Blog The Writing Process Exclamation Points Don’t Have to be Useless!

Exclamation Points Don’t Have to be Useless!

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Cursed exclamation points! What purpose do they serve in modern literature? They’re still taught as basic punctuation, but their existence is frowned upon. Last I heard, no more than two should be used in an entire novel. Two? That’s it? Even for thrillers and horror?! This topic outrages me to the point of using them after every sentence, even the questions.

Calm… Breathe… Okay…

I get the “rule.” It’s recited to tamp down overuse. An exclamation point loses its magic if used too many times. Nobody can be excited constantly. And if they are, the excited state becomes normal in which case a boring period is adequate.

So, I’m in bed reading one night (every night) and I came across an exclamation point. The sentence didn’t lend itself to higher excitement so I reread and added an inflection to my mental voice. The energy of the sentence and even the scene had changed. It made me wish there had been a proper build-up, the punctuation a complement to the pace and energy which should have been growing. Then I realized that I tend to reread most exclamatory sentences. More so then that, I’m removed from a scene by rereading a sentence. The tension is brutalized by its own punctuation.

The problem with exclamation points is that unless the context is spot on and the reader is fully engaged, the exclamatory voice is missing until the very end. Exclamation points aren’t like questions marks. Interrogatory sentences start with prepositions. There’s a clue how to read at the beginning of the sentence. An exclamatory sentence needs the voice and tone of the previous sentence to clue in the reader. Reading styles and attention levels differ from person to person, even during the course of a day, so the structure of the previous sentence can easily be missed. The punctuation itself is detected peripherally about halfway across the line. That leaves a lot of room for mistakes and often changes the character of the sentence as it’s being read. It can get frustrating, so don’t use them.

But they serve a useful function.

They need to serve their function better.

I’ve noticed a workaround to the exclamation point’s shortcomings. All caps. Yep. People express their immediate excitement using all capital letters. Once reserved for emails and texts, all caps is entering literature as well because the exclamation point isn’t doing its job. What an abuse of capital letters.

Time for examples.

“Take out the trash.” A little lackluster without the exclamation point. It’s just a casual order. Probably from a patient parent. Information only. No tension. No urgency. No story here.

“Take out the trash!” Better. You hear urgency, danger. Something unexpected is happening because of the punctuation. But it’s just another sentence until you get to the exclamation point. Leading up to the punctuation you’re not one hundred percent certain how to read the sentence.

“Take out the trash,” Pilly shouted. No exclamation point needed because it’s shouted. Nobody shouts about normal things so we have tension from an action. Note, the tension doesn’t come from the dialog directly, it comes from the attribute. Again, the sentence is just information until you get to the dialog attribute.

Pilly shouted, “Take out the trash.” Now the dialog means something the instant it’s read. But it lacks a spark of immediacy. We had to wade through the attribute first. Tension is sucked out of the sentence with the slow noun and slow verb before the intense dialog.

“TAKE OUT THE TRASH.” It conveys immediacy from the second letter without the need for dialog attributes. But it’s a little over the top and it leaves no place to go from there. Besides, it’s just Satan’s normal speaking voice in Gaiman and Pratchett’s Good Omens.

“Take out the trash?” Unless there’s a preposition, I always assume every sentence ends with a period.

I wish there was a way to read exclamatorily without waiting for the end or slogging through slow dialog attributions. English claims some 800,000 words borrowed, incorporated or appropriated from German, French, Latin, Norse, Greek and a whole slew of others. Surely something from some language can solve this problem. I can’t be the first person to see this issue.



¡Ayé de mí!

Español. ¿Por qué no?

Spanish uses punctuation at the front of sentences to clue in readers on how to read the sentence. Why not borrow, incorporate or appropriate the style for English exclamations? And bastardize the precedent to fit English writing conventions. Use the exclamation points, but place them inside quotation marks as is customary in English.

“¡Take out the trash!”

Immediately know how to read the sentence. Less clutter, fewer words, higher tension.

Yes, this fits, this picks up the exclamation point’s shortcomings.

Not sure Cormac McCarthy would approve, but I might start implementing a few puntos de excalmaciònes in my writing.

Sadly I know exactly how far this is going to go. Nobody will understand. Critiquers will get hopelessly hung-up to the point of neglecting everything else. People in power, agents, editors, etc. will be too scared to let it slide. Worst of all, the moment of grinding dread, when a high school teacher with a few semesters of Spanish on her or his transcript decides to “educate” me.

¡Shit will hit the fan!

Oooo, yeah. I am seriously liking this punctuation.

Maybe it’s not the Queen’s English. Perhaps a few upside-down exclamation marks will add too many characters for typesetters in novels. Possibly a few heads will explode over at Oxford trying to decide if two punctuation marks can touch each other in the case of an exclamatory sentence following a regular periodic sentence. ¡I don’t care! It looks odd right now, but given exposure the only side effect will be clearer, more immediate ideas. Art is evolution. It’s changing old ways to address developing problems. As writers, clarity is the ultimate goal. It’s the one thing we owe readers.

So, for the love of all that’s literary, ¡Make exclamation points useful again!

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Benjamin More writes science fiction with a little horror for perspective. Blogger. Freelance writer. Find him on Twitter

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Thanks for the fun rant. I enjoyed it! Susan Liddle

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