Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Exlamation Point: A Disputed Piece of Punctuation

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"Cut out all those exclamation marks. An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own joke."
~Scott F. Fitzgerald

Since I am a person who loves life, loves to laugh, and am passionate in many ways, I am guilty as anything over using too many exclamation points. I sprinkle them through my writing as liberally as a Democrat, finding they express me perfectly. I mean, I think in exclamation points, I speak in them, and at times even sing in them, so isn't it natural that I write with them?
But there I was wrong. In the general opinion of most writers, using exclamation points is a crutch. It is telling you reader that the sentence is exciting, versus showing them that it is exciting. And after I recovered from my initial shock at finding my favorite punctuation mark is a black spot on any writer, I saw the wisdom in sidelining that most congenial fellow.
Not using exclamation marks forces the writer to write clever dialog and manipulate words to show the emotion of the character. Ordinarily, I could show that a character was angry by doing something like this:
"Ha! You actually think I would agree to that?" She scoffed and pushed her bangs out of her eyes. "Just because I am your employee doesn't mean I have to go along with your shady schemes!"
But then try rewriting that without using exclamation points, and it loses half it's power.
"Ha. You actually think I would agree to that?" She scoffed and pushed her bangs out of her yes. "Just because I am your employee doesn't mean I have to go along with your shady schemes."
It kinda falls flat, doesn't it? And that is where clever writers change their tune. The catch the essence of the anger in ways you may not have thought of before. Step back and try to envision yourself when you're angry. Think of how you sound. Most people speak in short, choppy sentences. Cut down on the amount of words your character uses in that scene, and get more power in the chopped down version. Word choice is everything.
When I joined my critique group, the other members were so patient in explaining this rule to me. My story is about children, and in each exchange of dialog, at least one of the sentences ended in an exclamation point. Weeding those out took some rewriting, but the dialog came alive when I was done.
Believe me, it's painful, but it's totally worth it. Some writers go by the rule that you should *never* use an exclamation point in the entire manuscript. Others allow one or two in crucial points in the story. But the general consensus is that exclamation points show weak-kneed writing. Rely on your wits instead of your punctuation. It marks the difference between good writers and everyone else. Have fun! It's entirely worth it! ~Rachel

2 comments:

Abigail said...

Good post! Only, I kept waiting for the 3rd version of the example paragraph, to prove your point...?

Leanna said...

yeah, what's the third one? :-D. Very interesting point, I never thought of that. I pretty sure I don't use a ton of exclamation marks, but it's nice to know, just in case.