He Wrote, Emphatically

How to emphasize things when writing? Your best bet is to stick to the rules. Of course when rules vary, it’s harder to figure out what to do. Still, common usage gives us some hints. And as with all writing advice, it’s as much about avoiding what’s clearly wrong as it is about getting it exactly right.

“Nick, look out! The bridge is about to collapse!” Nora shouted.

The above is a straightforward example of emphasis in a piece of dialogue. Problems arise as writers attempt to create increasing levels of emphasis. Here’s the first of some problems to avoid:


Here’s the problem with the above: all caps are only used in very specific situations. Legal documents (e.g. court documents), use all caps, as do military messages. On occasion you’ll see all caps used in headlines, or advertisements, and on occasion you’ll see small caps used to start a chapter in a novel. Generally speaking, however, it’s not recommended. Psychology tests confirm that it takes significantly longer to read all caps messages than it does to read something with standard capitalization and punctuation. And we have alternatives to this that work just as well to show emphasis. Before going over the options, let’s look at another problematic example:

“Nick, look out!!!!!! The bridge is about to collapse!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” Nora shouted.

If one exclamation point shows emphasis, and two show more emphasis, why not twenty you ask? Well, as I’ve explained to clients in the past, this is a dark path to travel. If you start your story with one exclamation point for emphasis, then you find yourself needing more emphasis, you may add two or three the next time, and even more the next time…then by the end of your first novel, you’re up to eleven exclamation points. Let’s say, however, you’re working on a trilogy. By the end of the third novel, when you reach the climax of the series, you may be forced to use seventy-three exclamation points to beat all the moments that have come before. And if you’re wondering, here’s seventy-three exclamation points:


That sort of thing is a waste of ink, it clutters the page, and it makes reading more difficult.

A final example of what not to do:

Niiiiick! Loooooook oooooouuuuuuttttt! Thheeee briiiiidge iiiiiiiiiis colllaaaaaaaaaaappppsssinnnggggg!” Nora shouted.

Well, this is pretty much unreadable. You the writer know what you’re typing as you type it, but it takes the reader time and effort to subtract all the consonants and vowels to see what you’ve written. This thoroughly drags the reader out of the story and forces them to puzzle out the meaning of what should be an exciting moment.

The good news is that there are some excellent ways to provide emphasis that don’t give the reader grief. Here’s a quick overview of how to emphasize things, in order of emphasis:

“Nick, look out! The bridge is collapsing!” Nora shouted.

“Nick, look out! The bridge is collapsing!!” Nora shouted.

“Nick! Look out!! The bridge is collapsing!!” Nora shouted.

“Nick! Look out!! The bridge is collapsing!!” Nora shouted at the top of her voice.

Nick! Look out!! The bridge is collapsing!!” Nora shouted at the top of her voice.

Nick!! Look out!! The bridge is collapsing!!” Nora shouted at the top of her voice.

Nick!! Look out!! The bridge is collapsing!!” Nora shrieked.

First comes the exclamation point. Next comes two exclamation points. Why not more than two? In point of fact, even two is a bit dicey in terms of correct grammar, but the use of a question mark and exclamation point is relatively commonplace, so my logic here is that writers are allowed a maximum of two pieces of punctuation (but no, you don’t get to put a full stop before an exclamation point, so don’t ask).

Next, we break up the sentences. “Nick, look out!” and Nick! Look out!” both have emphasis, but we’re adding more exclamation points, and singling out a name provides additional emphasis beyond that. Bear in mind that in action scenes, short sentences work better (as I recently wrote on a guest post for author Brandy Nacole).

Next up on the scale is the use of italics on an already emphasized piece of text. And finally, in addition to the exclamation points and italics, we up the urgency in Nora’s voice by saying “shriek” rather than “shout”.

Standard grammar allows you a great deal of leeway in how you place emphasis in a piece of writing, while still allowing the reader to remain in the story. Avoid unorthodox writing gimmicks and stick to the many options available, and your readers will be happier for it.