7

I've heard some advice that you're only supposed to use an exclamation point every 100,000 words or so. I'm finding this advice very hard to follow; I've written 2,000 words so far and have about 5 exclamation points (which all appear in dialogue).

For example, take this scene where two characters are separated on opposite sides of a large room, and they can't communicate with each other without speaking loudly:

1.) "Press the green button!" Alice called to Frank.

This reads naturally to me. The exclamation point fits the situation.

2.) "Press the green button," Alice called to Frank.

Even when I know there is a long distance between Alice and Frank and that they have to speak loudly in order to hear each other, this line of dialogue reads to me as if they are right next to each other. It's more difficult for me to hear Alice calling out to Frank from the other side of the room when the exclamation point in the dialogue is absent.

So, is using exclamation points okay in this context? I don't use them in my actual narrative, only in dialogue when someone is speaking loudly.

EDIT: If it's okay, I'd also like to give another example, one I'm having some difficulty removing the exclamation points from:

She was already halfway down the hall when she heard a voice.

"Alice!" It was Frank, running toward her from the other end of the hall, waving a piece of paper wildly in the air as he called for her. "Hey! Alice! Can you hear me?"

Rewriting this with periods just doesn't sound right:

She was already halfway down the hall when she heard a voice.

"Alice." It was Frank, running toward her from the other end of the hall, waving a piece of paper wildly in the air as he called for her. "Hey. Alice. Can you hear me?"

Lythric advised me to use adverbs/adjectives in order to get around my exclamation point issue, but what should I do when I can't seem to fit them anywhere?

  • I've provided an edit which I hope can provide further clarification. – Daniel Cann Aug 21 '16 at 13:33
6

Exclamation points should be used to create emphasis.

Firstly, I'd like to let out my opinion on that 100,000 word thing for exclamation points. I believe that the lot of it is nonsense. Use exclamation points when you believe it will benefit your writing. Its the same with chapter lengths, and everything else. Do not let these word count rules push you around, because its best to always do what you think will benefit your writing the most.

Exclamation points are used to create emphasis/tension in a piece. Use an exclamation mark when you wish to magnify a certain feeling, e.g. excitement, anger, anxiety. However, because the use of an exclamation mark is so powerful, I don't think you should use them all the time, only for the perfect situations.

Because of the use of an exclamation mark normally being magnification of feelings or emotions, I think that it would be best to not use one in your example. Instead, you could try saying something like this:

"Press the green button," Alice vehemently called to Frank for her final attempt of gaining his vacuous attention.

Normally, if you are writing about two characters calling to each other from a distance, you would not use an exclamation mark. Instead, I used the adverb vehemently to intensify the fact that they are far away, and Alice is most likely frustrated that she can't be heard.

If I were you, I would save exclamation marks for situations of extreme importance or magnification, requiring extra emotional power:

Kill me. I swear, kill me before I rip the goddamn gun out of your hand and do it myself!

That was a bit of an exaggerated example, but it gets the point across rather well.

I hope this helped you.

EDIT:

In you're rewrite, I think you need to put the description of the dialogue before the dialogue, so the reader will preemptively know how it sounds in their head.

Frank summoned the courage to shout as loud as he could. "Alice," he shouted, his voice ricocheting off the corridor walls.

By saying Frank is shouting before the dialogue begins, we know that this will be loud. I think that to further emphasis the loudness, we could try using effects like a echo off the walls.

"Hey?" he began, his voice searching for her. "Alice, can you hear me?"

Because you used hey, I believe there needs to be a question mark. The use of hey or a similar word, like eh creates a sense of confusion in the piece. Because Frank is confused as to why he she can't hear him, his voice searches for her. This could be a great way to begin some tension too.

Conclusion:

  • Describe the voice before the dialogue if you want him to shout. Possibly add further clarification by describing how the voice travels.
  • Use question words like hey to create tension.
  • Use 'volume' words in general like: crescendo, dissonance. In fact, if you wanted to say somewhere was already loud and your character was trying to speak over it, without exclamation marks you could say: his voice joined the overwhelming dissonance.

Remember, this is only my advice on how to achieve these effects. There are no other answers on this post, so use what you want.

I hope this edit helped you.

  • 1
    This sounds good, thanks! I've heard other advice that tells me not to use adjectives or adverbs... But based on what you said, I guess if it works for my writing, then I'll use them! – Summer Aug 20 '16 at 19:24
  • 4
    yeah, all the advice about adverbs and exclamation points etc. is just advice. They aren't laws. And whoever said "don't use adjectives" is an uneducated boring illiterate brain-stunted plodding unimaginative life-parched bloody idiot. IMHO. ;) – Lauren Ipsum Aug 21 '16 at 13:08
  • 3
    Writing cannot be reduced to simple rules of thumb. Show don't tell here, may be good advice. As a generality, it is stupid. Don't use an adverb here, may be good advice. As a generality, it is stupid. Don't use an exclamation point here, may be good advice. One exclamation point every 100,000 words is stupid. Read with attention, Write with care. Get feedback from people of good taste. Ignore the stupid bromides. If your ear and eye cannot tell good writing from bad, no amount of silly rules will help you. – Mark Baker Aug 22 '16 at 11:29
  • 2
    Kudos for the effort that obviously went into this answer, but I don't think it's good advice. (Hopefully that's not mean, since according to the votes everybody else disagrees anyway!) Adding adverbs you didn't need is almost never an improvement. Tacking on 'vehemently' is a cheap substitute for writing dialogue and plot that actually conveys vehemence. Also, that's not what 'vehemently' means, is it? Doesn't an exclamation mark in dialogue generally convey something more like 'loudly' or 'excitedly'? In adverb form, neither is a very compelling thing to tell the reader about your dialogue. – Cakebox Aug 26 '16 at 11:50
  • 2
    An exclamation point is way better than adding "vehemently". "Vehemently" in a context like this makes it sound like you're using your thesaurus too much. Moreover, modifying a verb with an intensifier is a sign you're not using a vivid enough verb. Why not replace "vehemently called" with, say, "screamed"? – Kef Schecter Feb 17 '18 at 19:24
5

