Yesterday I read Aimee Lee Ball’s piece about the use of exclamation points in emails. There were some great quotes from contemporary authors in there, including these:
- “The more exclamation points you use, the more you need to use in order create an impression of exclamation.” – Jennifer Egan, “A Visit from the Goon Squad”
- “I think they are the literary equivalent of canned applause. I hate the way they jostle you, and the way they prescribe, ‘Dear reader, be amazed!’” – Peter Godwin, “When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa”
- About using them in communication: “It might have something to do with my new life of texting 20-year-old baby sitters. I think there’s also a connection to having a non-native-speaker parent — that whole thing of shouting to be heard.” – Diana Abu-Jaber, “Origin”
- “In a way, the cartoon aspect of this emphatic spatter of punctuation has stayed with me. I still feel a little uneasy when I use it, although I sometimes do use it because it feels appropriately sprightly.”- Meg Wolitzer, “The Uncoupling”
I totally recommend clicking on Ball’s article to read the whole thing. It’s wonderful, and it made me think about using exclamation points in novel writing. My writing, specifically.
While I am guilty of occasional overuse (especially in emails), I do find myself using this much-maligned mark in my fiction. It depends on the kind of story, and the kind of narrator, and how they’re employed, but I think exclamation points can be effective if they’re not splattered everywhere.
In my finished manuscript, BODY COPY, there are sprinklings of cheerful upside-down I’s (as my 4-year-old calls them), mostly in dialogue among 20-something girls or in close-in first person remarks.
Here’s a thought my narrator Megan has after she’s been told about the sports guy at her new job:
“I picture a gangly reporter hunched over his keyboard, the roar of the crowd in his ears as he types a baseball out into center field. It’s going, going, gone!”
I wanted that breathless ballpark sound to convey her hope about meeting this particular coworker. Without the exclamation point, Megan’s thought would sound flat and even melancholy–“it’s going, going, gone.”
Here’s an exclamation point I took out–see if you can guess where it was. The conversation is between Megan and her catty best friend.
“She leaned over and peeled a long strip off my shirt, then she handed it to me. Medium, medium, medium.
‘If you had smaller boobs, you would have spotted that yourself,’ Chloe said.”
I originally had an exclamation point after “yourself,” but it’s so wonderfully obnoxious without one.
My in-progress 19th century novel, LOST NOTES, employs this particular form of punctuation in the old-fashioned way–as exclamatory observations. Here’s an example from early in the novel when my protagonist is kept in bed most of the day due to a poor diagnosis:
“Sometimes, when he worried too much about his own santé, and sanity, Henri pinched his cheeks before going downstairs, so his mother would think him not so pale—perhaps she might allow him two constitutionals. Fresh air! Rain! A spot of sun! He cared not what the weather was doing, only that his body be allowed out in it.”
On one of my editing rounds, I plan to scrape away any excess exclamation points and make sure the ones that are left are doing their jobs. With this kind of faux-historical writing, it’s easy to get carried away with excess punctuation.
Do you use exclamation points in your creative writing? Or do they drive you nuts? And to Ball’s point, do you use them more liberally in emails, tweets and texts than you do in your fiction writing?