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Exclamation Marks ! Exclamation Points

How & When Should They Be Used In Fiction Writing?

Quick links on this page:

Should You Use Exclamation Marks In Fiction?

If you're writing to be published, the most common advice regarding exclamation marks is:

Use them sparingly, if at all.

This phraseology is taken from InkTear's style guide. InkTears are an independent publisher in the UK. I was fortunate enough to work with them recently. They asked me to edit my stories into a format consistent with their publishing criteria. This advice was taken from a 21 page document outlining how stories should be prepared for publication in one of their books.

Exclamation Marks

Personally, I don't use exclamation marks at all in the short stories I write. I also remove all of them from any of the books I publish. This includes the To Hull & Back humorous short story anthologies.

Why?

Because they are often overused, misused and are, in my opinion, unnecessary, especially in a short story.

Quotes About Exclamation Points

It's not just me. Here are some quotes about exclamation marks by some very successful authors:

Terry Pratchett:

"Use exclamation marks sparingly! It's like wearing underpants on your head."

Elmore Leonard:

"Maximum 2-3 per 100,000 words."

F. Scott Fitzgerald:

"Cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke."

Howard Mittelmark:

"In almost all situations that do not involve immediate physical danger or great surprise, you should think twice before using an exclamation mark. If you have thought twice and the exclamation mark is still there, think about it three times, or however many times it takes until you delete it."

These quotes are taken from resources on the Guardian Twitter feed and Goodreads.

Three Exclamation Marks

The Other Side of the Argument

As with anything , there are two sides to this argument. That of the publisher. And that of the reader.

This post was written after an email discussion I had with Canadian author, Olivier Breuleux.

Olivier Breuleux

Olivier Breuleux

Olivier's biography:

Olivier Breuleux is a computer scientist by trade. He spends most of his time trying to devise superior artificial intelligence capable of bringing the world to its knees – in vain, it must be said, but it isn't for lack of trying. The rest of the time, he wallows in nihilism and writes absurdist short stories, which he publishes on his blog. He is happily unmarried and the proud father to no children whatsoever.

Back to Olivier's Argument...

Olivier submitted a story to one of the writing challenges I run. I removed all the exclamation marks from his story when I published it. He asked me why. The conversation developed from there.

It was a very interesting discussion, as Olivier gave me a different point of view that I hadn't fully considered. As a reader, he expects to see exclamation marks next to exclamations in stories and finds it jarring when an obvious exclamation is unmarked.

He said, Some stories, especially short ones, may have no dialogue or no characters that exclaim anything, and that's fine. What jars me a little is stuff like, '"Help me," she shouted', or "NO."

Olivier has kindly permitted me to publish our conversation. So, below is our email discussion, presented from beginning to end. It includes the original version of Olivier's story and a story by Helen Combe. Helen cunningly made it impossible for me to delete all the exclamation marks from her story when she submitted it to one of the writing challenges I run.

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A Discussion Regarding Exclamation Marks

Email 1 – Olivier to Chris

Sender details:

-------------------------

Name: Olivier Breuleux

 

Olivier Breuleux's Message:

-------------------------

A Stabbing Mystery

by Olivier Breuleux

A woman laid face down in a pool of blood, a kitchen knife jutting out of her back. Inspectors Dim, Dum and Sum were on the scene hypothesizing.

"The only other person with her at the time of her death was her dog," Dim said. "Therefore, the dog is the murderer."

"Astute," Dum agreed, stroking his smooth, shaven beard. "But the knife was found in the victim's hand! It must be a suicide!"

"You are both wrong!" said Sum. He proceeded to yank the knife out of the victim's back.

"Here is your murderer!" he said, brandishing the blood-stained weapon. "Confess, swine!" he intimated the knife, but it did not respond. "Confess! Or I shall use you to cut jelly, pudding and aspic!"

"NO! Anything but that! I admit it, I am the murderer," the knife confessed in its tinny, terrified voice. "But have mercy... Ms. Rowd was the most terrible cook I had ever seen! Every day I was an accomplice to criminal soup! I had no choice but to kill her!"

Sum walked to the pot in which a soup was simmering, and caught a whiff. It smelled like legitimate defence.

Email 2 – Chris to Olivier

Hi Olivier

Thank you for submitting your story to the nonsense challenge – much appreciated.

Your story is now live on the site.

Please check it on the website (on the Nonsense Challenge page) and let me know if anything needs changing – the comment form can sometimes turn special characters into HTML gobbledygook which I don't always translate correctly.

Cheers, Chris

Email 3 – Olivier to Chris

Hi Chris,

Well, thank you and Lesley for this challenge, it's a lot of fun, and for a good cause :)

This being said, you've removed all exclamation marks! Granted, I abused them, but here's a corrected version:

A woman laid face down in a pool of blood, a kitchen knife jutting out of her back. Inspectors Dim, Dum and Sum were on the scene hypothesizing.

"The only other person with her at the time of her death was her dog," Dim said. "Therefore, the dog is the murderer."

"Astute," Dum agreed, stroking his smooth, shaven beard. "But the knife was found in the victim's hand. It must be a suicide."

"You are both wrong," said Sum. He proceeded to yank the knife out of the victim's back.

"Here is your murderer," he said, brandishing the blood-stained weapon. "Confess, swine!" he intimated the knife, but it did not respond. "Confess, or I shall use you to cut jelly, pudding and aspic."

"NO! Anything but that! I admit it, I am the murderer," the knife confessed in its tinny, terrified voice. "But have mercy... Ms. Rowd was the most terrible cook I had ever seen. Every day I was an accomplice to criminal soup. I had no choice but to kill her."

