Filmmakers have certain advantages over writers, particularly fiction writers. They get to use musical scores to help build the tension. We’ve seen it dozens of times. The unsuspecting protagonist goes into the seemingly deserted mansion, unaware that the villain is lurking inside, waiting to pounce. As the protagonist gets closer, the music builds to a crescendo. “Dum dum-ta-dum–BOOM.” The boom of course, being when the bad guy leaps out of nowhere, landing right in front of the protagonist, who now either has to fight or run for dear life.
We writers unfortunately don’t have the luxury of having background music, so we have to come up with alternative ways to build the tension, thus creating the temptation to use exclamation points. After all, the sentence, “he leaped out of the closet at Joe.” with just a plain old period at the end looks kind of boring on the printed page. Therefore, “he leaped out of the closet at Joe!!” would look a whole lot better. Right?
Well, not necessarily.
Using exclamation points in the narrative means you’re shouting at your readers, which they may find annoying. A better way to build the tension would be to use more effective verbs and modifiers. So, instead of saying, “He heard the footsteps and waited until the time was right. Then he leaped out of the closet at of Joe.” Try something like, “He heard Joe’s footsteps coming closer. He held his breath, not wanting to give himself away. The footsteps grew louder. He could make out the dark shadow of a human form as it entered the room. He stood by, unable to move. The footsteps thumped louder and louder as they came closer and closer. Beads of sweat popped out across his forehead. It was time. He leaped out of the closet at Joe.”
By using effective verbs and modifiers in your narrative to build the tension an exclamation point becomes unnecessary.
So what about dialog? People shout when they are excited, surprised, under stress, or angry. I will, on rare occasions, use an exclamation point in dialog, but if I do, it’s only when a character is having an “aha” moment. I think of exclamation points in dialog as hot chili peppers. A little bit goes a long, long way. Most of the time I use tags, such as, “It’s over here,” yelled Jody, or “Look out,” exclaimed Bob.
Good storytelling is all about conflict and drama. Just don’t shout at your readers!