’re coming,” he said.
Ok, ok. They’re not immortal literary examples. But I hope you get the point. Sometimes an exclamation point do the job of a description. Some other times since a description is already in place, the exclamation point is unnecessary.
This might look like a choice where there is no real difference. But it’s the opposite. In fact, you might decide to use the exclamation point in a particularly fast paced passage. Because it add emphasis, urgency, with just a single character.
Instead, on some other occasions you might decide to exploit a description to give your readers the time to more deeply understand the reactions of a character.
Exclamations points can be used in dialogue also to characterize a… Well, to characterize a character.
This happens only once in a while, and more often than not with secondary characters. Or when the story is told by a narrator–it doesn’t matter if he or she is a reliable or an unreliable narrator.
The reason is simple. Authors can use exclamation points to carry out a discussion, to pepper a description, or wash a page after the other with their personal considerations. So to speak, they can use exclamation points in many different settings.
Instead, within the often narrower constrains of dialogue, rarely a character has the ability to express himself so fully. Hence exclamation points stand out more clearly.
3) Bewildered questions and shouted answers
The exclamation point is a nice bloke. For example, it doesn’t particularly mind having to share its place with a question mark.
“But, weren’t you out for work?!” Alice asked.
This can be a useful solution. It’s succinct and right to the point. But, again, don’t make a habit of this. Instead, rephrase your writing to make it more lively and interesting. I mean, if you have people all over the place just throwing ?!s around, chances are something is off-kilter.
You can add an exclamation point after onomatopoeic words.
The once peaceful dog stared me in the eye and went woff! I left the envelope fall to the ground and slowly backed toward the door.
This might seem a bit cartoon-like. But, again, if used with a grain of salt also this use can be effective.
5) An exclamation point can perfectly stand by itself.
Never write things like: She sobbed, “Don’t go!.” The same goes when the exclamation point is halfway through a sentence: ‘“I thought they’d killed you!,” he sobbed.
In the first sentence either use the exclamation point or the period. In the second either the exclamation point or the comma.
6) The parenthetical exclamation point
This can be used to laser focus the emphasis on a particular part of the text.
Ben was eating and drinking (!) and was surrounded by beautiful women. Yet he looked desperate.
Ben was eating (!) and drinking and was surrounded by beautiful women. Yet he looked desperate.
Ben was eating and drinking and was surrounded by beautiful women (!). Yet he looked desperate.
It’s easy to notice how this kind of emphasis works. For example, in the first sentence we might conclude Ben was an ex alcoholic, or a teetotaler or in any case someone who regularly doesn’t drink.
In the last example we might instead come to the conclusion that Ben is a sort of dork. Or one of those men too shy to approach any woman.
However, it’s also easy to imagine why you should use this parenthetical exclamation point only in case of absolute necessity. It’s such an overt tactic that readers end up feeling like they are being bossed around by the writer–no good.
For example, if the fact Ben was drinking is so unexpected you should have laid out your story in such a way as to help your readers immediately realize the importance of such a detail.
You might also decide to direct your readers’ attention on the drinking resorting to different grammatical resources.
Ben was eating at a corner table, and was surrounded by beautiful women. Nothing new there. But the glass of wine he held in his hand and he drank from… that I couldn’t accept.
As usual, there isn’t a right and a wrong way to go. There are only the requirements of the story you’re telling.
A final word
To conclude, never use too many question marks. And if you have questions, go find the answers!
What? Wasn’t this a post about question marks? Well, I got carried away. But with all these exclamation points it’s understandable. Really, I lost my bearings.
So, always keep a cool head. And, if in doubt, look at what others have done before you.
At first your head will buzz with a million of possible solutions and you might end up feeling not only confused, but also paralyzed. But that’s good. Because it is this kind of internal turmoil and never ending research that can help you grow not a flawless style, but your flawless style.
And to those who insist on telling you that exclamation points are no-noes, just point them to this quote by Meg Meg Wolitzer.
In a way, the cartoon aspect of this emphatic spatter of punctuation has stayed with me. I still feel a little uneasy when I use it, although I sometimes do use it because it feels appropriately sprightly.
Appropriately sprightly. Just remember these two words. I could have spared myself the trouble of writing this whole post had I found them at the beginning. Well… more or less.