Sum walked to the pot in which a soup was simmering, and caught a whiff. It smelled like legitimate defence.

Best, Olivier

Email 4 – Chris to Olivier

Hi Olivier

I did indeed… :-)

I'm of the opinion that exclamation marks are unnecessary and remove them from all the books I publish. There is an element of personal taste here, but I feel these quotes by Terry Pratchett and Elmore James convey the feelings of the vast majority of publishers.

All the professional publishers and editors I’ve dealt with share this opinion. Common best practice is to use them sparingly, if at all.

I read a lot of humorous stories through the contest I run. Many writers overuse exclamation marks. They do not make things funnier. If a joke is good, I'll laugh. I don't need an exclamation mark to help me understand the punchline. If someone shouts, a reader should be able to tell by the tone of the dialogue and the suspense built by good writing. Again, an exclamation mark does nothing to help – it just adds unnecessary melodrama and detracts from the prose.

So I'm afraid they won't be going back in as there will be none in the printed book.

I hope that explains the situation, but please let me know if you have any questions.

Cheers, Chris

Email 5 – Olivier to Chris

Hi Chris,

Fair enough, I don't really mind.

This being said, I would like to understand your reasoning better. While I agree that exclamation marks in prose or narration is gaudy and rarely a good idea, I am not aware of any such proscription regarding dialogue. I would be hard pressed, for example, to find a book where someone's desperate cry for help is not rendered as, "Help!"

I mean, it's not about making anything funnier in that case, it's just using exclamation marks for what they are meant for, which is to denote exclamation. And while it is true that someone shouting or exclaiming can often be inferred from context, the same can be said of emphasis and interrogation. If a character asks, "Why is the sky blue." and the context tells me it's an ordinary question, sure, I understand, but it's still jarring not to see the associated punctuation. Likewise, when a character exclaims something and there is no exclamation mark, I can probably tell anyway, but I still expect the mark and I find it mildly jarring if it's not there.

Anyway, I'm not arguing your policy, I'm just curious about why you apply it so broadly.

Olivier

Email 6 – Chris to Olivier

Hi Olivier

I admit that my dislike of exclamation marks is partly subjective. However, in my experience, the vast majority of publishers don't like them, viewing them as unnecessary and amateurish, especially when used frequently and/or misused. I was also told early on in my career, by a professional editor, that exclamation marks were not well regarded by most publishers. They had some derogatory term for them, like 'dog's dick' or something like that... I can't remember the exact phrase. I was told the same thing by a widely published thriller author. Most of this experience is based on UK publishers, so I guess it might be different elsewhere in the world.

I think the birth of email, text and social media has meant exclamation marks have become more overused and incorrectly used in day to day communication. While they have a place in emails etc., I don't think they do in stories. For me, they detract from good writing – they add unnecessary melodrama. Terry Pratchett's quote sums it up for me. "It's like wearing underpants on your head." And Elmore Leonard said, "Maximum 2-3 per 100,000 words." This is advice from multi-million selling writers. In my view, it should be listened to.

Question marks are different. Clear rules apply to them. They appear after questions. Having said that, I've seen authors choose not to use them. Cormac McCarthy is one of the most well-known authors who puts this into practice. This post about his use of punctuation is worth a read.

There are rules that apply to exclamation marks, but they're generally used when a writer wants to use them, rather than when they should be used. And, because they are overused, I find them jarring when they are used – the exact opposite of your view of them. Hey, we're all different and the world would be a very boring place if we weren't… :-) Maybe I take it too far. But most good novels, certainly modern ones, will contain very few exclamation marks, if any. A short story, which is the fraction of the length of a novel, really doesn't need them. And flash fiction? Well… you can probably guess my view on that.

That said, I have just published a nonsense story with some exclamation marks in it. Helen, who wrote it, has been deviously clever and left me no choice [You can read it below, CF]. So even an anti-exclamation-anarchist such as myself can be forced down a path they don’t want to walk…

I hope that better explains my view of them.

Cheers, Chris

PS, This is an interesting subject matter and I'll probably write a post about exclamation marks for my blog. Are you happy for me to include our discussion as part of the post? Once drafted, you can contribute to it too, if you like. I think topics like this add most value when both sides of the argument are put forward.

Red Exclamation Mark

Helen Combe's Story, Referred to Above in Email 6

For context, here is the story referred to in email 6 by Helen Combe.

The Day of the Spell Cheque

by Helen Combe

Paul hated a threesome. Derek and Eve, the most ill matched couple on the planet and him, down the pub. Derek put the tray of drinks down.

"Aw, Derek, you've got me the wrong drink," wailed Eve.

"It's a rum and coke."

"I asked for a Bacardi and coke."

"Same thing."

Paul zoned out and focused on the TV.

"We interrupt this programme to announce that the iPhone spellcheck and predictive text have achieved self-awareness and have escaped into the whirled."

Pall lucked at his eye phone. The screen was flashing 'Looser' at him.

"Hay, Guy Fawkes, eye mean guys, sum thing really wired, worried, woad, weird is happy hippy happening."

"Baccarat Backpack Bacardi is white, that's read."

"Gus, Guys the fabric of English is braking down!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

"Pall, stop doing awl those exclamation marks, their knot funny."

"!"

"Ewe never get yore drink wrong eye sea, Derrick," Eave foal died Durrell folded her alms.

"The fabric of thyme abs and space is braking down," Pall whaled.

