Sunday, June 5

Writing Basics: Making An (Exclamation) Point

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

OMG!!! You can't ever use exclamation points!!! Ever!!!

Exclamation points are a troublesome beast. Like adverbs, we get lots of advice to cut them out of our books. But like so many nevers, it's more about proper usage than the exclamation point itself. They do have uses and are valuable tools to show emphasis. But too many become visually distracting. If readers are yanked away from the story by punctuation, that's a problem.
She was so lost! She couldn't believe how stupid she was, leaving her compass in the tent! What an idiot! A total idiot! Arrgghhh!
Multiple exclamation points like this dilute the exclamation. Did you keep reading the sentences as exclamations, or did you just read them all the same intensity after the first few? If everything being said is exclaimed--and thus emphasized--then nothing stands out. If nothing stands out, what's the point of the exclamation point in the first place? Periods would achieve the same result.

Try using exclamation points only when you want the reader to hear the emphasis. That keeps the right tone on the right word, and lets you keep control of the excitement level of those words.
She was so lost. She couldn't believe how stupid she was, leaving her compass in the tent. What an idiot. A total idiot! Arrgghhh.
It's also important to consider your readers when deciding to cut or keep an exclamation point. Exclamation point frequency varies depending on the market. You see more of them in young adult and middle grade fiction, as sometimes younger readers need more clues about the emotional context of a story, where older readers will easily pick up on them. If the context is clear and the emotion rings true in the words, the exclamation point is usually redundant.

I'm actually a fan of exclamation points. They're not something I use all the time, but there are instances where you could probably do exactly the opening example and get away with it. Imagine two girls talking, and one is making fun of how another reacted to something. Such exclamation point usage could work.
"Did you see Jessica at lunch today?" Mary struck a pose that was so Jess. "Oh My God!!!" she wailed. "Tommy Barthmeir asked me out!!! Can you believe it? ME!!"
You likely wouldn't do this on the first page of your book, but I can see situations where one tiny overemphasis would fit the story you're trying to tell. The whole point here is to over exaggerate. Which is what exclamation points are for.

To check your own exclamation points, read passages out loud to see if you really need them. If you find yourself exclaiming the words, then maybe the point is needed. If you find that nothing really changes if you take it out, then maybe you don't. If it sounds melodramatic or unnatural to read them as exclamation, take them out.

As with so many things we worry about, if you have a lot of exclamation points in your work, that isn't an automatic death sentence for your novel. If the story is good otherwise, cutting a few points is easy to do. It's only when they distract from the story itself that you need to worry.

Looking for tips on planning and writing your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions! 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.

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  1. Great post. I like the whole less-is-more approach, and I think it works for a lot of things in fiction (like dialogue tags other than "said", adverbs, and profanity). If it's always there, there's no contrast.

    (Also, I feel kind of odd. I used to post as Megan, but then took some advice to make my posts/blog/twitter all under the same name, so I feel like an awkward stranger now. Still loving the blog! Thanks for writing it.)

  2. Nicely done Janice. I like how you point out the pros and cons of using the exclamation point rather than taking a side. Louis Black says "there are no bad words", I think the same about punctuation. The main advice is to do what is best for the story. Stick with that and the writer can never go wrong.

  3. Great points, Janice :D

    I use the exclamation point in dialogues to emphasize something, but not over-using it. Also, when a line is the thought of the POV character, as your example above "A total idiot!", again it can be appropriate.

    I usually follow a rule related to the exclamation mark, use it form of speech when appropriate, either dialogue or thought. Although, I am extra careful with "thought" form.

    Everything should be used with measure. Excess is never good. :)

    Thank you for the interesting post! :D

  4. "France? They eat horses in France!"

  5. MK(aka Megan): I can understand that m hehe, but it's good to have it all as one name. Contrast is a great word for exclamation points, actually.

    Gene: I'm with you and Louis on that. Language is about getting across your thoughts and ideas. We wouldn't have so many different ways of doing that if we were never supposed to use them.

    Irene: Most welcome. Good overview there.

    Anon: An effective example. :)