1. Tesoro
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    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

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    Why exactly are "!" so bad in a ms?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Tesoro, Apr 10, 2012.

    People always say that exclamation marks are almost forbidden in a manuscript, and it seems to be something universal nowadays. But reading Hemingway I notice he uses them frequently, sometimes twice in just a couple of lines (and even that happens more than once). Curious, I looked through books of Dickens, Steinbeck, Nabokov, Dostojevskij and even some old swedish classic and I found out they all use them quite a lot. So when did this become so terrible and why?
     
  2. Nakhti
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    Nakhti Banned

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    Sometimes it's just a fashion thing - grammar, punctuation and word choice all seem to be subject to fads and phases. In the case of the punctuation mark, I think it has just been so badly abused that it has earned a bad name.

    It is commonly associated with weak writing because it is a tool for telling, rather than showing. An exclamation mark signposts drama, telling the reader that this is dramatic! Some writers use it to make up for lacklustre narrative, adding drama via punctuation rather than actually presenting a dramatic scene. It is also associated with the kind of melodramatic attention grabbing that over excitable writers do when they think something is really important! Or just in an attempt to add emphasis! Because they think that the more exclamation marks, the more significance people will attribute to the sentence!!!!

    I happen to agree that exclamation marks are only to be used sparingly, and almost exclusively in dialogue, i.e. when someone is actually shouting. If I come across an exclamation mark in narrative, it had better be internal monologue, otherwise it undermines the credibility of the narrative voice for me.
     
  3. Tesoro
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    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

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    But which is better in the end: using an exclamation mark to show that the character is screaming or adding "he cried/he screamed/he shouted"? Most of the times people say the last example is just as bad and "said" should be the only tag used after speach. This is so confusing. Isn't an exclamation mark less 'tell' than a 'she screamed'?
     
  4. AmsterdamAssassin
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    AmsterdamAssassin Contributing Member

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    It's not forbidden to use an exclamation mark, but its overuse has made critics sensitive to its use, so use it sparsely. If the use of exclamation marks or dashes or ellipses becomes intrusively noticable, then you probably use too many of them.
     
  5. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    As others have said, they've been overused to the point where they have a bad reputation, but they still can be used. An exclamation should only be used for a very short utterance. One of the 82-word sentences we've been discussing elsewhere can't credibly be an exclamation and so shouldn't have an exclamation mark. On the other hand, a one word expletive could take an exclamation mark with no problems. Another use is if you are trying to reproduce the style of a bad writer -- the diary of a young teenager, for example (the only place outside chess notation where you can double up exclamation marks).
     
  6. Nakhti
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    Nakhti Banned

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    I think either can work, but it all depends on the context as to which is more effective. I think dialogue tags like 'shouted' or 'whispered' are just about the only acceptable alternatives to said because they do tell us something that can't always be conveyed by the dialogue itself. On the other hand, an exclamation mark can be a good way to punch up a line of dialogue and do away with the tag all together.

    It all comes down to this: knowing the rules is one thing, but knowing when to break them is what distinguishes an ok writer from a good one.
     
  7. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Thank the advertising industry and its addiction to excess. When they stack exclamation points like cordwood on a 50 word advertising poster, it gives the punctuation all the charm of a half gallon of Aqua Velva.

    Less is more. If you make exclamation marks scarce in your writing, they will have that much more impact when you do use them.
     
  8. MeganHeld
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    MeganHeld Senior Member

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    I was taught that they are not needed because most of them are misused. I only use them in dialogue when people are yelling. Basically, any message can get across without the exclamation mark or with additional words, such as "he yelled". And I agree with Cogito, less is more. Use them to make points.
     
  9. AmyHolt
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    AmyHolt Contributing Member

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    This says it well.
     
  10. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    in fiction, they normally only belong in dialog and then only if really necessary and not used to excess...

    there may be times when narrative can call for one, though i can't think of an example at the moment...

    i don't know who those 'people' are who 'always say' not to use them though, tesoro, as i've never heard any such thing in my well over half-century of writing... the rule of thumb, imo, would simply be the 'less is more' axiom that cogito quoted...
     
  11. Tesoro
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    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

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    Mammamaia: it must be people around here then, because they act like it was something forbidden, like "suddenly", which 'should never, ever be used'. I find it quite silly actually. Nothing should be used or repeated in excess, and still people get obsessed by little things like these and then some of them go around telling others using exclamation marks (even just a few) are a sign of bad writing. Next time they do I'll tell them Hemingway did, so why couldn't I? ;)
     
  12. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    Tesoro, there's a lot of that around here, not just with punctuation. There is no substitute for a writer's own best judgment. Well, except maybe for an editor's :).
     