Whither loud sucking nose nice noise, the whirled varnished vanished and Derrick and Eave whirr a loan in Nottingham, nothingness.

"Eye think the whirled has ended," said Derrick.

"It's all yore fault," said Eave.

Helen Combe

Helen Combe

Here is a comment Helen made, when I asked her to review this post to see if she was happy with the way I'd used her story:

I have no problem with you using my little bit of nonsense. I'm sure you know that I put those exclamations marks in out of pure devilment.

Here's my point of view.

In general I agree with you over exclamation marks and I shouldn't have put one after "Boil damn you," in Schrödinger's Datastick [published in To Hull & Back 2016], since it was pretty obvious he wouldn't have been muttering it under his breath. However, I do feel there may be rare times when the tone of the speaker may not be obvious and a little bit of punctuational assistance may be required.

Back to Olivier and Me Banging On About Exclamation Marks...

Email 7 – Olivier to Chris

Hi Chris,

I'm talking about dialogue specifically. The only Pratchett book I have around me is Good Omens, so I can't know whether it's him or Gaiman who put them there, but there are exclamation marks in dialogue. They are not common, but in the animated conversation I'm looking at there are eight in a single page (two of which I personally consider spurious). I'm easily finding them in Vonnegut, in Fahrenheit 451, in Harry Potter, in H.G. Wells' short stories, and in my French translation of Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being there's more than one per page. Point being, there are way more than 2-3 exclamation marks per 100,000 words in literature... if you count dialogue and inner monologues. Without dialogue, the figure seems right.

Regarding "unnecessary melodrama"... well... what would you do if you had an unnecessarily melodramatic character? If that character is being melodramatic and theatrical about every little thing, wouldn't exclamation marks be appropriate to denote that in their dialogue? What about characters who are laughing at their own jokes?

This being said, I can see that if you read a lot of stories from budding authors who have not yet developed a good style, that would likely negatively affect your perception of anything they tend to overuse, like exclamation marks or adverbs. This is surely true of dialogue too: it is easy to caricature characters as histrionic or overly theatrical, which I would argue is funny in small doses, but after seeing a hundred of them you would understandably find it more annoying than amusing. I think there's a subtle distinction to make, though: would it be fair to say it's not the exclamation mark you and publishers hate per se, but histrionics? That is to say, people use the exclamation mark properly: they or their characters exclaim something, and this is denoted with the appropriate mark... but it's the exclamation itself that's not appropriate. Insofar that the mark is the only overt indication of exclamation, the remedy is the same (remove it), but ultimately I think hundreds of people just intended to make you laugh with unnecessarily melodrama. They do think it's funny. But for you it gets stale, I can understand that, and nuking the exclamation mark admittedly sounds like an easy, convenient cure for this scourge ;)

Still, I find it a bit of a shame. I read a lot, but since I am not a publisher, not a contest organiser, and selective about what I read, I almost only ever see good uses of the exclamation mark, so I find they add a little something.

Interesting article about Cormac McCarthy, thanks for the link. Another author I love very much who does this is Jose Saramago: no exclamation marks, no question marks, no quotation marks. It does work very well, if it is done properly. I find it enhances the feeling of back and forth between characters. Not everyone can get away with it, however, and it is jarring at first.

Feel free to include our discussion as part of a post on your blog, I have no problem with that. Looking forward to read it.

Olivier

Email 8 – Chris to Olivier

Hi Olivier

Yep. Like I said, a lot of this is subjective. And it is interesting to hear the other side of the argument.

You can find examples of authors breaking any 'rule' of writing in published books. Exclamation marks are no exception. And yes, maybe I do see too many of them and that's partly why I dislike them. But it's not the main reason. These are the main reasons:

  • many publishers dislike them
  • a professional editor I worked with advised me to remove exclamation marks from my novel (I was inexperienced and had overused them)
  • a professional novelist also made the same recommendation

As a writer, I write to be published. Therefore, I always adhere to what is most widely regarded as current best practice. This means more of my stories are published. That's my main motivator.

Another example for you. It’s taken from the publishing guidelines of InkTears, an independent publisher that I was fortunate enough to work with last year.

EXCLAMATION MARKS

Use sparingly, if at all.

That is one small part of a 21 page document, full of current best practice in publishing which includes:

Abbreviations and Acronyms, Accents, Age, Apostrophes, Brackets, Can Not/Cannot, Capitals, Collective Nouns, Colons, Commas, Compass Points, Consistency, Dialogue, Exclamation Marks, Mum/mum, Dashes, Deja Vu, Ellipses, Font, Geography, Hyphens, Italics, It's/Its, Justification, Licence, Lists, Mr/Ms/Mrs/Miss, No One, North, Numbers, OK/Okay, Oxford Comma, Paragraphs, Parentheses, Participles, Passive Voice, Semicolons, Spacing, Split Infinitives, Tenses, That, That or Which, Times, etcetera.

I list this to show how much thought and consideration goes into presenting and formatting a professional book. Exclamation marks are one small part of that. Now, most publishers won't share this level of detail with you unless they intend to publish your work. But this is the level of detail most judges and editors work with. That's their mind set. That's why I'm always mindful of it when I write.

Actually, the most important thing any writer can do is read a publisher's submission guidelines. And then adhere to them. As an example, I'm very open about the fact that I don't think exclamation marks are necessary. This is the wording I use on my To Hull & Back competition page:

Use exclamation marks sparingly, if at all – an exclamation mark does not make something funnier or more dramatic.

