I've noticed that I use a lot of exclamation marks when my characters are talking. They appear a lot in action scenes.
Is there any rule of thumb when using exclamation marks?
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I've been told, by professional teachers of creative writing no less, that the correct number of exclamation marks to use in any finished piece of writing is zero; I've also read the works of Terry Pratchett and know that this is not necessarily the case. In many ways it depends more on the target audience and/or the tone of the piece than there actually being any hard and fast rule.
In serious literary fiction they shouldn't be used; rather the exclamation should be given in a character's actions and your description of their demeanor and body language. For less serious pieces, and for pieces written to be read aloud, more punctuation and less description can be useful in getting the story, and in particular the dialogue, to flow naturally.
The exclamation point is a very powerful punctuation and is normally used sparingly.
It will lose impact with frequent use. It generally indicates a person who is being most emphatic and probably yelling or coming close to yelling. Intense emotion, but intensity cannot be of long duration or it loses its power.
If your characters are often yelling, it might make more sense to simply use the appropriate verb.
Here are some examples:
“You are not going out that door!”he said, “I will lock it behind you!”
“You are not going out that door,” he snapped, “I will lock it behind you.”
“Go out that door, I will lock it behind you.”
“You are not going out that door. I will lock it behind you!”
The first one becomes very choppy in pace and the tension is fading. The second one has a bit more punch and the guy might mean it. The third one is more natural and contains the emotion in the diction and word order. The last one indicates a rising level of anger but still might not merit an exclamation point.
It would be helpful if you could provide a sample of your writing. It is a bit hard to judge whether you're using too many exclamation marks, if we can't see how many you're using. :)
As a general rule, your characters wouldn't be exclaiming all the time, would they? That's not how people talk in real life. Exclamation marks should be used sparingly, like raising your voice - if you're doing it all the time, the intention of extra emphasis becomes diluted, and only the annoyance remains.
But, you might well ask, tone doesn't transfer seamlessly into writing. For example, "thanks." sounds ungrateful, bland, compared to "thanks!". To address that, as a writer, you have words at your disposal. Instead of having a character say "thanks!!!", he can say "thank you so very much. This truly means a lot to me." Instead of emphasising with punctuation, you can emphasise with words.
There is an exception, and that, as you mention yourself, is action scenes. An officer's order is "Fire!" A comrade's warning is "Get down!" A cry for help is "Medic!" All warrant the extra emphasis, as all demand immediate action. In a tense combat scene, there's no time to be wordy - things need to be said fast, and they need to draw that extra attention. In such a situation, it makes sense that many exclamation marks would be used, just as it would have made sense to be shouting those words.
Read your work again, consider whether in the situation you are describing, an alternative way of adding emphasis can be used. If not, it must be that the exclamation mark is the right tool to use.
There is no "rule of thumb". There may be some rules, but in most cases it comes down to taste.
What I want to add to other answers is that if English is not your first language, you should probably use less exclamation marks than you want. English is one of the most restrained languages with understatement being the norm. Where other yell, Englishmen hardly raise the voice. (Don't argue! This is true!!!) Consequently, you'll see fewer exclamation marks in a typical English text.
Exclamation marks should be used sparingly. If every sentence is in all caps with three exclamation marks at the end, it's just tiring.
Like many things in writing, it's difficult to give any hard and fast rule, like "no more than one exclamation mark per page" or some such. It all depends. But if you are using more than one exclamation mark on the average per page, that's almost surely too much. If you have more than two sentences in a row that end with an exclamation mark, that is almost surely too much.
I'm sure one could think of exceptions. Like maybe if you want to portray one character as being very excitable, and so every other sentence he says ends with an exclamation, maybe.
This is the kind of question that can be answered by looking at books you admire. Find the most exciting, vivid novel you can, and see how many exclamation points the author uses. Not very many, I suspect. Then, without copying the author's words, try to learn from what they did to create the vividness that you experience.
I recognize that this is the kind of answer that can be applied to lots of questions on this site, so I hope it's not inappropriate. But sometimes a real example of writing that works is more reliable than any piece of advice.
Brian Blessed, a large and loud British actor has written at least one book that is just full of exclamation marks. There will be a sentence with one at the end, then the next sentence will have two. The next three.
It's weird, but also fitting because he is known to shout instead of talking. After a while it became just a quirky thing i paid little attention to while reading.
TLDR Go ahead and use all the exclamation marks you want, but accept that your readers may think you're a little strange.