Watch Out for Exclamation Points!

Filmmakers have certain advantages over novel 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. As he or she gets closer, the music builds to a crescendo. “Dum dum-ta-dum–BOOM.” The bad guy leaps out of nowhere, confronting the protagonist, who either has to fight or run for dear life.

Unfortunately, novel writers don’t have the luxury of having background music. We have to come up with alternative ways to build the tension. This may create the temptation to use exclamation points. After all, putting a plain old period after, he leaped out of the closet at Joe, 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.

What an exclamation point actually means

An exclamation point 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.

For example, 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 using, 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 as they came 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 exclamation points becomes unnecessary. Bottom line. Never use exclamation points in the narrative.

But what about the dialog?

An exclamation point in the dialog indicates that someone is shouting. People shout when they are excited, unexpectedly surprised, under stress, or angry. Therefore, exclamation points should be rarely used in dialog, and only when absolutely necessary.

For example, someone might shout, Look out! if they see someone else is about to step into the street, unaware that a bus is barreling toward them. This sets the stage for a number of outcomes. The first character pulls the second character back onto the sidewalk in the nick of time. The person stepping into the street sees the bus coming and takes evasive action. The second character looks back and replies, “What?” Or the second character ignores the warning and ends up being hit by the bus. Whatever option you take, no further exclamation points are necessary. The crisis has passed. Any further exclamation points would be redundant

I think of exclamation points as hot chili peppers. A little bit goes a long way.

Gayle Martin