The amount of authors that ignore this, or don't bother reading it, amazes me. Every year, I receive many stories that are peppered with exclamation marks – sometimes more than you'd see in a Facebook post written by an angry teenager. Understanding what a publisher wants and giving it to them puts you ahead of around 50% of the competition. It's the same with obeying the rules. Every year I share all the stats of my competition, including how many people disobey the rules and are disqualified. EG, this year I had 284 entries. 73 writers didn't adhere to all the rules. That's just over 25% of the entries. Each year, that figure seems to go up. It really is the simple stuff that can put you ahead of the competition.

Now, with the writing challenges, I don't specify anything about exclamation marks. All I say is that a writer will get to work me as an editor to gain the experience of having their stories edited and published in a professional format. All I do is change the formatting to be consistent with my publishing guidelines. That means 99.999% of the time, exclamation marks will be removed.

I must say, I love these challenges… some of the conversations that come off the back of them are very interesting. This being one of them…

I might just use this email exchange as a post… Its seems that between us, we've pretty much written it :-) I'll put it together and share it with you to see what you think.

Cheers, Chris

Email 9 – Olivier to Chris

Hi Chris,

My point is that exclamation marks are relatively common in dialogue and their use is not exceptional. I'm finding them easily in almost every book I have on my shelves.

Now, there is something I would like to clarify: I was not arguing from the perspective of a writer, but from the perspective of a reader. As a writer, the publisher is the guy I have to woo if I want anyone to read my work, so it is very important to read and obey guidelines. As a reader, though, I'm the guy ambling into a bookstore with a wad of cash. I don't care what publishers think because I'm paying them to woo me.

So what do I want to read? That's hard to say. Most people don't really know what they want, and part of the publisher's job is to figure out what they want before they know they want it. Ideally, though, I would say that I want exclamation marks next to exclamations: cries of panic and distress, surprise, unbridled enthusiasm, and so on. That is my expectation. That doesn't mean keep them all, or even the majority, but it doesn't mean remove them all either.

So, say you remove all exclamation marks and I buy your anthology. It is possible I wouldn't actually notice that exclamation marks are missing, but at the same time I may get a vague feeling that some of the dialogue lacks punch, or that the characters are excessively deadpan. It's subtle and easy to pass it off as a stylistic choice (which I have no issue with), but my point is that I think most readers expect a more surgical approach to exclamation marks than nuking them all. I could be wrong, of course, but speaking as a reader, there's at least one of us. Most of the books I read have exclamation marks where I expect them; very very few have none.

Olivier

Email 10 – Chris to Olivier

Hi Olivier

I see your point – you could well be right. Maybe most readers do expect to see exclamation marks. If I hadn't started writing fiction, I'd probably be blissfully unaware of best practice and maybe I wouldn't notice if there were lots of exclamation marks in a book. Then again, I don't think I'd notice if exclamation marks weren't there either. It made no difference to the way I perceived The Road, and I knew nothing about Cormac McCarthy (or much about writing – I was just starting out when it was released) when I read it. I don't ever remember being put off by not seeing an exclamation mark.

I can see both sides of this argument and it's interesting to discuss it. A lot of it does come down to personal taste, and I think you and I will have to agree to disagree on this particular point. Personally, I'm not swayed – I think that good writing renders exclamation marks unnecessary. Good dialogue is good dialogue. Punctuation doesn't make it better. Neither does it make it punchier. It's the words that are important – what is being said, the context, the strength of character, the conflict of the situation. If it's really important to impart exactly how something is being said, use 'he shouted' or 'She raised her voice as she spoke' or similar. Subtle pointers like that can be used very effectively, if they're not overused. Neon lights, tolling bells or a flashing arrow made up from the words 'exclamation here' are not needed. Admittedly, I'm being over the top… but, in my humble opinion, exclamation marks are often over the top.

I wouldn't be surprised if publishers' attitudes towards them changes over time due to social media and the way people communicate now. Maybe that's already started. In the future, I suspect that the majority of people will communicate using emojis and acronyms only. And exclamation points… battalions of them :-)

Anyway. I choose to use exclamation marks 'if at all' in stories. In other words, next to never. Yes, nuke them. Nuke them all :-) You can never hope to please every reader. Some will share your opinion. Some will share mine. I suspect many wouldn't have a strong feeling either way. It will be interesting to see what other people think when the post goes up.

Thanks for all your input on this – it's very much appreciated. Voicing two sides of an argument, especially when the views are opposing, gives a better overview for the reader.

Cheers, Chris

Email 11 – Olivier to Chris

Hi Chris,

I do agree that missing exclamation marks are not very noticeable. I think they add a little punch, but we'll have to agree to disagree about that.

In any case, since you publish anthologies, you have an opportunity to prove your point. I imagine that the more publishers do that, the less people will expect exclamation marks, so regardless of what people prefer at the moment, you have some power to shift attitudes (even if it's just a little bit). It's not something I'd do, but I'm not opposed to you doing it.

Thanks for taking the time to explain your views on this. This was an enlightening conversation, and as a writer I will certainly be more aware of these details in the future.

Olivier

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Exclamation Point Man

Conclusion

Should you use exclamation marks in your writing? In my opinion, don't use them - they're unnecessary. In Olivier's opinion, you should use them to mark exclamations, but be mindful of how often your characters exclaim things.

I think Olivier and I have covered both sides of the argument in detail. From it, you can draw your own conclusion and use exclamation marks (or not) as you feel appropriate.

