I was eleven years old when I first thought that I could be a writer. It happened like this. There was a book that had become very popular, the Harry Potter or Fifty Shades of Grey of that generation.
Before continuing, I want to say that I’m uncomfortable bashing popular literature. Those authors have done something that I dream of doing. When I think of them I am filled with jealousy. In college my first creative writing teacher made a huge deal out of saying “don’t write like Stephen King.” I wanted to respond “What’s wrong with Stephen King? I love Stephen King. He’s sold a million billion books. That’s what I want to do. Why would I not want to be just like him?” Seriously. Why wouldn’t I?
Anyhow, this book was popular, and everyone was reading it, and I wanted to read it too, even though in that prepubescent phase I had no idea what was making it sell so well. So I found a copy at the library and started in. I hit page four, and I will never forget the line I read. It went like this:
She woke up screaming!
Now that’s a heck of a line. It was set off just like that, in its own paragraph. Even at eleven years old, I took one look at it and I thought that the writer needed help. That exclamation point was not right. I couldn’t say why it wasn’t right. I just knew that it wasn’t. Worse, the author repeated the line throughout the book.
With all the wisdom of my forty-three years, I’m going to try to explain why a writer should not use exclamation points.
The reason that exclamation points are no good is because they force the author’s feelings on the reader. The author who wrote that story thought it was so important that she hit me over the head with it, jarring me out of the story. Instead of putting me there, in the clan of the cave bear, instead of showing me that her young heroine woke up with the night sweats, she took the easy way out by telling me how important it was.
To this day I distrust punctuation. Periods and commas are okay, I guess. I use question marks in dialogue, but I think what’s really good in a story is words. Words that explain what’s going on. Words that tell about my characters and the situations they’re in. Words that bring the reader into the story. Never exclamation points. It may be more difficult to make my readers believe that a character woke up terrified, but if I paint the picture right with words, believe me, they’ll get it and my story will be better for it.
The same holds true for the “-ly” words. When I get done with a story now, I turn on the handy Find feature on my iPad and, like a hunter stalking prey, I search out the words that end in -ly. Then I try to rewrite the lines so that I don’t have to use the adverbs. Why? Because adverbs are cheating. Saying that a character was the “most beautiful girl in world” doesn’t do a thing for my readers. A true author tells his or her readers what the girl looks like, and then lets them draw their own conclusions. If I’ve done my job correctly, then they will see the most beautiful girl in their head, and I will have achieved my goal of showing, not telling.