Every day my fiancé goes to work, he texts me when he gets there. He knows I have anxiety issues.
“Here safe! Love you!”
Every day I respond, “Love you and stay safe!”
(Sometimes I add hearts or smooches. I’m girly like that.)
My goodness! Look at all the explanation marks! We are very excitable people!
What’s absolutely fine in your everyday texting is not fine in your novel writing. I have spoken to writers who don’t know they should limit their exclamation point use, and also writers who don’t know why. Never fear! I’m here to tell you all about it.
To start with, in this world of texting and social media, the meaning of exclamation points has become muddled. See above, where I said my fiancé and me are excitable people.
While exclamation points may be used to denote strong feelings, they are primarily used for one reason: to denote shouting. What you’re average EP does is turn up the volume. If you are using them in your non-social media writing for added emphasis or excitement, STOP NOW!
O0000. Not only did I EP you, I did the dreaded all caps, which I almost never do. That’s how strongly I feel about this situation, and that’s how loudly I said it.
“So, how should I use exclamation points?” you seem to ask.
Never use EPs to denote excitement.
My first book had a problem that I fixed with my exclamation point removing ax in the first re-write. I mowed down great swaths of them. The issue? I had a character who was a teenage girl. Elizabeth was very excited about everything. Nothing wrong with that, she was a teen and she was a ghost. She had much to be excited about.
Unfortunately for me and my EP removing ax, EPs are not for excitement. The words you chose for your MC and the feelings and mannerisms they use, that is how you show that she is excited. Using EPs to try to build a false sense of excitement is unfair to both your writing and your MC. Don’t use cheap shortcuts. Let the writing shine.
Never use EPs in the prose of your tale.
There are rare (Quite rare. Exceedingly rare.) exceptions to this. For the most part, the narrator of your story should not be shouting at the reader.
They thought they were going for a swim, but there was a rabid wombat on the beach!
This goes back to the earlier EP’s are not for excitement thingy. Rarer than unicorns are the times when your narrator needs to shout. Cut these from the prose, you won’t miss them. If the moment isn’t exciting enough, pick more descriptive, more engaging language and write it better.
EPs may be used in your dialogue.
Your characters may use EPs when they are speaking, but be wary of using too many. Even in an argument, your characters aren’t going to be shouting the entire time. Use all the tools in your writing toolbox. Set the scene with active verbs and evocative descriptions. If two of your characters begin an argument, and they start shouting immediately, they have nowhere to escalate to.
“I don’t know why you insist on cavorting at the beach while we have a rabid wombat alert.” Bob’s voice sounded low and tight, as if he was speaking through clenched teeth.
“A bunch of us are going to play Wombat, the Drinking Game, if you must know.” Gertrude placed the last sandwich in the hamper and slammed the lid shut. “Not that it’s any of your business.”
“I forbid you to go.” He clamped a hand around Gertrude’s wrist and tried to drag her away from the hamper.
Pulling herself free, she grabbed the hamper and stomped to the front door. “You aren’t the boss of me!”
The sound of the front door slamming rang in his ears. Bob never saw Gertrude again.
*Snicker.* Okay, it’s a silly example, but you can see what I mean. Yes, sometimes your characters will shout, and sometimes they will have strong emotions, but don’t rely too heavily on the EPs. Think of them as big chunks of black pepper, lovely in moderation, but too many make the dish unpalatable.
You may use EPs freely for emergency information.
Your characters are shouting because there is an emergency. This is perhaps the only time when you don’t have to figure out if EP’s are necessary or not.
“Don’t go in the water! There’s a rabid wombat!”
“The sky is falling!”
“It’s gonna blow!”
This is the only place your exclamation points are going to shine. This is the sole situation where less is more, and there is not a more engaging way to convey what you mean.
That’s my best advice for when to use an exclamation point, and when not to. Take your manuscript, grab your EP killing ax, and have at it.