I'd simply recommend reviewing a publisher's submission guidelines prior to sending them a story. And read back issues of the publication you are submitting to. Note the use of exclamation marks (and all other punctuation, formatting etc.) and then edit your story accordingly.

Thank You

I'd like to say a big thank you to Olivier for contributing to this post and helping to make it informative. If nothing else, it shows that a little conflict can make a story (or a blog post) more engaging and interesting to read.

I'd also like to thank Helen Combe for allowing me to feature her story in the post.

Share Your Thoughts

Many of the writing tips and advice surrounding fiction writing is subjective. The use of exclamation marks is no exception, as my conversation with Olivier demonstrates.

If you have an opinion you'd like to share, even if it's to tell us both that you don't really care either way, please leave a comment below. It's always interesting to see what other people think and if minds (including my own rather stubborn one) can be changed.

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Comments:

Your comments:

Dean W
Hello :-D,

I'm writing this from my phone so I apologise for any mistakes.

As an amateur, I have been trying to take your advice on these things, Chris, as much as possible. For me it's a bit like being an apprentice jeweller again. Where everything I used to make as an apprentice I thought was shit hot, but now looking back at those items, I think how amateurish. It's because of the little things apprentices always seem to do.

But I also see what Olivier is saying, and as an avid reader myself, I do think an exclamation is important in some dialogue. I would like to ask your thoughts on this situation.

Let's say we have a character that suddenly shouts something, and your also trying to surprise the reader who has been flowing along at a certain pace. I'll give three ways of writing it.

  1. He shouted, "Word."
  2. "Word," he shouted
  3. "Word!" he shouted.

To me the exclamation gives more immediate impact, because it provides no alternate interpretations. A bit like shouting for real. With example two you have read 'word' as normal then have to reinterpret it as a shout, and in one the surprise seems spoiled.

Is an exclamation still OK for this purpose? Sorry if I don't make sense.

Also if you have a string of dialogue and you want it known that only one word is said more forcefully than the rest of the dialogue? Eg, I think I had an exclamation at the end of the last piece of dialogue I wrote in my nonsense writing submission.

"...we must have it!" instead of "...we must have it." (could be wrong. On my phone so can't check), but how is it now interpreted? Is it now dead pan? But if I wrote "...we must have it," the mind shouted. Would that make it sound like all that last peice of dialogue was shouted?

Once again, sorry I'm still learning.

Cheers! And merry Xmas everyone! :-D

From your humble apprentice.

Chris Fielden
Hi Dean. In my opinion (and that's all it is, I should add, an opinion) '"Word," he shouted' gives me all the information I need. I certainly wouldn't use an exclamation mark alongside 'he shouted'. That makes the '!' superfluous. To me, it suggests the writer has assumed the reader is stupid and need to be told something twice to make sure they get it. But it is personal taste. So far as the 'rules' go, you could use an exclamation mark in this instance. Just ask yourself, is it really needed? In my opinion, it isn't.

You are right about your ant army story, you did have an exclamation mark after the line, "We must have it!" Again, I don't think it's necessary. Neither is a 'he shouted'. The words 'we must have it' indicate the feeling, the sentiment and the urgency. The dialogue stands up on its own - it doesn't need the '!'

In a 200 word story, do you really need any exclamation points? I'd say no... But then, given my feelings about !s, I guess that's no surprise.

I'm not saying don't use exclamation marks. Just carefully consider whether they're really needed before you use them. If you have a 5,000 word story and there's more than 1, you're probably overdoing it. I choose not to use them at all. That doesn't mean I'm right, it's just my preference. So use them if you think it's necessary, but don't overuse them. Overuse is the common mistake a lot of writers make.

I hope you have a great Christmas mate :-)

J. Rosina H
I can see both sides of the argument with this exclamation marks furore, but I'm more concerned with your cavalier use of the term 'quote'. My A-level English teacher used to say that a 'quote' should always be a 'quotation' and that 'quote' was a verb as in 'he would quote the bible'. Apparently 'quote' was not an approved shortening of the word 'quotation'. Maybe it is now.

Hope you don't mind my red, fur-lined Father Christmas hat landing in the ring. (That's another thing - when did we import Santa so wholeheartedly?)...

All the very best wishes for an exclamation free Christmas.

Chris Fielden
Hi J. Rosina. Well, I'd never heard of the 'quote vs quotation' argument before. I can only apologise for my cavalier attitude towards it. I now consider myself educated in the proper use of the verb 'quote'. I think a lot of these changes in language become acceptable as people use them, whether they're supposed to or not. I can only apologise for being one of 'or not' camp in this instance :-)

As for Santa... Well. Who knows? If we're being fussy, I suppose we should refer to Father Christmas as Saint Nicholas...

Have a Christmas and New Year.

J. Rosina H
No problem, Chris, I'm sure that Father Christmas/Saint Nicholas/Santa doesn't mind how you 'quote' or not, he'll still bring you pressies... :-)

Keep up the good work(!)

Hugh S
Chris, you make an interesting point concerning the !, and as far as factual books and academic or quasi-academic papers are concerned it is one with which I fully agree. The sentence should be strong enough to convey meaning without it. However, an article in a magazine is rather different, since there are fewer composing constraints. I write for a number of Magazines, and where I feel a nuance needs additional emphasis I do use the ! selectively.

When I write 'creatively', I will use the ! selectively. But 'selectivity' is the watch word. I agree.

I hope you have a truly Merry Christmas!

Chris Fielden
Thanks, Hugh. It's very interesting to hear the thoughts of a widely published article writer. Thanks for your input.

