Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Mini Lesson on Exclamation Points and Question Marks

I caution everyone to be careful when using exclamation points. Agents and editors frown on them. In fact, there’s one industry professional who claims she will reject your manuscript if you have more than a handful of exclamation points in your whole novel. That’s a little extreme, but I’d still keep your use of these babies to a minimum. The point is if you’ve set up the scene properly and are using realistic dialogue, readers should be able to tell when a person is yelling or if they’re mad. You don’t have to TELL them by using an exclamation point.

Strangely enough, the opposite is true with question marks. Agents and editors prefer you use them and avoid writing “he asked” every time a question is posed. But, in doing so, don’t substitute “he asked” with “he said.” Clearly, if he asked a question, he asked it, he didn’t say it.

Do: “What are you talking about?” Amy tilted her head and raised her eyebrows. (This avoids using Amy asked, but we know she’s asking a question.)

Do: “What are you talking about?” Bill asked. (Here “asked” may have been used because the scene was set up enough beforehand and it would only interrupt the flow if the author added an action tag. However, we need to know who asked, so the author had to show us.)

Do: Use other ways to show who’s asking the question. For example, you could put the emphasis on the other speaker.

Jill slid her finger across her smart phone’s glass, going from one screen to the next, barely acknowledging Lisa’s presence.

“Hello? Are you listening to me?”

“Sorry. I was distracted. Thinking about work again.” Jill turned her phone off and slipped it into her purse. “Okay, now you have my undivided attention.”

Since we know Jill and Lisa are talking, it’s obvious who asked the question here without having to be TOLD it’s Lisa.

Do: Lori’s face grew redder and redder. Her fists were in tight, little balls. “You’re a real jerk, Ben. I wish I’d never met you.”

Don’t: “You’re a real jerk, Ben! I wish I’d never met you!” (As you saw in the above example, you don’t need to use exclamation points here to show how angry Lori is.)

Don’t: “What are you talking about?” Jill said. (This contradicts the question mark.)

How often do you use these punctuation marks? Do you follow these rules or do you have others you follow?

Lynnette Labelle


  1. Excellent points I'll try to remember. It's like I want to be defiant against the lowly comma, the question mark and the colon?

  2. Great post. I use to abuse exclamation marks, but now I rarely use them.

  3. The Desert Rocks, Christine, and Katie: Thanks. :)

    Lynnette Labelle

  4. This is ridiculous. The Hunger Games has probably 10 exclamation points per page in it. If that can get published and earn mega millions I don't see why they'd turn similar crap away.

  5. Michael: You don't have to agree with me. It's not like I came up with this "rule." This is something that has been discussed on writers' loops, Twitter, Facebook, and editors' and agents' blogs. While I'm sure there are some books that will still be published regardless of how many exclamation points are used, that's not the norm. Agents and editors want strong writing. Telling the reader that a character is yelling by using an exclamation point, for example, isn't as strong as showing the anger through dialogue and actions.

    Lynnette Labelle