Sprinkle, Don’t Douse with Punctuation

Punctuate Appropriately
Let’s start with the simplest markers for drama: exclamation points. Rarely are exclamation points needed, and rarely should they be used.

Like TNT, they are alarming, even to the point they can jolt the reader out of the story. Some editors and authors say use them only once per chapter or a handful of times for the whole book. And some say, “Never!” (Don’t worry, I’m not one of those.)

The exclamation point neither makes a character louder or angrier. That’s the job of language, both in the narrative (She yelled till her voice cracked.) and dialogue (“You lousy SOB, of course I found out you were cheating on me.”)

That’s the difference between showing (words) and telling (punctuation). Punctuation doesn’t convey how the action was committed, so don’t lean on exclamation points to do the word for you.

Set Limits
Limit your em-dashes (—), which interrupt narrative sentences for a non-linear thoughts or, in dialogue, for actual interruptions to speech. Too many interruptions and you risk overextending the reader’s patience.

Likewise, the fair-weather parenthesis () and brackets [] can halt pacing. (I’m a sucker for both of these and an editor, so forgive me. You know to do as I say, not as I do, right?) The ellipses (...) is like hearing characters sigh all the time (please don’t do that either). Authors use them when characters don’t want to finish a thought, or don’t need to because the reader can fill in the blank. They’re also used to express character doubt, secrets, or lack of trust. But used too often and the ellipses becomes cliché.

Genre of course affects how often you use these. Suspense, Thriller, Mystery, and even Comedy often use this device. But moderation is key to using any punctuation in any genre. But again, your word choice, narrative and dialogue are responsible for creating these effects. Otherwise, agents and editors will consider your work lazy.

Good luck, angels!
Your humble Editor Devil