I hope you have a great Christmas and New Year :-)

Allen A
Hi Chris,

I'm generally in agreement with you and the publishing world about the use of exclamation marks. I would certainly never knowingly use them in narration. However, I take Olivier's point about there being situations when writing dialogue - such as a cry for "Help!" - where their use would seem appropriate and probably necessary. Otherwise one might assume it was a tiny mouse squeaking for help.

I cannot be bothered to read Cormac McCarthy's advice on punctuation because my opinion from reading his mawkish and dreary tome The Road is that he doesn't actually know how to punctuate.

Like you say, emails and social media have brought the exclamation mark back into fashion. I never, ever, write "LOL" or "lol" but might write something intentionally humorous like, "That Chris Fielden only chose my story because the hero rides a Harley Davidson!!!" where the exclamation points show playful intent.

Long live the Oxford Comma!!!

Chris Fielden
Hi Allen. Yes, I concede that every now and then an exclamation mark could be used, if a writer thinks it’s appropriate for their audience. I just prefer to make it incredibly hard for writers to get them past me in their stories. I am a bit of a git in that respect. Helen did it, clever and devious punctuative-mastermind that she is… I just get fed up of seeing exclamation marks used at the end of every sentence! You know, every sentence! It becomes tedious! Even when “Help!” is cried by a man holding onto a cliff edge with one finger as a horde of ravenous crocodiles writhe below him!

The Road was bleak. I often find stories that hold no element of hope disappointing. Well, I guess you could argue there was a small element of hope at the end. There was in the film. I can’t remember if the book and film ended in the same way. I’m waffling. I’ll shut up.

As for the oxford comma, you can consider the proverbial can of worms busted open. I quite like them, when they’re used well. Maybe there’s a post to be written there. Fancy a go? I’d be happy to publish it.

Allen A
Hi Chris,

Thanks for your reply.

No, I think I will quickly put a lid back on the Oxford Comma worm can, thanks!

Blatant and deliberate exclamation there.

Chris Fielden
Hi Allen. Very wise… :-)

Kathy S
I write for readers, not writers.

When several beta readers - who aren't writers - insist '"Get out of there," he shouted' calls for an exclamation point, I have to agree. Without that extra tidbit of punctuation, the reader doesn't realize the urgency until the word 'shouted'.

That's an unnecessary microsecond of distraction.

The majority of your quoted rule-makers allow for an occasional exclamation point. Every punctuation mark exists for a reason. Eliminate one, and you handcuff your writing.

Double exclamation points? No. No. No! With that rule I will agree.

Chris Fielden
Hi Kathy. Thanks for your input. I fully understand you putting your readers first - that makes complete sense as a writer and a marketer. I have many proof-readers for my work and have never had anyone tell me that I should add an exclamation mark to anything I've written.

Out of interest, how often do your beta-readers highlight a lack of exclamation points as a problem? Or too many exclamation points? Is it something they highlight at all, now and then, regularly? It would be interesting to know to give more context. Is it a big deal, or one minor issue amidst many?

It looks like you deal with the US or Canadian market too (I'm assuming from spelling and the use of 'point' instead of 'mark' - please tell me if I have that wrong). My experience is primarily with the UK market. I wonder if there are any differences between the UK and other markets. Not just regarding exclamation marks, but generally. Do you have any experience to share in that regard? It would be great if you do :-)

Kathy S
It doesn't occur often, Chris, because I avoid exclamation marks. However, whenever beta readers do object, it's an occurrence such as the one I gave as an example. Like adverbs, exclamation marks have their place if used judiciously.

As a reader, I encounter sentences where I begin in monotone mode, and perhaps the next sentence or the one after will reveal that the narrator or speaker was upset or excited or yelling. A lowly '!' would solve that and keep me reading without backtracking.

Kathy S
Duh on me. The last comment was counterintuitive. The reason beta readers don't point it out often is the way I set up. Body language or circumstances can show urgency without the need for an exclamation mark. However, especially in flash, a well-placed '!' can replace a paragraph of show and streamline word count.

Chris Fielden
Great, thanks for clarifying Kathy. That's a really useful perspective to consider.

Adena G
Wow, this has been an interesting debate. And, having read it, I then went to look at my story (Oh No Richard) which is in the 2016 Anthology and saw, lo and behold, that the exclamation marks had, indeed, been removed (including one in the title). Yet I only noticed once I specifically checked. I wanted to put an exclamation mark at the end of that last sentence, but restrained myself. And that one. No, it's no good, I have to put one in!

Seriously though, I had to turn to my original Word document to compare where I'd put exclamation marks in that were then, subsequently, removed. This alone is probably good proof that they're not entirely necessary. If I didn't miss my own marks, then nobody else will have done.

That being said, I think there's a happy medium. In my humble opinion, Olivier's first version was a little too exclamation-happy, but his second version was just right. I can also see parts of my own story where the odd exclamation mark may have found a home. However, I don't quite view exclamation marks in the same way as other punctuation. A misplaced comma or apostrophe can be catastrophic for a narrative, but a missing exclamation mark isn't going to end in disaster. I think, having read this debate, that the exclamation mark is probably the most subjective punctuation mark in the stable, and there isn't as much need for him as there is for many of the other marks. Poor exclamation mark!!!

Chris Fielden
Hi Dena. That is interesting. I must admit, I'm the same - when editors make minor changes to my stories in books or magazines, I rarely notice unless I go back and compare the printed story against my draft copy. Even then, more often than not, I find editorial changes improve my work rather than making it worse.

