The short answer is: it’s complicated. If you’ve spent years writing fanfiction or have just started embarking on the daunting task of writing an entire novel, this is probably something you’ve never even considered.
As someone who was an exclamation mark abuser, let’s just say it was sobering to get my manuscript back from my first editor, only to have him rake me over the coals for using 568 of them in a 444 page novel. YIKES.
My novel in its final draft before publishing now has a grand total of… ZERO. So why did I cut all of what I thought was so vital to getting extreme emotion across? When my editor explained it to me, it clicked, and this was just another challenge to level up my writing.
This is a quote from my editor in his report:
“Try to avoid the use of exclamation marks. Rather than telling the reader how the words are being spoken, you should allow the reader to add their own meaning using the context of the surrounding prose. This way you are showing rather than telling.”
With as many times as “SHOW DON’T TELL” had been drilled into my head by every critique partner, author tuber, and writing blogger, I’d have thought I would have come across this valuable bit of information at some point. Who would have thought something as simple as one punctuation mark could be so jarring to the reader? When you think about it, it makes perfect sense.
“Don’t touch me,” she shouted, shoving the man’s wandering hand off her leg.
“Don’t touch me!” she shouted, shoving the man’s wandering hand off her leg.
When you look at those two examples, the first does enough to get the emotion across and the exclamation mark is unnecessary. Is it used correctly? Yes it is. She’s shouting, after all. However, the dialogue tag takes care of that. Action or descriptions could show the character’s emotions even better than a silly mark.
“It looks amazing!” she said, gaping at the intricate china placed in front of her, artful drops of olive oil and balsamic vinegar outlining her Hasselback Tomato Caprese.
“It looks amazing,” she said, gaping at the intricate china placed in front of her, artful drops of olive oil and balsamic vinegar outlining her Hasselback Tomato Caprese.
(Yes, I looked this up just now, and I’d totally eat it.)
This time, the exclamation mark wasn’t used correctly. Imagine my surprise when I found out that dialogue doesn’t need exclamation marks when the character is surprised.
Does this mean you should never use them? Of course not, but if you decide to use them, it had better be a moment that overshadows all other moments. Imagine if you’d gone 80,000 words without seeing one exclamation mark, and out of nowhere, you see one. You know shit just got bad. It’s a surprise–a climax of emotion in that one line where it’s used. It could be the main character’s darkest hour, being tortured by the antagonist. He shouts something that makes the reader reel, and that exclamation mark is the stake you drive into the reader’s heart. That’s going to be a moment of pure emotion (if you’ve done it right).
Now picture 80,000 words where every other paragraph had exclamation mark in it. Will his screams have the same emotional effect as the first example? Probably not. All those exclamation marks may have desensitized the reader, and the emotion probably wouldn’t have the kick the author intended.
This is one of the many reasons why they aren’t used much in published writing. Editors don’t like them and neither do publishers. If you’re self-publishing, you aren’t bound by these rules, of course, but if you are looking to be traditionally published, keep it in mind. If a publisher does decide to buy your book, you better believe that just about every exclamation mark will be either removed or trimmed down.
What about exclamation marks in narration?
General rule of thumb is to avoid them. As little as you need them in dialogue, you need them less so in narration. You’re already painting the picture, setting the scene, describing the emotions, so there is no reason to put them in, unless…
Maybe you want to have an email or text message in your narrative formatted the way the character would type it. That might be a good reason to have them and interrobang.
What is interrobang!? You’ve probably used it so much in text messages and chats that you don’t think about it. We’re all a bit melodramatic when it comes to chatting with friends on any kind of social media, and that wonderful little exclamation mark with the question mark really drives home the need to KNOW WHAT IS HAPPENING?! In your writing, you’ll want to avoid this. Once again, as with exclamation marks, interrobang is seen as amateurish by agents and editors and readers.
It’s jarring and can really take someone out of your story. Unless you’re a famous writer who knows the rules enough to break them, it’s best to avoid these punctuation faux pas.
If you are a famous writer who has broken these rules and has, for whatever reason, ended up here: hi! Welcome to my blog where I write about this god awful and glorious experience.