The exclamation mark is one of those things writers love to hate.
Like Comic Sans, hipsters and Kim Kardashian, the exclamation mark is easy to mock. I’ve heard many writers say they expunge them all, just to be safe. Because we wouldn’t want to seem eager and chipper, would we?
American author F. Scott Fitzgerald was snotty enough to say that using exclamation marks was like laughing at your own joke.
Crime writer Elmore Leonard thought you shouldn’t use more than two or three of the suckers per 100,000 words.
I say deciding what punctuation you need based on either your word count, or whether Scott Fitzgerald would have thought you sophisticated over dinner, is lame.
(On the other hand, both Fitzgerald and Leonard are literary giants who have sold a hell of a lot more books than I have. On the third hand, deleting every exclamation mark in your manuscript won’t magically turn you into F. Scott or Elmore.)
It’s easy to get tangled up in knots over what famous writers dictate as the rules. (Please, some of them are dead useful. I love Stephen King’s Rules for Writing.) Thing is, they’re great guidelines, but they’re not right in every circumstance.
Personally, I think that if exclamation marks were necessary for comic genius P. G. Wodehouse, than the judicious use of them is fine for the rest of us.
Exclamation marks express excitement. Infrequent exclamation marks can be like a sliver of chili, adding a jolt. So why not keep the necessary ones?
I tend to reach for them in dialogue or internal monologues. I add them liberally in the first draft, then frown at them at second draft stage. The way I test which are necessary is to scrub them out.
Most of them end up staying out, but occasionally I find when the exclamation mark disappears, the speech loses verve, or it’s hard to tell how the character is feeling, or I’ve squashed a joke. That’s when I put it back in. Unapologetic SHIFT + 1 = !
There are plenty of rules to stop us writers looking hokey in a crazily competitive field.
We’re not meant to use ‘suddenly’. We shouldn’t describe the way characters look. And no adverbs, please!
I get it.
‘Suddenly’ is lazy and overused. No one wants to hear three pages about your character’s piercing blue eyes. And too many adverbs can suck the meaning out of a sentence.
But the problem with writing rules is that, unlike road rules, they don’t apply in every case.
The trick is working out when they apply to you – most of the time – and having the guts to ignore them those times they don’t.