Writers at the beginning of their career often get into the habit of using punctuation as a kind of shorthand. They tell us “This is dangerous!” “She was mad!” or “This is funny!”
When we are in the midst of writing the first draft of a story, we don’t notice how frequently we use the exclamation point to convey excitement and urgency.
But that habit must be addressed in the revision process. Making too free with the power punctuation makes the narrative too breathless, or in the case of ellipses, too slow and halting.
When prose is well-written, it conveys the excitement of the moment without force. A good author doesn’t resort to creating excitement with the overuse of exclamation points as this makes the narrative feel frantic.
It tells the reader what to think, rather than showing them a scene that is exciting.
When I am laying down the first draft, I am just as guilty of filling the manuscript with exclamations, em dashes, and ellipses as anyone. I am in a rush to get the ideas down on paper.
In reality, we only need one or two morsels of power punctuation per page. The way you have set the scene combined with the dialogue itself should convey the tension without your having to sprinkle the narrative with loud, proud punctuation.
The common, garden-variety period or comma will usually serve the situation well and won’t throw the reader out of the book. When we think about how to shape a scene with words, the punctuation we use won’t be a needle in the eye of the reader.
But what about !? These mutant morsels of madness are called “interrobangs.”
Editors working in the publishing industry will tell you that the interrobang is not an accepted form of punctuation for anything but comic books, manga, and possibly, text messages to your BFF.
Think about it: comic books show events and emotions by combining pictures with as few words as possible to tell the story.
Writers of comics frequently employ interrobangs because they are limited on space. They use creative punctuation as a shorthand for the reader.
It’s your narrative, so of course, you will do as you see fit. However, more than one punctuation mark at the end of a sentence is not accepted in literature of any genre but comic books. Thus, interrobangs are a writing habit the professional writer will avoid if they want to be taken seriously.
If you choose to include the interrobang in your work, don’t be surprised if you receive negative feedback from your beta readers or writing group. To be seen as a professional, you must write as professionally as you are able.
As writers, our intention is to immerse the reader in the story, not blow them out of the manuscript. Unfortunately, power punctuation used too freely becomes a bludgeon, beating the reader with how exciting it all is.
We subconsciously use the exclamation point as a shorthand. They are signals for us to expand on in the second draft. When we make revisions, we remove the loud punctuation and reshape these telling scenes so that they become showing scenes. We search for the right words to show the emotion of the moment and use unobtrusive punctuation.
But how do we convey excitement if we’re not allowed to use enough exclamation points?
A great resource for ideas on how to convey strong emotions without telling the reader what the character is feeling is The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.
When you submit a manuscript to a contest or publisher, they will look at your knowledge of mechanics and grammatical style first. If you look like an amateur, your work goes straight into the rejection pile.
In writing, “mechanics” is the term used for how the rules of grammar and style are applied to the kind of work you are writing.
The rule is that all sentences should have only one punctuation mark to signify the end.
“Ahah!” you say. “What about the ellipsis?”
The ellipsis is not punctuation. It is the accepted symbol signifying words that have been omitted.
When the ellipsis falls at the end of the sentence, it should be three dots followed by the required punctuation.
- If the ellipsis falls at the end of a sentence in dialogue, use a comma at the end of it followed by a speech tag. “But, my dog…,” Annie said.
- If no speech tag is used, employ a period, question mark, etc. “But, my dog….” Annie’s brow furrowed.
This is because the ellipsis at the end of a sentence symbolizes unspoken words, trailing off.
The Chicago Manual of Style says:
Use an ellipsis for any omitted word, phrase, line, or paragraph from within a quoted passage. There are two commonly used methods of using ellipsis: one uses three dots for any omission, while the second makes a distinction between omissions within a sentence (using three dots: . . .) and omissions between sentences (using a period and a space followed by three dots: . …). An ellipsis at the end of a sentence with no sentence following should be followed by a period (for a total of four dots).
Once again, I emphasize that we use the Chicago Manual of Style as our grammar reference guide if we are writing fiction and intend to publish it. The Chicago Manual of Style is written specifically for writers, editors, and publishers and is the publishing industry standard. All the editors at the major publishing houses own and refer to this book when they have questions.
If you develop a passion for words and the ways in which we bend them, as I have done, you could soon find your bookshelf bowing under the weight of your reference books. Writing is not a one-size-fits-all kind of occupation. No style guide will fit every purpose, but the Chicago Manual of Style comes closest.
If you want to symbolize cut off words, the em dash at the end of a sentence does the job, and in that case, no punctuation is needed.
Consider the following quote from A Dog’s Tale by Mark Twain. In this case, you do not add punctuation:
It did seem to me that life was just too lovely to—
In writing fiction, when it comes to punctuation, these rules have no exceptions:
- Exclamation points must be used sparingly, or they lose their effectiveness.
- Ellipses symbolize omitted words and are not punctuation, so when the conversation trails off, you must add ending punctuation. My God, I thought. What…?
- Em dashes can either set off phrases—like this—or if used at the end of a sentence an em dash can indicate cut off words, like—
Exclamation points, em dashes, and ellipses are like speech tags. They are necessary, but simplicity is the key to making them unobtrusive. Generally, dialogue worded powerfully, along with the way you visualize and then show the attitude of the characters and their situation will serve to convey the emotions.
When it comes to punctuation, you can choose to tell or show. How you choose to blend showing and telling is what makes your voice unique.
Sources and Attributions:
The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.), page 639 sections 13.51 – 13.55 The Chicago Manual of Style 16th edition text © 2010 by The University of Chicago.
The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.), page 334 Section 6.84 Em dashes to Indicate Sudden Breaks, The Chicago Manual of Style 16th edition text © 2010 by The University of Chicago. Fair Use.
A Dog’s Tale, by Mark Twain. © 1904 Harper & Brothers, via Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=A_Dog%27s_Tale&oldid=769178379 (accessed May 16, 2017).
Power Punctuation by Connie J. Jasperson was first published here on Life in the Realm of Fantasy on May 17, 2017 and has been revised and re-edited.