by Julie Patterson
Kids say the most brilliant things, if we simply listen. “Look, Mom, an excavation point!”
My 4-year-old daughter is curious about letters. She insists on naming each letter on the cover of books that we read. Last night’s title included an exclamation point, which my daughter promptly identified as an “excavation point.”
In a split second I made a conscious decision not to correct her, in part because I don’t want to stifle her curiosity about reading, but also because, as a writer, I like her term “excavation point” better.
You see, I have a “thing” about exclamation points! Sure, they can be helpful, and I use them on occasion, but nothing makes the hair on the back of my neck stand taller than a long string of exclamation points!!!!!! Or a stockpile of single exclamation points at the end of successive sentences! (I chose my punctuation in this paragraph for illustrative purposes only, of course.)
Why? Because good narrative writers (fiction and some types of nonfiction) don’t rely on punctuation to convey emotion. Good writers know that characters convey emotion. Their body language, their actions, and their speech reveal what they feel.
This is something I often teach: a string of exclamation points in your text is an invitation to go back to your writer’s notebook, back to “the drawing board,” so to speak. It’s an invitation to excavate or dig deeper.
I say invitation because it sounds nice, but seriously, a string of exclamation points is a story’s desperate plea for help.
Ask the writer why she put a lot of exclamation points in that spot. Odds are high you’ll hear something like, “Because he was really mad.” Or scared. Or happy. Or surprised…
See the problem? If we can use the same symbol for every one of those different emotions — those drastically different emotions — the symbol doesn’t actually help the reader know anything.
When I encounter this in conference with writers, I ask students to write the emotion they want to convey in their writers’ notebooks, then beneath it, brainstorm all the ways real people show that emotion. What do real people do when they are angry, for example?
face gets red
ball up tight fists
Now, look at the list. What would your character do?
Keep in mind that we don’t all handle anger the same way. What we do in that state of emotion reveals a lot about us.
When your main character gets angry, she may squint her eyes and say something hateful she knows will hurt. But my character might clench his teeth, get splotchy red cheeks, and throw something at a wall. Someone else’s character might storm off, slam the door, and cry.
When we show our characters wrestling with their emotions in the ways that are most authentic to them, we write great stories. We master character development.
Julie Patterson is writer-in-residence for the Indiana Partnership for Young Writers, helping make the work that writers do visible to teachers and students in grades preK-8. She is also an adjunct professor of English at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis and a teaching artist in grades K-12 with Arts for Learning Indiana.