The horror! The horror!

The more experienced I become the more annoyed I get by errors in published work. It doesn’t bother me as much with self-publishing, but maybe it should; we should look for the best in all fields, should we not?

This time it’s the overuse of exclamation marks that has got my proverbial Capra hircus. The excitement they create! The atmosphere of terror! Or guffaw of laughter! Yes, this one tiny mark can sum up all of these moods in one concise little package –

Except it can’t, can it? It doesn’t work like that. All it serves to do is tell us that the author couldn’t generate these reactions through context, through terse, tight little sentences to convey tension. They have to shout, to let us know exactly when to smile and when to gasp. It’s the punctuative equivalent of a man holding up a board so the audience of a sitcom knows when to laugh. It’s redundant and – worse – when you use too many too close together…

It’s a strange thing. I recently finished a book by a former best-novel winner of the British Science Fiction Awards and towards the end I ran into a barrage of exclamation marks. It was the final showdown, the central character in mortal peril, the very fate of the planet depending upon him, and… And I could barely focus on the words because I was so distracted by the punctuation.

I know what he was trying to do. To emphasise that he had to shout to be heard, to ramp up the peril and the sense of desperation. And it was in direct speech, which really is the only time when an exclamation mark is allowable.

But it didn’t work. And – just for him – here’s Rob’s guide to their use:

  1. They can only ever be used in direct speech, or when quoting a teenager’s diary. Or (just possibly) when we’re in first person narration.
  2. Never use more than one exclamation mark per scene
  3. If you can possibly avoid using one (without breaking another of the other rules, such as to never use an adverb to describe someone’s manner), do so. Even if that means recasting the sentence
  4. Don’t use exclamation marks


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