David Mitchell · grammar · Hunter S Thompson · novel · punctuation · reading · writing

The exclamation mark

I read a lot of advice-for-writer web pages. If there is one link that I am guaranteed to follow from a twitter post it is something that claims to offer me some advice or a list of rules to make writing easier and better. Mostly they don’t me tell anything I haven’t read elsewhere. If there is one rule that is absolute however it is that all the rules can be broken. One thing I read said never to use semi-colons. I was horrified at the thought. I do however have an aversion to the exclamation mark.

This post isn’t offering advice on how to write, I think it would be a bit disingenuous of me to do that. I am an aspiring writer but there are millions of those. And I have written a novel, but only one, and as long as it remains unpublished there is no reason to assume it is worthy. Instead I’m going to write this as a reader.

I think one of the main reasons why I don’t like exclamation marks is because I don’t like shouting. I don’t like to shout, I don’t like being shouted at and I don’t like listening to other people shout. So I also don’t like when the voice in my head that appears when I am reading starts shouting. I know that this use of the exclamation mark is essentially valid, sometimes people in stories shout and this fact needs to be made clear, but somehow the exclamation mark on the page still looks vulgar and wrong. The other standard way to indicate shouting would be the dialogue tag ‘he shouted’ but this also isn’t very good as in addition to not liking being shouted at I also don’t like being told that someone shouted when I wasn’t there to hear it. Irrational, I know.

The ‘he shouted’ solution also contradicts a number of ‘good writing’ rules that I have seen around. General consensus tends to be that the only decent dialogue tags are ‘he said’ and ‘he asked’. It’s a slippery slope that leads to ‘he exclaimed’. I think that it is hard to argue against exclamation marks in dialogue, they do seem like the simplest and most economical method of indicating that shouting occurred. Another solution would be to write a novel in which no one ever shouts, but that brings with it its own set of problems. Allowing grammar to dictate stuff that happens in the story can’t be right.

So, allowing for the fact that from time to time people do, whether I like it or not, shout, and that as a consequence shouting will crop up in fiction, I have to concede that the exclamation mark  must be used on those occasions. But still it ought to be used sparingly. Using it all willy-nilly can lead a writer down a dangerous path of having to come up with new ways of indicating exclamations. If the phrase ‘I like coffee’ gets exclaimed what should the writer do later when a more valid exclamation is made? Consider the following.

“I like coffee!” said character one.

“Never mind your coffee! My hand is caught in the toaster!!”

“Oh my god, your hand is caught in the toaster!!! How the hell did that happen!!?”

“Never mind how it happened!!!!! It has happened and is burning me right now!!!!!!!!”

“Oh my god I can smell your burning flesh!!!!!!111!!1! I feel sick, should I call for an ambulance??!?!!?!?!!!11!?11?11”

“Call the ambulance after you rescue me!!!!11!!!!!ZOMG!!!!1WTF!!!!!!!”

See how one poorly used exclamation mark leads down a path of ever-escalating punctuation that is so hard to look at it actually makes my eyes tired? I think that passage of ludicrous dialogue probably contains more exclamation marks than I have used in over a decades worth of fiction writing.

There are some uses of the exclamation mark that are more than just grammatically correct and add some additional depth to the writing. Hunter S Thompson was brilliant at it. He used them to indicate a drug-addled over-reaction to something, confusion to things that weren’t especially confusing, over-confident bravado, comedic seriousness. (And sure, sometimes it’s just to indicate shouting.) I tried to use them this way myself in my novel (even though I said this was going to be written as a reader rather than as a writer, I can’t help but mention it.) The only exclamation marks in my entire novel occur in a chapter in which a group of pompous idiots talk pompously and idiotically at each other and, I hope, the exclamation marks there are, in some small way, funny.

30/07/11 – several weeks later

I think since writing this post I became even more aware of the exclamation marks that appear in my reading. In a way I almost started feeling sorry for them, sitting there politely indicating exclamations.  Were they really as ugly and obtrusive as I had initially felt, or were they simply fulfilling a much needed role? Either I was too hard on them or I had over-thought the whole issue. Then the other day I was sat on the train reading David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and there was a use of an exclamation mark that was as brilliant as anything Hunter S Thompson ever wrote. It occurs as the opening of a letter in which there is no way the sender could see the readers reaction but confidently assumes he knows what it is nonetheless. I think this piece of writing is really funny with the exclamation mark, and much less funny without it. Here it is;

Summer has taken a sensuous turn: Ayrs’s wife and I are lovers. Don’t alarm yourself! Only in the carnal sense.

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