The ‘rules’ about exclamation points

Much advice about the use of exclamation points in fiction comes in the guise of “rules.” I’ve heard several:

  • Never use exclamation points.
  • You may use one exclamation point per book.
  • Only use an exclamation point if the character is shouting.

By now you know me well enough to know that I categorize all of these as nonrules. Here’s what Chicago says:

An exclamation point (which should be used sparingly to be effective) marks an outcry or an emphatic or ironic comment.

That definition does not encompass shouting.

Illustration by Svilen Milev
Illustration by Svilen Milev

It is a well-established convention that shouting is indicated by the use of all caps. The exclamation point therefore signifies raising the voice to something louder or more pointed than normal speech but less than a yell. It’s the difference between telling your child “Stop that!” when he’s poking his sister in the back seat and shouting “STOP!” when he’s running into oncoming traffic.

Here’s another way to look at it:

  • I beg your pardon. (droll)
  • I beg your pardon! (shocked)
  • I BEG YOUR PARDON! (shouting)

While it’s true that we must be judicious in our use of exclamations, you also need to trust your ear. Sometimes this means reading aloud, or asking a critique partner to read your work back to you.

And consider this: if an actor records the audiobook, you don’t want her to give a droll reading when you wanted shocked.

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  1. […] Exclamation points warrant a whole post of their own. […]

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