Diane did an excellent job in writing, pacing, and organizing her harrowing tale of a young girl named Harper Lewis, who awakens one day in a dystopian world of the future. Along the way Harper encounters many new friends and enemies. As you might imagine, most of the characters in the novel are under extreme duress as they fight for their lives, their freedom, and their safety — something that’s often reflected in the dialogue during intense, frightening scenes like a Sky Kraken attack or an encounter with the book’s two evil factions: the Dagon and the Malucians.
But as I began to work on the manuscript, I discovered several areas where the dialogue was actually confusing — not because Diane is a bad writer (she’s excellent), but because the punctuation marks didn’t align with the action in progress. A character would be described as “hollering” at someone and yet the sentence would end either with a period or a comma followed by “he (or she) said.”
When Diane and I got together to review the first set of edits, I explained (as I do with all changes) why I used an exclamation point when warranted. She laughed and responded that she thought the ! was appropriate also but had been taught in several seminars and blog posts to avoid their usage altogether.
I get it. We don’t want to go to extremes with the use of exclamation points. However, there are places where an exclamation point is perfectly acceptable, and in fact the very best choice of punctuation.
Consider the following:
Two characters are running away from a ravenous wolf who’s been chasing them through the woods. When they reach a secluded spot they think they’re safe, at least temporarily. But in the next moment the wolf returns — with a few of his friends, all baring their teeth, ready to attack.
In response, Character A communicates with Character B. Which one is most appropriate for this scene?
1. “Run for your life,” said Character A to Character B.
2. “Run for your life!” Character A screamed at Character B.
Given the gravity and danger of the situation, it only makes sense that option #2 is the better choice.
To sum it up: while we never want to overuse exclamation points, we do want to encourage common sense when deciding whether or not they are appropriate for a given scene. If your character(s) are in peril, if their adrenaline is pumping due to a fight or flight response to a life-threatening situation, by all means use an exclamation point. It will make for a much more enjoyable experience for the reader because it will enhance the suspense and pull them into the action.
The key concept here? Common sense.
So go ahead, use an exclamation point when appropriate. It’s really OK, I promise.