The [Not So] Humble Exclamation Point

I’ve been reading a lot of pulp fiction lately and it struck me that the exclamation point isn’t what it used to be.  For instance, in his opening chapter of The Faceless One, by Norvell Page, he uses the exclamation point 78 times.  Most current writers catch flak for using it once.

Why?  Probably because Page used it 78 times.  It’s stopped being an interjection, a visual dramatic sting, if you will, and become a cliché.  And clichés are strictly taboo.  Nothing gets smacked down harder.

But, as Terry Pratchett once said:  “The reason clichés become clichés  is that they are the hammers and screwdrivers in the toolbox of communication.”  Just so with the overdramatic exclamation point.  For example, is this better?:

The Spider moved into battle.

Or this?:

The Spider moved into battle!

The first is a statement of fact.  That’s okay and perfectly valid as far as the practice of modern writing goes.  But it doesn’t have much entertainment value.  There’s a long standing argument that such a statement doesn’t need it, and that’s fair, but that isn’t a reason it shouldn’t have it anyway.  You know, just because it can.  Just because it needs a little punch.

On the other hand, explanation points can get silly pretty quickly, just as dramatic stings can.  Really, 78 in one chapter?  Pretty soon they turn into a running gag, just like someone playing “dun, dun, ddduunnnn,” every time the villan’s name is mentioned.  Just as the audience starts to snicker by time two or three, I feel a smile slide over my lips every time Mr. Page uses another exclamation point.

But…I enjoy that smile.  Life is rough and I cherish the little things.  Pulp wouldn’t be so much fun without the exclamation points and the little zing they give to sentences.  Even in modern stories, the occasional exclamation point gives a scene the little flourish in needs to cinch it down and make it really work.  And when you don’t have the BAM and POW of visual media, but you have a hero and a battle who certainly merit it—and believe me, Page’s Spider does in spades—well, use it appropriately.




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