Updated: Jun 9, 2021
Exclamation points are one of the most controversial punctuation marks in the literary world.
“Have I used too many exclamation points in this scene?”
“Have I used too many exclamation points in my manuscript?”
“What do I do? What are the rules? Are there rules for this situation?”
First of all, let me just tell you that if you are using multiple exclamation marks as end punctuation in your manuscript (Wow!!!), you’ll want to omit a couple of them. Sometimes writers get feedback from beta readers saying that they’ve overused the exclamation mark throughout their manuscripts, and chances are, they’re right. My best advice in this case is to Ctrl+F them. In each instance of an exclamation point, read the scene, and then ask yourself, “Does the dialogue tag associated with the quoted material have the word yelled or exclaimed or screamed in it?” If the dialogue tag implies that the character is yelling something, you might need an exclamation point; however, in my experience there are times when my clients use the word yell when the character isn't necessarily raising his or her voice. This is why I suggest reading the scenes where you find the exclamation points. Reading out loud helps even more. If you find that while you're reading aloud you begin yelling, you might need an exclamation point. Put yourself in your character’s shoes, and ask yourself, “Is he in a situation that calls for raising his voice?” Example 1:
“Leave me alone!” she screamed. “I don't know you, and I don’t want to.” Note that the additional dialogue that follows does not end with an exclamation point. Trust me. You don’t need it. Example 2:
“Ouch!” she screamed. “Get off!” This is an example from a manuscript I edited recently. With the surrounding text in mind, I suggested that the author italicize the word off to emphasize the rising tone in her voice as she screams for the spiders to get off of her. Next time you have a spider crawling on your face and you scream, “Get off!” note the tone inflection in the second syllable … because that’s what you’ll be thinking about, right? 😉
On the other hand, with the mantra show, don’t tell in mind, if a character is visibly upset about something, note their body language and, again, ask yourself if the character is raising her voice to get her point across. Don't forget to show your audience what is happening. Sometimes exclamation marks aren't needed to describe a scene.
For instance, think about the last time you read a book and could easily visualize every scene in your mind—the color of a character’s eyes, her hair color, hair style, and whether or not her hair was coming down around her face or tied back in a ponytail; her stance as she readied for battle; the weapon in her hand; the landscape around her; the time of day; and/or the weather conditions. It’s like watching a movie in your head, right?
Well, these factors when incorporated into a scene create a visual landscape in your audience’s mind, negating the need for exclamation points, because instead of overusing dialogue in high-action scenes, you’re describing the actions and movements of your characters.
With exclamation point: “Ah!” she screamed as the creatures surrounded her. “What am I going to do?”
“Ugh!” she groaned as her back hit the ground hard. With the cliff just over her shoulder, she needed to think of something quick before they both went over the edge.
Without exclamation point: The grotesque creatures surrounded her. The one at the front of the pack seemed to be their leader, and it inched closer to her with every jagged breath that escaped her pursed lips. Its next movement was so swift she barely had enough time to get her arms up in a defensive position before it was on her. Her back hit the ground hard, knocking the wind out of her. She groaned upon impact, and her emerald eyes were hidden behind fluttering lids as they struggled to stay open. She soon noticed that her head wasn’t touching the ground, so she leaned it back for only an instant and saw the canyon—the same canyon her comrades had fallen into only moments ago. If she didn’t think of something quick, her continued struggle with the angry beast would send them both over the edge.
Which scenario creates a clear image in your mind?
Bottom line: if you’re writing a fiction novel and plan to self-publish, you’ve got more leeway with exclamation marks, but if you plan to publish traditionally, limit those particular punctuation marks. Publishers and literary agents tend to view writers who use excessive exclamation points as amateurs. Their words, not mine.