To Exclaim or Not to Exclaim: That is the Point

This is wisdom which one of my college professors gave me, which he had received from one of his teachers. Memorize it. Burn it into your hearts. You can’t go wrong if you follow it.

The universe has given you three exclamation points to use over the course of your lifetime. Use them well.

Of course I’ve used more than three exclamation points in my life, but this remains ingrained in my subconscious mind when I write: exclamation points are precious and should be used rarely. When it doubt, don’t use one.

This is hard for people of the internet generation to do, as exclamation points are commonly used. Sometimes (okay, most of the time) they are used to the point of annoyance, but even I use them when I’m e-mailing or posting on Facebook, because they can convey humor or teasing; people typically don’t take what I’ve said too seriously if I end it with an exclamation point. But this is not true when you are writing a story. If your dialog or descriptions do not set the tone, then an exclamation point will not avail you.

Your sentence must be an exclamation, and the addition of the exclamation point should only be used because it would be grammatically incorrect to end the sentence with a plain period–just as a sentence is not made a question because of the question mark at the end of it. The exclamation point must not carry the weight of the exclamation.

Examples:

Micah stuck his tongue out at Anselm.  “So there!”

“Micah, don’t!” Anselm shouted after him, but it was useless; Micah was running up the street towards Anselm’s house. “Damnit!” Anselm said, shoving his door open angrily.

“She’s sixteen,” Norma said, her voice getting louder.
“That doesn’t matter….”
“Like hell it doesn’t!” she shouted back.

What about examples of bad exclamation point usage?

“Oh, think! think! think! of what she should do.”

“Wait! wait! wait! how long?”

“No! No! No! No! Oh, God in heaven! this cannot be!”

(These lines are from the The Scarlet Pimpernel; as pointed out by Sticks & Stones)

I also liked these lines (also from the Sticks & Stones blog, this time from the book Vampire Beat by Vincent Courtney):

Fear grabbed her by the throat. It was the car, the green sedan, the same one which had taken her on her nightmare journey the night before!

‘Come on, baby, the master is waiting. He wants to hold you,’ he wheezed. ‘He wants to kiss you. He wants to drink all your blood!’

These are both cases in which the sentence does not support the use of the exclamation point; rather, the exclamation point is trying to carry the sentence. Seeing a green sedan–no matter what it did to you the night before–is not cause for an exclamation point. Show me the fear instead of using an exclamation point to convey it.

Suggested redo:

She glanced at her rearview mirror, and suddenly her breath caught in her throat; there was a green car following her. She began to shake, terrified Lord Vampire was following her.

See, no exclamation point necessary. As for the second quote, no exclamation point is necessary at all; it should be replaced with a period (although, actually, the entire portion needs to be scrapped because it’s terrible in-and-of-itself).

So Many Exclamation Points! This article talks about what I have mentioned–that when it comes to social media, the exclamation point conveys emotion (which, in a book, would be conveyed by more words, but seeing how Facebook, Twitter and texting typically limit word usage, punctuation has to be used instead). It also talks a little bit about the history of exclamation point usage.

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