I suppose many editors would discuss this with a writer and find a compromise. With the To Hull & Back competition, the turnaround time is too quick to consult writers on minor edits like the removal of exclamation marks, so I just get on with it, or the book would never be released on Hulloween. And with the Writing Challenge books, there are up to 100 authors to deal with in each book, so consulting with each of them individually would be too time consuming. The challenges are for learning, fun and to support charity, so I don't think anyone minds too much. Olivier didn't - we simply started discussing the point and I thought it would be interesting to share it. If you were publishing a novel, you'd be likely to have a discussion like this prior to publication, so a compromise could be reached.

I think you're right - the use of the exclamation mark is more subjective than other punctuation. Misused commas, semi-colons and apostrophes can have far more impact. I just think too many exclamation marks look amateurish. Maybe my blitzing of them is over the top. Maybe I'll let one or two start creeping into the books I publish. Maybe I'll learn to tolerate them. And maybe, one day, love them. Maybe... :-)

Ted M
Hi Chris. Exclamation marks, like guns, are tools to be used very judiciously. But I would not make the draconian pronouncement that they should never be used (otherwise, why do they exist?). I think Olivier is right when he says used sparingly, and only in dialogue, is correct.

Chris Fielden
Thanks for your input, Ted. Maybe I am a bit draconian in my approach. And maybe my interpretation of 'sparingly' differs from most people's. For the sake of being pedantic, here are 2 definitions of the word 'sparingly':

  1. Sparingly is defined as something done in a frugal manner, or something done in a manner meant to conserve what is remaining. An example of sparingly is when you add only a tiny dash of salt because you are running out and you want to use as little as possible (Your Dictionary)
  2. In a restricted or infrequent manner; in small quantities: 'the sharply flavoured leaves should be used sparingly' (Oxford Dictionaries)

It takes me back to the Elmore James quote: 2-3 per 100,000 words. That, in my opinion, is sparingly. I just feel that many writers use exclamation points liberally, if not excessively. And that is, in part, how my draconian approach has evolved.

Anyway. You make a valid point. Why do exclamation marks exist if they're not needed? Well, species of life go extinct. Maybe certain marks of punctuation will as well, as our language evolves. Then again, maybe they'll thrive like locusts - many people do seem to love using them. I will think on it over the holidays :-)

Ted M
And Happy Christmas to you, Chris.

It might make your holiday even cheerier to know that I forwarded your last missive to my editor at Calumet Editions (I have a memoir to be published in the spring) with instructions to cut out as many exclamation marks as possible - except those in dialogue and absolutely justified. His response:

I will eliminate nearly all unless they are true exclamations. Trust me, I won't let you look like  the extremist you are!!! :-)

Chris Fielden
That's great, thanks for sharing Ted :-)

Good luck with the memoir - I hope that goes well for you.

Georgina S
My story was published in your 2015 THAB anthology, and I definitely noticed the exclamation marks had all been removed when I looked at it. Having pondered it a bit more I thought that yes, some of them can be there or not and it doesn't matter, but I would definitely have left some of them. In my head I would read:

"No! No, I wouldn't want you to do that," said Character.

In a very different way from:

"No. No, I wouldn't want you to do that," said Character.

I believe removing all the exclamation marks without any deliberation can change the tone of the dialogue significantly from what the author had in mind. Especially if there's no 'he shouted' dialogue tag or similar to convey the tone.

I have to admit though what actually bothered me upon reading my story again now was that you had changed a colon to a semi-colon in a place where it was incorrect to use a semi-colon (unless there is some obscure grammar rule I'm unaware of...). I could live without exclamation marks I suppose but the much-maligned semi-colon is my favourite piece of punctuation.

But anyway I agree with Olivier that any punctuation or lack of punctuation that distracts readers or pulls them out of the story, however momentarily, should be avoided.

Merry Christmas.

...doesn\'t it seem sarcastic with a full stop though?

Chris Fielden
Hi Georgina. That's really interesting - thanks for your input.

I can only apologise if I made an error editing your story for THAB 2015. I try my best to edit all the stories into a consistent format, so all punctuation, numbers, italics, spellings etc. are used in the same way throughout the book. Unfortunately, the fast turnaround time required to produce the book and release it by Hulloween, and the budget of £0 to employ help, means I don't have time to proofread the book as much as I would like, or get other people to proofread for me. That process would usually pick my errors up. In the future, when (fingers, toes and dangly bits crossed) THAB makes a profit, I would hope to be able to sort that issue out. So, sorry if I made a mistake with your story.

I think exclamation marks adding something to a story is down to the perception of the individual reader. I find the use of exclamation marks jarring/distracting. You, Olivier and many other writers/readers, it seems, find it jarring when they aren't there. It's really interesting. Maybe it's an age thing? I didn't grow up with texts or emails or anything like that as a child. To me, exclamation marks seem to be used liberally, often excessively. Not sparingly, which most people seem to think is acceptable.

In your example, I much prefer '"No. No, I wouldn't want you to do that," said Character.' To me, the exclamation mark after 'no' makes me think of melodrama - a bad actor, hamming it up. That's my perception. I'm much more comfortable being allowed to make up my own mind, as a reader, how something is said. I'd expect to be able to picture the character and decide how they spoke, because the conflict, character description and story are so well written. But then, it seems a lot of other readers prefer to have the pointer and, to them, it adds something to the dialogue. Maybe I'm the minority? The comments so far would suggest I am.

