I recently finished reading a novel in which the author used a lot of exclamation marks in her dialogue. In fact, she employed them so often that I FELT LIKE THE CHARACTERS WERE SHOUTING AT ME THE WHOLE TIME I WAS READING! (As you can see, using all caps also has that same effect.)
Here is just a snippet of one scene, with character names changed to protect the guilty:
“Erin, this is not a battle!” I retort.
“And it’s not a chess game! It’s dinner with a nice man!”
“You’re so cynical, Erin!” chimes in Kristy.
“I think it’s really romantic!”
Do you get the picture? For your dialogue to ring true, it should read the way people really talk. And other than on trashy reality TV shows, most people don’t yell at each other all that often.
A few blog posts back, I addressed the importance of letting the characters speak for themselves. Using descriptive words other than “said” in dialogue is distracting (as demonstrated above), and it takes the reader’s attention away from the story. The same will happen if you use too many exclamation marks. In this particular novel, which was written by a bestselling author and published by a major publishing house, I found myself so distracted by the volume of exclamation marks that I often forgot what the characters were discussing. They became caricatures to me, as opposed to real people, and as a result I did not like the book.
Here’s a tip: Read your dialogue out loud. That will clue you in immediately as to whether it sounds realistic. Remember, people read novels to immerse themselves in another world. If poor dialogue pulls them away from the fantasy, you lose them.
Maria Murnane is the best-selling author of the romantic comedies Perfect on Paper, It's a Waverly Life, and Honey on Your Mind. She also provides consulting services on book publishing and marketing. Learn more at www.mariamurnane.com.
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