Show Notes & Resources:
Hello, and welcome to About This Writing Thing, a weekly podcast about living the writing life. I'm your host, Sayword B. Eller, novelist, short story writer, and podcaster.
This week I'm talking about dramatic punctuation. Specifically exclamation points and ellipses. You should know now that I am the queen of the ellipses.
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Now, let's talk dramatics.
We've all heard Elmore Leonard's writing advice that we shouldn't use more than 2 - 3 exclamation points per 100,000 words in a novel. Since my novels are typically around 80k-90k, that means I should only use 2 in the entire book, according to Leonard. Thankfully, this isn't the case. Not even he followed this rule, according to Ben Blatt's 2017 article in The Atlantic that I will link in the description box below. But I get the sentiment and I constantly pass it on to new (and even seasoned) writers. Too many exclamation points in your narrative are distracting and overwhelming. Period.
As your trusted (I hope) writing guru (can I call myself a guru?), I scoured the internet to find a few sources on using exclamation points in fiction writing. Turns out, I didn't really need to because at this point in my career I know full-well why I shouldn't use them often. I mean, who wants their readers to feel like they're being yelled at constantly. No one is that dramatic! Am I right?
The Write Good Books Blog featured a post in August 2017 that had this to say about using too many exclamation points in fiction writing:
- It's a sign of weak writing - The rule of thumb is that the actions of your character(s) along with their dialogue should show the reader the height of emotion without the use of exclamation points. However, if you must use them, for crying out loud, don't say "he/she exclaimed or shouted or yelled" after the dialogue. We know they're shouting, screaming, or yelling because you've used an exclamation point.
- Your characters are not shouting all the time - Are they? I read a submission recently that had so many exclamation points in a half-page conversation that I was exhausted by the time the conversation had concluded. I know we get excited in conversation. I know sometimes we have very heightened passages of dialogue in reality. Personally, I think it's fine to have that one very dramatic scene, but that's the only one you get. Use it like it's your final lifeline and a million dollars is at stake. In other words, use it very carefully and only if it's absolutely necessary.
- It makes everything seem rushed - Remember that ending scene in Clue? If you haven't watched it, stop right now and go watch it, but make sure you watch the version with the 3 endings. You can't get the full effect otherwise. Did you watch it? Okay. So, when Wadsworth is running around like mad with the rest of the group and they're trying to piece together what happened …. That's what using too many exclamation points in like in writing. Yes, it's fun for that ten minutes on screen, but in a short story or novel it's tedious and exhausting.
- It takes the reader out of the story - Think about the last time you read a novel with too many exclamation points. When I was studying history I used to read a lot of texts from the 19th century. Heads up, they LOVED exclamation points. They were used for effect and to highlight things, and to really just drive the readers into a frenzy. Okay, I'm assuming that last one. We're not 19th century readers. We don't need all those exclamation points to clue us in on the importance of something or to let us know that something crazy or amazing is happening. That's what action in your narrative is for.
I tend to agree with ProWritingAid, "[It's] better for your readers and your reputation […] to use amazing word choices to entice your readers and get them excited" (ProWritingAid "Exclamation Point: Use it or not?").
Personally, I don't like to see more than 3 exclamation points per 10 chapters. Of course, I also know that people actually roll their eyes in real life, so my characters *GASP* roll their eyes, though that action is used as sparingly as exclamation points, or should be. Nobody's perfect, though, so if you go through some of my stories and see a lot of eye rolling, don't come at me.
K.M. Weiland give 3 examples of how writers shouldn't use exclamation points.
- For emphasis - Again, this is something that went out of style in 1900. Don't do it.
- For hilarity - F. Scott Fitzgerald said, "an exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke." If you have to slap your knee and cackle while looking at everyone else around the room expecting them to get it, you probably shouldn't tell the joke. Same thing with exclamation points. You can think it's the most clever thing you've ever typed or written, but you have to leave it up to the reader to get the context from the narrative and dialogue. Don't keep shoving their shoulder going, "Huh! Huh!"