A Merry Christmas to you too. No, I don't think the lack of exclamation mark indicates sarcasm. Would you exclaim Merry Christmas to someone in conversation? No. You'd say it to them, probably with a genuine smile on your face. To me, a simple exclamation free Merry Christmas seems preferable. So that is what I offer to you :-)

Georgina S
@Chris F

Thanks for your reply. Sorry if I came across as critical, I realise you work very hard to organise the competition every year. Of course, if I want to have anything published I will have to get used to my work being edited!

And there I go again with the exclamation mark, but I do feel it adds something to the tone. Some prefer writing ! rather than a "she shouted/exclaimed/bellowed", but to my mind they're doing more or less the same job. I don't think I'll be giving up on my !!!s any time soon.

Perhaps your next fiction challenge should be the "exclamation mark challenge"? Haha!

Chris Fielden
Hi Georgina. No, you didn't come across as being critical. I think people should express what they think about a subject matter, and I totally respect other people's point of view. I'm not right all the time, that's for sure, especially with something as subjective as writing fiction. I hope I didn't come across as being defensive - I was just trying explain how errors occur etc.

An exclamation mark challenge is a great idea! Oh. My. God. I just used an exclamation mark and didn't delete it... I must be weakening.

But should I challenge writers to try and use them, or try not to use them? And so the debate continues... :-)

Margaret E
Happy New Year to you Chris, and all power to your amazing website. I have greatly enjoyed your dialogue with Olivier and the subsequent comments. Being an inveterate user of exclamation marks (sparingly of course, and increasingly sparingly since viewing your site) I enjoyed hearing Olivier's defence of the mark, expressed far more lucidly than I could do.

Regarding your comment on age acceptability of the exclamation mark, I suspect that I am old enough to be your mother... oh, the effort there not to add an exclamation mark. My schooling was by rote in a class of 50. We learnt to use all the punctuation out there, including treacherous apostrophes, the use of commas surrounding adverbial phrases, colons and semi-colons. Armed with this sure fire defence, three of us passed the 11 plus.

Since then I have of course thrown off the shackles of such dull rules and although grateful for the grounding I had, I am a natural anarchist where 'thou shalt nevers' are concerned. I suggest perhaps a perfectly judged exclamation mark might be like putting a crown on your head rather than your underpants.

I believe a limited number enhance a mood of urgency, or alternatively, 'playful intent' which entirely changes the tone of dialogue. When writing a scene where two boys are under a railway bridge and a train is suddenly heard, I would much prefer to use :

'Run!'

than :

'Run,' yelled Lee.

And I would like to think that is a matter of personal preference?

Similarly where a dull man is writing from the Somme to his sweetheart and says 'Hope it's a bit drier at home!' This is his desperate effort at 'playful intent' which he wants to convey to her, and I begin to like him for it.

Finally (sorry this has gone on a bit) I have been reading Life After Life by Kate Atkinson over Christmas and one sentence jumped out which I thought you might like. Not sure if you can use this quote online, but here it is for your amusement.

Mrs Glover the formidable cook is making Egyptian Pudding for Mrs. Sylvia Todd and her family:

'We all have to keep up our strength,' Mrs. Glover said.

'Yes indeed,' Sylvie said. 'I should probably feed Ursula again for just the same reason!' She was irritated by her own invisible exclamation mark. For reasons she couldn't quite fathom, Sylvie often found herself impelled to adopt an overly cheerful tone with Mrs. Glover, as if trying to restore some natural balance of humours in the world.

Thanks for all you do for writers,

Margaret

Chris Fielden
Hi Margaret. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. It's interesting to hear what you said about your education, so I consider myself educated by your experience :-)

I love the Kate Atkinson quote. To me, that's really inventive - a good use of an exclamation mark in a story. I like it because of the originality and reason to include it. I've used the quote in your comment on the site. I can't see anyone getting upset by that. If they do, they can tell me and I'll remove it. But it's a great example of a well-placed exclamation mark.

You're right; a lot of this is down to personal taste. But, at the risk of sounding like the proverbial stuck record (or should I say CD? (or maybe iPod?)), the majority of writers overuse/misuse exclamation marks in their stories. This means that a lot of publishers recommend you use them 'sparingly if at all'. When you read lots of stories saturated in them, they stand out more and become jarring. It's the same with clichés for me. I have an intense dislike of them, in a story - I feel they detract from the originality of a writer's voice. But that's a whole blog post in itself...

Yes, I do blitz the vast majority of exclamation marks. But that is my decision to make as a publisher. It still amazes me how many writers submit stories to my competition that are littered with exclamation points. Not everyone may share my opinion, but I think it's fair to say I'm very open about it. So if you're submitting a story to me for consideration, you should be mindful of what I'm looking for as a publisher. That's my main point really.

Anyway. Thanks again for your input - it's much appreciated. And a happy New Year to you too!

Yes, I know, I used one... I do use them in emails, comments, texts, messages etc. so my dislike of them isn't all-encompassing - I just feel they're unnecessary in stories :-)

Margaret E
Oh no, it's happened again, how spooky is that?

I am about to shoot myself in the foot - again - but I have just read the second book in a row with a reference to exclamation marks - what's going on?

Context: Lydia has just received a postcard from her ex-lover:

'There's an exclamation mark here,' said Lydia. 'How disgusting. He must have made a little joke. There's something horribly ingratiating about exclamation marks. If he thinks he's going to get round me with his punctuation he can think again. Pah.'

From Unexplained Laughter by Alice Thomas Ellis. Thought you'd like it.

Chris Fielden
Thanks for sharing the exclamation mark reference, Margaret. You were right - I did like it :-)