  13. Tesoro
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    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

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    Sorry, when I said "around here" I referred to writers where I live, not the forums. sorry for any misunderstanding.
     
  14. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    The problem is, that judgement has little or no basis in most new writers. Unless you have been reading carefully form good novels, or have the experience of rejections with detailed comments, by what yardstick do you apply your judgement?

    That's why you'll often hear, "Don't do this." Even if it's stated as "Never do this," it's still good advice, for the less experienced writers. Of course, someone ALWAYS has to jump in and argue the counter-case.

    If you have the experience, you know when you can violate the guidelines. You have a basis for applying judgement that the new writer doesn't.
     
  15. Just Jon
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    I've seen the "do's and don'ts" list which say 1) don't use exclamation marks and 2) don't use anything but "said" and "asked" after dialogue, otherwise you are telling and not showing.

    So how does one "show" that someone is yelling? Somehow the sentence below looks odd when the character is agitated. Imagine Trevor and Barbara are sitting on a sofa at Barbara's apartment after a first date. Trevor is getting too frisky and Barbara has had enough. She pushes him away and says...

    "Get out."

    Is the exclamation mark appropriate for very short...um...exclamations?
     
  16. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    The trouble with that is that too many new writers take that rule -- "don't use exclamation marks" -- and treat it as a rule when they're reading, too. They see a writer use an exclamation mark and think, "What a rubbish writer! Doesn't even know basic rules like not using exclamation marks." (I've seen that sort of thing from professional critics.) It spoils their experience of a good book; editors get wind of readers rejecting books if they contain exclamation marks, it ends up becoming a real rule and the tools available to the creative writer are diminished. If the writer is more than about five years old then they should be able to cope with "Beginners tend to overuse exclamation marks, so it's best to avoid them until you get a feeling for how experienced writers use them." "Never do this" is never good advice.
     
  17. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    Ignore the "do's and don'ts" lists. Look at successful published authors, and do as they do, not as they preach.
     
  18. Nakhti
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    Nakhti Banned

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    If it feels like it needs an exclamation mark, and reads flat without one, then it probably does. Don't let 'rules' put you off doing something that feels right. You have to apply your own judgement and decide what works. If you get a few crits all agreeing that it doesn't look right, you can always change it.

    I allow myself to use exclamation marks in my writing, but I can't really remember the last time I did. Hmmm, hit ctrl 'F'...

    “I should stuff that shiny blue helmet down your fucking throat, you little shit. My son was worth ten of you!”


    Yep, thought so - dialogue, and shouty dialogue at that. :D

    Although looking at other instances of exclamations marks, I think I might use them a little too often in dialogue. Time to do another edit...
     
  19. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    There's nothing wrong with the occasional exclamation mark. But question every use - "Is it really needed here?"

    I avoid using more than one exclamation mark in a given chunk of dialogue. I decide which sentence needs it the most, and let the rest bask in the baleful radiance of the one pointy mark.

    Many times, I leave it out and let the context drive the intensity. Shove someone against the wall and slam a fist into the wall beside their head, and that "Get out." is quite sufficient.
     
  20. Nakhti
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    Nakhti Banned

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    Yes, if that line is said with quiet menace, it is very effective. But if it is shouted, I think the line is lacking something without an exclamation mark. If something is literally shouted, then not using an exclamation mark can make it even more conspicuous by its absence.
     
  21. Batgoat
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    Batgoat Senior Member

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    What has murdered the exclamation point is the needless and idiotic practice of using several at once. Like this!!!!! Yeah. Overkill.
     
  22. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    And I think that's the crucial point. The utterance reads completely differently with and without the exclamation mark. I agree with you: without the mark it's said with quiet menace, with it it's shouted. Mind you, I don't think any of the published writers I read would hesitate to use the dialogue tag "he said with quiet menace" or "he shouted", and I certainly wouldn't fault a writer for doing so.
     
  23. art
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    art Contributing Member Contributor

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    If you think it's appropriate to use it, it probably is.

    The last thing you want to do is not use it because you think that it's the mark of the unsophisticated writer.

    Sophistication does not consist of the mere harbouring of prejudices.

    The exclamation mark is never the problem. Hilarious prejudice against it is the problem.
     
  24. Pythonforger
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    Pythonforger Carrier of Insanity

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    As a chess player, I feel obliged to tell you that if one side is getting a lot of moves marked with double exclamation marks, it means the author of the notation is biased towards that side(double exclamation marks signify brilliant, classic, epic, beautiful moves).

    If both sides are getting double exclamation marks, the author is overly excited about the game. Not even top grandmasters consistently get double exclamation mark moves.
     
  25. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    As another chess player I'd like to point out that my point was that chess is one of the very few places that double exclamation marks should be seen at all.
     

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