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Exclamation Points in Creative Writing
Exclamation points are controversial. Writers can’t be blamed if they’re confused!
Exclamation has always announced straightforward shouting, alarm, surprise, excitement, amazement, disbelief, exasperation, or even just helpless flustering. In the eighteenth century, readers could expect melodrama:
And those were some of her last words! O how my eyes overflow! Don’t wonder to see the paper so blotted! (Samuel Richardson, Pamela, 43)
Exclamation points still serve in all those ways. But somewhere in the last century, the shouty little mark fell out of fashion in literary prose. Editors today frown on excessive exclaiming even in mainstream fiction, outside of books for young children and comic books. Plenty of passages worthy of alarm make do with commas, periods, or nothing:
“Our council is committed to protecting the lake and the lakefront,” she screamed. (Sara Paretsky, Dead Land, 8)
I’d be screaming “He’s hurting me” out into the world and the world would keep on going. (Sabaa Tahir, All My Rage, 242)
However, in similar passages in the same book, the writer (or editor) might opt for the extra oomph:
“Do it because you’re human!” I screamed. (Paretsky, Dead Land, 100)
Change her mind! I wanted to scream. Tell her I’m not ready. (Sabaa Tahir, All My Rage, 3)*
What’s going on? How is a writer to choose?
What’s Going On
Twenty-first-century exclamation points have tasks their ancestors were spared.
Let’s blame social media. (It’s so easy.) Exclamations abound!! It’s not that life holds more excitement these days. It’s more that email, texting, and team apps encourage brevity at the expense of context, and punctuation steps up to communicate tone of voice. Exclamation points still signal excitement, but the number required has inflated (Yes!!!). A single exclamation point merely shows genial agreement (Will do!), while an absence of exclamation has come to denote flatness of tone, lack of enthusiasm, stony acceptance, or outright sarcasm.
And maybe it is fine. Maybe all the fuss over “texting these days” has done us a favor in pointing up limitations in the way we punctuate. Maybe it’s time to popularize more kinds of punctuation and find new ways to communicate tone and intent in writing.
Meanwhile, we can at least get straight how and when to use the marks we have. In creative writing, exclamation points have power, but not as much as you might think.
The Chicago Way
An exclamation point takes the place of a period at the end of a sentence. (It speaks!) In dialogue or other direct discourse, it can take the place of a comma. (“Yes!” she cried.) It can be repeated for emphasis. (No way!!) Sometimes it’s used in place of or in addition to a question mark. (How could you!)
CMOS 6.74 takes special care with an issue that flummoxes many writers: how to position the mark when it bumps against parentheses or quotation marks. Place the exclamation point inside (before) a closing quotation mark or parenthesis if the exclamation occurs within the quoted or parenthetical matter.
If you see smoke, yell “Fire!”
There are odors (garlic!) that some people react to strongly.
But if the exclamation belongs to the text surrounding the quote or parenthesis, the exclamation point goes outside (after) the closing quotation mark or parenthesis.
OMG, you just have to read “A Treatise on the Eradication of Rhamnus cathartica”!
If an exclamation could apply to both a quotation (or parenthesis) and the surrounding text, a single exclamation usually suffices. Put the mark wherever it makes the most sense—or consider rewriting.
I can’t believe she yelled “Free burritos!”
“For the last time, I am not your ‘girlfriend’!” she screamed.
Don’t wait (you’ll regret it)! or, better, Don’t wait! You’ll regret it.
Sometimes you need both marks:
Who yelled “Pizza!”?
And in casual writing, sometimes both marks appear together for even more emphasis, although in many cases an exclamation point would suffice:
How could you?! or How could you!?
TIP: Don’t add a period immediately after an exclamation point, even if you’re tempted by circumstance. (It was a vinyl copy of Help!) A rare exception is when a period is part of an ellipsis that follows an exclamation. (She was alive! . . . or so it seemed.) But even then, Chicago style puts a space after the exclamation point.
Two good reasons to reach for an exclamation point are to show heightened emotion (Hurry!) (They’re alive!) and to show loudness (I’m over here!).
