Elmore Leonard’s Rules for Writers #5: Keep Your Exclamation Points Under Control

Welcome to the fifth in a series of posts covering Elmore Leonard’s rules for writers. Leonard started his career writing westerns, then switched to hard-boiled crime, which became his specialty. His skill as an author was widely praised by both the literary community and the general public of readers. Many of his works were made into famous movies, and he received the National Book Award in 2012.

Leonard developed ten rules for writers (and a bonus eleventh rule that sums up the rest). I love his books, so when I learned these rules, I applied them to my own writing. I think they’ve made the single biggest positive change to the quality of my work.

So, in this series, I’m going to take you through all of them. Continuing with…

Keep your exclamation points under control.

It’s common to find an overuse of exclamation points in the work of beginning authors.

But Leonard believed that we should limit ourselves to no more than three exclamation points per 100,000 words of prose. It’s both a helpful and humorous commentary.

It’s always better to find words to express exclamatory thoughts or actions.

As an example, you might see: “Vinnie drew his gun and fired twice! He had to land the shots just right!”

Instead of using the exclamation points there, you can give the reader Vinnie’s thoughts as he shoots. Let’s change that to: “Vinnie drew his gun and fired twice. It was either him or the other guy. And it all came down to these two shots. God, he hoped he didn’t miss.”

Use words and not punctuation to create emotion in your scene.

Additionally, Leonard believed it’s best not to have characters screaming at each other. In fact, I don’t think anything builds tension better than silence.

Let’s say you have a scene in which a husband and wife are sitting at the table. The husband says that he’s been sleeping with her sister and he couldn’t deal with the guilt anymore.

Now, how should the wife respond?

Well, she could slap him. Or she could scream and yell at him, with lines ending in exclamation points. Maybe we could even have her call him names.

But my choice would be to have her stay absolutely silent. She doesn’t say a word and just sits there and looks at him. The reader (and her husband) are wondering what she’s thinking. What’s she going to do? What does she want to do? And maybe the husband keeps talking to fill the silence and he keeps making it worse with every word. But she still doesn’t respond.

See how much tension you can create by using silence? Instead of raising the volume with exclamation points, try keeping a character quiet. I consider that one of the best methods of building suspense.

So, limit your exclamation points. Try avoiding them altogether and see if you can find better ways to express the excitement of a scene.

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