The Exclamation Point

Do you like the exclamation point?  I do.

As a beginning writer, I’ve heard several admonitions about using exclamation points.  Elmore Leonard says you’re allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.  I’ve also heard “one or two per 100 pages,” and I’m sure there are others, but I tend to discount all of them and use my own rule.  I will agree in one aspect: when it comes to description or narration, the fewer the better, and zero is probably best.  Using an exclamation point in description is like telling the reader, “this is important.”  It gives an artificialness to the narrative.  The emphasis should be obvious and carried by the action.  Let the reader decide.  In dialogue, however, I maintain that the situation is wildly different.

I once wrote a chapter of a novel about several people trapped in an airplane in a thunderstorm, and exclamation points flew all over the page like hailstones before a cold front.

“Look out!”   “Pull up!”   “I can’t see!  I can’t see!”   “I can’t control the airplane!  We’re going down!”   “Brace for impact!”

With the addition of one simple punctuation mark [!] the real terror of the situation becomes obvious and palpable.  The fear in the speaker’s voice, (actually, the shouter‘s voice), the horror that permeates the cabin, the terror of potential disaster, all are brought front and center, pushed into the reader’s brain like osmosis through a membrane.  With the exclamation point, there’s no need for explanations of what’s going on, no need for adverbs to try to carry the meaning in a way that makes it obscure and imprecise.  The simplicity is amazing.

Which do you like better?  The method above?  Or, this–

“Look out,” he shouted.     “Pull up,” she said firmly.    “I can’t see,” he said repeatedly.    “I can’t control the airplane,” he shouted with the fear in his voice that indicates the fear we all feel in times of terror, jerking the control column around as though he was trying to control a kite in a windstorm …” and so on and so forth.

I’d rather write (and read) the first.  Enough said.

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