- For excitement - I read The Lady Lieutenant, a book published in 1862 about a woman who dresses as a man and goes to war. She has grand adventures that overly romanticize war and a woman's place in it (I'm speaking in 19th century jargon here). In the text the author, Richard Hooker Wilmer, uses exclamation points often to show readers how exciting the action in a scene is. It's a quick read, and an important text for the social historian studying perceptions and portrayals of women in the 19th century, but by today's standards it sinks. As mentioned before, nowadays your narrative should do the work that the once-popular exclamation point once did. It is your responsibility as author to find (and use) exciting words in well-constructed sentences that show your readers how exciting a passage is. Never rely on punctuation to do what you should be doing.
As with everything else in writing, use exclamation points with purpose and only if they're absolutely necessary.
Other forms of dramatic punctuation are ellipses and italics. I am guilty of both. As I self-edited my first novel I realized I was the queen of the ellipses. I had at least six instances of them on each page. EACH PAGE. I used mine for conversations that fall away, or for characters whose minds wander in thought.
The ellipses historical use is to convey that something is missing. These missing elements could be words, thoughts, or even feelings. C. S. Lakin stated two uses for them, "to indicate trailing, faltering, or interrupted speech (which is the most common use for fiction writers) [and] to indicate that text is missing or omitted from a quotation" (Lakin Live, Write, Thrive).
I still use ellipses, but after identifying that they're a real problem for me, I became hyper-vigilant of them and now use them sparingly. However, as is apt to happen to us beautiful and complicated people, I have now taken to relying too much on another dramatic writing tool, the italics. In my writing I italicize words for emphasis, as well as internal thoughts, past conversations, and dreams. These latter three aren't much of a problem because I don't use them as often as I do italics for emphasis.
According to some writers, this is a sign of lazy or weak writing. I don't like to say that someone is a lazy writer, but the truth of the matter is that sometimes we are lazy. I don't feel like I'm being lazy when I use these tools, but when I go back through to edit my second and third drafts (I almost always have at least 4), I tend to weed out some of the emphasized text by strengthening the narrative around it.
The truth of the matter is that everything discussed today has its place in writing. Sometimes we are dramatic, sometimes our characters are dramatic. That isn't the problem. If nothing else, those instances of dramatics makes the prose more realistic. Hubby and I just finished watching Evil on Netflix and the main character, Kristen, has 4 daughters. In every scene these girls are in it's a whirlwind of movement and talking. Each girl wants to be heard over the other. It becomes overwhelming, but it's so realistic. I only had 3 kids and sometimes I had to step away because it was too much. So, no one is saying never use them, but when you do use exclamation points, ellipses, or italics, do it with a purpose and make sure that you don't do it so much that your readers want to throw the book across the room.
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The Editor's Blog: https://theeditorsblog.net/2018/01/12/slapped-silly-by-exclamation-points/
Weiland, K.M. Helping Writers Become Authors Blog, August 2, 2015. https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/exclamation-points/#:~:text=Exclamation%20Points%20for%20Emphasis&text=In%20fiction%2C%20this%20kind%20of,their%20immersion%20in%20your%20narrative.
Blatt, Ben. "How Many Exclamation Points do Great Writers Use?" The Atlantic, March 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/03/curb-your-enthusiasm/513833/
ProWritingAid. "The Exclamation Point: Use it or Not?" The Writing Cooperative. September 9, 2018. https://writingcooperative.com/exclamation-point-use-it-or-not-34f7bccf4032
Bougger, Jason. "Why Are You Shouting At Me!!!" Write Good Books Blog, August 29, 2017. https://www.writegoodbooks.com/why-are-you-shouting-at-me/
Lakin, C. S. "Don't Abuse the Dot-Dot-Dots" Live, Write Thrive. August 22, 2014. https://www.livewritethrive.com/2014/08/22/dont-abuse-the-dot-dot-dots/