23 August, 2013

Bangorrhea

In the wake of Elmore Leonard's death the internet is falling over itself to highlight his famous list of writing rules. I won't list them all here, as so many other people have done so already. Pop over to the Strictly Writing blog if you do want to read the full list - they are a great starting point for any writer.

A side-effect of the Leonard-mania is that I learned a new word: Bangorrhea. I'm sure some of you will have heard of it already, perhaps even suffer from it yourself, but it was new to me. Bangorrhea is the condition of overusing exclamation marks. One of Elmore Leonard's rules is to use no more than two or three exclamation marks/points in a whole novel, and I believe it was Ernest Hemingway who said that using an exclamation mark was akin to laughing at your own joke.

I sway both ways on this one. In my casual correspondance - e-mails, blog comments, facebook posts etc. - I use exclamation marks a lot. In my "proper" writing I try to use them as little as possible. This BBC article explaining bangorrhea, sums up how I feel about the least sophisticated of our punctuation marks nicely:

Many of those "suffering" from bangorrhea would argue that exclamation marks are an attempt to achieve lightness of tone or emotional emphasis.
"See you there!" - in response to an invitation to a party - implies enthusiasm about attending. "See you there." merely states that you will be there. It could just as well be a rendezvous by the gallows as a joyous social occasion.

 Over the last few years, I have been whittling down my use of exclamation marks - having been taught in school that they are a superb! way! to create! drama! I'm not down to two or three per 100 000 words, but I can usually get through a short story without insulting my readers by adding them for emphasis (it should be obvious if your character is saying something with emphasis, loudly or in a light-hearted manner without you telling everyone with a !). After a first draft of a novel I probably have something more like one every 2000-3000 words, but I'd hope to cull this by the final version to maybe one every 10 000. Well, I'm working on it, anyway. How about you?

10 comments:

  1. We (Cathie and I) use exclamation marks in excited dialog, as needed. That's why they were created. (Note: I did not use an "!" to punctuate that last sentence. ;))

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    1. I guess it's like adverbs etc. they are there to be used... but sparingly! (exclamation mark) I do think some dialogue can look weird without them, but can't think of many reasons to use them in straight prose.

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    2. I think it comes down to context. Sometimes it's entirely appropriate, if it helps illustrate a character or define a moment. Personal style is also a factor; as is, let's face it, whether an author is successful in their own right. Surely we want writers to write in their own unique way, which will mean being more adverbly demonstrative for some and more exclamatory for others‽

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    3. I admire your commitment to the interrobang, Derek.

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  2. I never heard of that word before (Bangorrhea). It's a great word. I don't use exclamation marks much in my own writing, but I can see situations that could call for them -- usually, as John Celestri, said, in excited dialogue.

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    1. I think it's one of my new favourite words :)

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  3. I can see the need for keeping exclamation marks almost or completely out of the general narrative, which I agree is like laughing at your own jokes, or inadvertently patronising (Isn't this funny, readers!)

    Could it be that's what he meant? Being so proscriptive about exclamation marks in dialogue doesn't make nearly so much sense to me. Obviously anything can be over-used, but there is surely a valid place in most conversations - bearing in mind that novels tend to deal with heightened emotions - for the exclamation mark?

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    1. As an extreme example of stylistic overuse of the "!" at the end of a statement, I give you the case of the renaming of the city Hamilton in Ohio (where I used to live in the States). In an effort to express to the world how exciting a place it is to relocate businesses and families to, a vote was successfully taken to change the city name to "Hamilton!"

      The "!" has since been removed. The city is as quiet as ever.

      (My wife and I live in Danville, Kentucky, just south of Lexington...Blue Grass Country!) ;)

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    2. John, there is a small town in Devon (the county of England I live in) called Westward Ho!. I think it's named after a book and it's the only place name in the UK with a ! in it. Poor old Hamilton. A lesson for writers there - you can't make something exciting with a ! if it's not already!

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    3. I completely agree, billyblogger - I don't see much need for ! in prose at all, but it serves a function in dialogue. BUT it can still of course be over done and often is in my experience. I think they should be used like adverbs - put them in but, when editing, check to see if the sentence still works without and if it does, then cut it out again.

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