How to Perform an Exclamectomy

('Leather! Belts! £5!' © Paul Kelly, 2010)

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HOW TO PERFORM AN EXCLAMECTOMY:
Excising the rogue exclamation mark in your short stories
and
longer fiction!

by MARY O’DONNELL

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Note that exclamation mark in the title above. It’s saying something, isn’t it? It’s creating urgency, pressure to perform, even feelings of slight inadequacy? It’s telling you that if you don’t do this your life as a writer may be over.

Not true, of course. But recently, in preparing for the re-issue of my 1992 published first novel, The Light Makers, I’ve come face to face with the exclamation mark, and have witnessed a slight over-use of this writing tool.

As I went through the scanned document, I discovered several little habits that I’d frown on today, especially when teaching fiction. For one thing, I picked up on a habit of flinging adverbs around like emotional hand-grenades. They’re gone now. Cold turkey and all that. Too many, too unnecessary if a verb is already doing the work. But horrors! Next up was the exclamation mark! It was everywhere!!!! There were few encounters between my characters – I exaggerate slightly here – in which it did not pop up, as if to double-underline the intensity in a given interaction.

So, how to perform what I call an Exclamectomy? For most of us, it’s actually a question of becoming more aware of the sound of things, and of the voice in which a phrase is uttered. In any passage of direct speech within a short story, it’s worth going over that dialogue again and again to see just how much you need, or (usually) don’t need to exclaim. In my experience, mostly through teaching, I’ve noticed how frequently we exclaim unnecessarily. Is it an ‘Irish’ thing? I’m not sure. I can’t imagine a Finnish writer exclaiming so much, and a cursory glance at Scandi Noir fiction shows a paucity of this offending item.

Regardless of cultural writing tics, a rogue exclamation mark can be damaging to a piece of dialogue, or even to a single word of dialogue. It alters the tone, not to mention the visual look of your writing, sometimes even creating an unintended caricature effect. And while excessive exclaiming is often unconscious, it may also be driven by a need to convey intensity, and an underlying fear that the reader may not get the point. This is understandable, especially in a world which now depends on emoticons to indicate emotion in text-speak and emails, because language apparently isn’t doing the work it ought to. But trust your reader. If words are well-constructed within the line, if there’s an awareness of the interaction of them and the effects of punctuation on your potential reader, all will be well.

Here are some examples of a shift in tone created by the use and then the non-use of the exclamation mark:

‘You must be Hanna Troy!’ she greets me in a whispering voice.
‘You must be Hanna Troy,’ she greets me in a whispering voice.

I think there’s a difference between the first and the second example. After all, if the speaker has a whispering voice, it may be hard to discern an exclamation on her part and in this case there should be no exclamation mark.

Then test the difference between a simple ‘I don’t know!’ and an ‘I don’t know.’ The former is emphatic, while the latter could determine a range of tones and emotions.

‘It’s so dark and oppressive!’ he moaned.
‘It’s so dark and oppressive,’ he moaned.

In this case, I think the sentence works with or without the exclamation, but usually the decision on whether or not to use one is more clear-cut. And here are a few more:

‘That’s not what I meant!’
‘That’s not what I meant.’

And, finally, how about this:

‘Selfish pig! Making me take pills for no bloody reason!’
‘Selfish pig. Making me take pills for no bloody reason.’

In the second example, the tone is immediately more reflective, less shrill, and offers other possibilities of interpretation, including a sense of despondency.

Language is alive and writhing. With vibrancy. With variety. With passion. With organic change. It is like an animal and we need to treat it well. Would you not groom a precious animal in your charge, not only to ensure the comfort of that animal but to ensure that the right, the best impression is given of how it behaves? So it is for writers when we use and own our language, and in practice this means – during a redraft, or many redrafts – that we learn to recognise when and how to apply our punctuation tools.

In brief, never exclaim unless there’s something to exclaim about. Often there isn’t. Our conversations are mumbled and uncertain, our tone is uncertain, our voices are uncertain, mostly because, half the time, we don’t know one hundred per cent what we mean to say. An exclamation mark demonstrates the speaker’s exact sense of feeling: outrage, happiness, threat, passion, pain.

Now, don’t get me started on the semi-colon…

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Mary O’Donnell is a widely-published poet and fiction writer. Her seventh poetry collection, Those April Fevers, was published in 2015 (Arc Publications). She has also written two collections of short stories, Strong Pagans (1990) and Storm Over Belfast (2008) as well as four novels, among them the highly praised Where They Lie (2014). Her best-selling debut novel, The Light Makers, is being republished by 451 Editions on July 18. The first full critical volume of essays on her work, Giving Shape to the Moment: the Art of Mary O’Donnell, Poet, Short-story Writer, Novelist, will be published in 2018. She is a member of Aosdana.

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