Exclamation marks are pretty straight forward. They are used after interjections, strong declarations, and commands to indicate intense feelings or volume. They are rarely used in formal writing but can be a great asset to fictional works when used sparingly.
When to Use Them
Exclamation points are used to express anger, excitement, nervousness, and other intense emotions. It’s pretty easy to spot when they’re necessary, and few of us have difficulties placing them. So why a whole article about them? Overuse.
In fiction writing, it’s easy to sometimes get a bit overzealous with these guys, especially when it comes to scenes with conflict and a lot of dialogue. While most people believe that exclamation marks create tension, I tend to argue otherwise. A large quantity can actually detract from the tension and hide some of the underlying emotions that really make a scene intense. It can also hinder your writing abilities. Your best bet is to use a mixture of stylizing for emphasis with dialogue and couple that with a strong narrative. It kind of goes back to the old “show rather than tell” advice.
Here’s an example of overuse:
“You came all this way just to tell me that?! How dare you!” Cynthia screamed.
“Well, excuse me for being honest!” Tom spat. “I thought we were in this relationship together, but I was wrong!”
With that, Tom stormed out of the room and left Cynthia fuming.
“Ugh! That man!” Cynthia said to thin air. “I don’t know what I ever saw in him!”
While this is clearly a tense scene and there are some heightened emotions behind the dialogue, the writing is pretty flat, and the multitude of exclamation marks come across as rather amateurish, leaving the whole scene to be less effective than desired. So let’s try cutting out some exclamation marks, stylizing a few words that we want to emphasize, and letting the actions of the characters express more of their emotions:
“You came all this way just to me that? How dare you!” Cynthia’s voice shook as she spoke.
Salty droplets splattered down her new Chanel sweater. It was a beautiful shade of green that made her blue eyes shimmer even more as they welled up with fresh tears.
Tom’s face slackened as Cynthia’s eyes dropped to the floor. She quickly crossed her arms and snapped her head up long enough to shoot him a rather nasty look.
His brow immediately furrowed. He spat some as he spoke: “Well, excuse me for being honest! I thought we were in this relationship together.” He paused for a moment before adding, “I guess I was wrong.”
Cynthia uncrossed her arms and wiped her tear-streaked face. Her mouth opened then closed, but no words came out. After a second failed attempt, Tom stormed out of the room.
Cynthia clenched her fists, her whole body shaking. “UGH! That man…” she said to thin air. “I don’t know what I ever saw in him.”
Now the emotions clearly have some depth to them. The dialogue conveys anger, betrayal, confusion, and pain, all without excessive use of exclamation marks. The stronger narrative also adds quite a bit to the quality of the writing, providing extra imagery, reducing the amount of “talking heads,” and using body language to convey what the characters are feeling from moment to moment.
Another common issue with exclamation marks is inappropriate use. This deals with using them in places where they seldom belong, such as formal writing, and places where a period or other punctuation would suffice.
For example, an exclamation mark can be used after a word and placed in parenthesis in order to emphasize it; however, this is often overkill.
We got a huge (!) tax return this year.
The word “huge” is indicative enough. An exclamation mark is completely unnecessary and just looks contrived.
We got our tax return (yay!) and plan to buy a new TV with it.
The combination of the parenthesis and exclamatory word technically work, but there’s a better way of writing the sentence that isn’t quite so informal.
Yay! We got our tax return and plan to buy a new TV with it.
We got our tax return and plan to buy a new TV with it.
After all, everyone can gather the excitement of the situation based on the content of the sentence.
Exclamation marks can also accompany onomatopoeias, but again, there is usually a better way to write the sentence.
Example: Thud! He plopped the heavy book on the table in front of him. Rewrite: The heavy book landed with a thud as he plopped it on the table in front of him.
Stylization and Other Punctuation
When stating the title of a work, punctuation marks should only be italicized if they are part of the title itself.
I loved the latest episode of Mythbusters! NOT I loved the latest episode of Mythbusters!
Sometimes statements beginning with interrogative words can correctly and effectively use exclamation marks.
Why, I never!
Intense questions sometimes use them as well, though I prefer the combination of an exclamation mark and a question mark in those cases, better known as an interrobang.
Are you serious?! OR Are you serious‽
When using exclamation points with dialogue, the context will determine whether they should lie inside or outside the quotation marks. If the exclamation mark is part of the dialogue itself, it belongs inside the quotation marks. If it is part of the statement about the dialogue, it belongs outside.
He warned me to “be careful about that!” VS. He warned me to “be careful about that”!
(Emphasis is on the warning in the first sentence and on the statement as a whole in the second.)
In very informal writing, multiple exclamation points can be used together. However, it’s recommended to keep that to personal emails and Facebook posts and the like.
Exclamation marks are useful tools in creative writing. They can enhance dialogue when used sparingly and mingle with question marks to create some pretty cool punctuation. Just make sure they don’t become a crutch!