I think that the exclamation points thing is probably to do with writing it outside of dialogue. As you said yourself, all of your occurrences of the punctuation appear in dialogue, and from what I can tell they are mostly necessary to convey the tone of the conversation.

However, putting exclamation marks outside of the dialogue is an entirely different matter. Extending one of your own examples to portray this:

She was already halfway down the hall when she heard a voice.

"Alice!" It was Frank, running toward her from the other end of the hall, waving a piece of paper wildly in the air as he called for her. "Hey! Alice! Can you hear me?"

She could tell that he was worried. She realized that he was carrying the document that she'd asked him for!

Personally I feel like the last sentence doesn't look right, it feels quite immature, possibly because the sentence could be very easily restructured to not require the exclamation point. This could likely be what the advice that you heard was referring to.

If you still feel like you wish to reduce the number of exclamation marks within the dialogue, I would say perhaps to use only one per paragraph. Once you have established that someone is exclaiming something through excitement or volume, the reader will likely assume that the rest of the speech within the paragraph will follow the same emphasis, unless explicitly stated otherwise:

She was already halfway down the hall when she heard a voice.

"Alice!" It was Frank, running toward her from the other end of the hall, waving a piece of paper wildly in the air as he called for her. "Hey, Alice, can you hear me?"

Whilst no other exclamation marks are used at within that speech, the reader will likely realize that he continued to shout for her.

Of course, a further way would be to attempt to negate the need for excessive use of them at all. You are, after all, the writer. You can simply change the situation to ensure people are exclaiming less. Changing the example given:

She was already halfway down the hall when she heard a voice behind her.

"Alice!" She turned to see Frank, running toward her from the other end of the hall, waving a piece of paper wildly in the air as he called for her, concern etched onto his face.

Alice stopped walking and allowed him to catch up to her. By the time he reached her he was panting heavily. Breathlessly, he managed to say, "Hey, I have that document that you asked for".

2

Using only one exclamation mark per 100,000 words not a lot – a typical page of a book only has 500 words when completely filled with words in a small font. This will be more like 250 or 300 words on average for most books, so this would be only one exclamation mark per 400 pages, i.e. this means only one exclamation mark for most books.

I would, however, limit (or even avoid) exclamation marks that are not in a dialogue.

2

Consider the reason for the advice you cite. Excessive use of exclamation points — I'm not saying your use is excessive — will result in your writing sounding strident, overemphasized. Often, however, the use of exclamation points can be reduced by choosing better, stronger verbs.

So, in your first example, the verb you chose communicates that the speaker is calling across a large room (supposing you've already set the scene), even without an exclamation point:

"Press the green button," Alice called to Frank.

Rewriting your second example, though, you can see the potential benefit of considering the reason for the advice:

"Alice," Frank yelled, running toward her from the other end of the hall, waving a piece of paper wildly in the air.

In this rewrite, the weak "it was" has been replaced with the active, strong and descriptive verb, "yelled". As a result, the phrase "as he called for her" is no longer needed, and the sentence so becomes much leaner and tighter. In addition, I think quite possibly Frank's concern has already been expressed or will be expressed, in context, by "yelled", "running", and "wildly", and so ", concern etched into his face" can also be left out without any loss of sense.

The caveat included with all this is that it's your writing. The overall tone of the piece may be such that stridency is not an issue, or rewriting on the model I've suggested doesn't suit your style, or ....

2

I'm working on exclamation points today and have also heard the guideline of one per 100,000 words (one per book.) I have 800 question marks in my book, and over 10,000 periods. But allowed only 1 exclamation point?

I thought it would be helpful to add into the answers here on one possible genesis of the rule:

In his book 10 Rules of Writing, Elmore Leonard offered a rule about exclamation points. He stated, “You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.” Leonard was prolific. He wrote more than 40 novels in his career, totaling 3.4 million words. If he had followed his own advice, he would have used only 102 exclamation points in his entire career. In practice, he used 1,651. That’s 16 times as many as he recommended!

Despite his advice, he used over 40 exclamation points per 100,000 words.

This discovery is a relief (by a factor of 16).

And Leonard was sparing among authors. James Joyce used over 1,000 exclamation points per 100,000 words, according to the link.

At the moment I have about 300 per 100,000 words. That puts my use of exclamation points between ELJames and F Scott Fitzgerald.

(If the argument is about not stressing the reader, I wonder if we will be told to not use too-strong action words someday. It's an odd balance.)

Your Answer

By clicking "Post Your Answer", you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.