Nonetheless, punctuational restraint is common in fiction even in passages of intense thought and action. Take a look at the opening pages of The War of Two Queens, by Jennifer L. Armentrout: not an exclamation in sight although the narrator is literally being eaten alive. Armentrout frequently goes for a stolid full stop even where a little alarm might be warranted:
I was losing too much blood. (20)
If only I could get these damn chains to loosen. (22)
One way or another, I would get free and make sure she felt everything she had ever inflicted upon Poppy. Tenfold. (23)
We see similar restraint in Sabaa Tahir’s All My Rage. Granted, exclamation points are sprinkled into her teens’ banter:
“I gotta eat too, bro!” (9)
But elsewhere Tahir holds back for a flattening effect:
If Noor was here instead of Ashlee, she’d have side-eyed me and handed me her phone. Not everyone has a dad, jerk. Call him and eat crow. Awk, awk. (7)
The Truth about Exclamation Points
In social media and texting, exclamations are powerful in the way they project tone of voice in a sparse context. In creative writing, however, context is there, crafted, intentional, and so powerful on its own that punctuation becomes secondary, and it easily becomes excessive.
Exclamation points—and their absence—make a difference in tone of voice, but as we saw in several of the passages above, the real difference is determined by context. In this excerpt from a short story, Leah Lederman creates a sense of horror without resorting to exclamation:
Tell me I didn’t leave the window open. She hurried to her classroom and, sure enough, the worksheets she’d piled on her desk were strewn all over the floor. The worst part was that graded and ungraded papers had mixed together. Tammy exhaled and kneeled down to sort them.
That’s when she realized the window wasn’t open.
And she wasn’t alone. (“If the Shoe Fits,” in Café Macabre II)
It’s my guess that in fiction, exclamation points appear more often in dialogue than in third-person narration. But in dialogue, too, context is everything. The exact same exclamation can sound furious, playful, or resigned, depending on how the speech is framed.
“Dinner’s burnt again!” Her grin looked only slightly guilty. “Let’s go out.”
“Dinner’s burnt again!” She sighed. “Let’s go out.”
“Dinner’s burnt again!” she screamed. The saucepan went flying across the kitchen.
That’s why it’s always worth asking if an exclamation point is even necessary. Without one, the tone is inevitably quieter and more intimate, sometimes pleading or even threatening. A lack of exclamation might also signal that speaker and addressee are physically nearer each other than if they shouted.
TIP: There’s a bit of grammatical ambiguity when an exclamation point appears at the end of a quotation and the next word begins with a capital letter. Normally a capital letter means “new sentence,” but sometimes it’s just a dialogue tag.
“It’s mine,” Ivan said. [clearly one sentence, with a dialogue tag]
“It’s mine!” Ivan grabbed the phone. [clearly two sentences, no tag]
“It’s mine!” Ivan shouted. [not clear: one or two sentences? Is the exclamation point taking the place of a comma?]
To help the reader, either reword so a lowercase letter follows the quotation or don’t use a dialogue tag.
“It’s mine!” shouted Ivan as he grabbed the phone. [one sentence, with a tag]
“It’s mine!” Ivan grabbed the phone. [two sentences, no tag]
As always, exclamation points are appropriate for conveying urgency, enthusiasm, and loudness. When it comes to drama and alarm, however, context is arguably more important than punctuation for conveying the right vibe.
With the right scene-setting, a writer can hold back on exclamation points. It pays to experiment as you compose. Try a sentence with and without an exclamation point. Try taking out all your exclamation points and putting back only the ones that are essential.
Armentrout, Jennifer L. The War of Two Queens: A Blood and Ash Novel. Blue Box Press, 2022.
Lederman, Leah McNaughton. “If the Shoe Fits.” In Café Macabre II: A Collection of Horror Stories and Art by Women, edited by Leah McNaughton Lederman. Indianapolis, 2021. Kindle.
Paretsky, Sara. Dead Land. New York: William Morrow, 2021.
Richardson, Samuel. Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded. London: Penguin Classics, 1981. First published 1740.
Tahir, Sabaa. All My Rage. New York: Razorbill, 2022.
* This excerpt from All My Rage is from an extended passage in italics wherein emphasis is in regular roman type. I’ve rendered it here in reverse to ease comparison.
Cat photo from pxfuel.
This post originally appeared at The Chicago Manual of Style Online Shop Talk blog on April 19, 2022, © University of Chicago.
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