Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Rebel Without A Cause

In our comments earlier this week, blogger Jennifer asked us to discuss using curse words, specifically the f-bomb, in sections of prose that aren’t dialog. She questions her own motives for using it, whether she’s subconsciously trying to be shocking or whether using the word is truly consistent with her character's personality. She also wonders about how much she is letting her readers influence her decision and how the word affects the tone of the piece.

We’re happy to offer our opinions! We hope you chime in as well with your own ideas and thoughts.

Michelle: Sorry, Jennifer, I'm going to use a dialogue piece to illustrate my point, but I think it can also apply to thoughts of the narrator or character, as well.

In the end, using profanity needs to fit, if that makes sense. In the play A Few Good Men, Colonel Jessup, the commanding officer of the Marine Corp. Company stationed at Guantanamo Bay, fires off the f-bomb soon after his famous speech titled "You Can't Handle The Truth".

My husband had the chance to play this character in a theater class. He and his classmates went in circles trying to decide if they should put the f-word in or not. They came to the conclusion that Colonel Jessup is a Marine Corp. officer who has completely lost his temper as he is being arrested. In the end, my husband delivered the line with the f-bomb included because using anything else weakened the character in that moment of passion.

I've included a movie clip of the courtroom scene of the movie, A Few Good Men with Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise. Please be aware that there is strong language in this clip. The scene I mention specifically is at 6:30 minutes into the video. It is an amazing scene and worth watching if you have the time and are okay with the language.

In the end, if the profanity draws attention away from the character or scene, it's not necessary or appropriate, whether it's used in dialogue or otherwise (sometimes the genre of the piece will set this precedence). Most of the time, in my experience, if the character is intelligent and not flying off the handle like Colonel Jessup, he or she will usually find a much "smarter" word to use than simple cussing.

I hate the f-bomb. I avoid most movies and books that use it excessively, and I don't plan on ever using it in my writing. I know that it might fit in certain cases, and if that ends up weakening my character, so be it. But I do use other curse words that fit into scenes and specific character's mouths and thoughts. I choose my words wisely to make sure they serve a purpose not in and of themselves.

Scott: I think to answer this question, you only need concern yourself with the story and the characters. What are you writing? Does the profanity fit? Does it serve the story or does it distract the reader? If you write a version without any profanity, do you feel the lack? Does it ring false? If you write a version with profanity, does it feel right to you? Does it ring true? The voice of the character and the needs of the story should determine what you do. I don't think the word itself is particularly shocking anymore. Is your intent to shock, or to show the character's internal conflict around her urge to use profanity? Would her use of profanity increase the conflict? Resolve it? Have any affect at all on the real story? Conflict is dramatic, but profanity in and of itself isn't. If it's your character's true voice (and I understand that she never curses, yes?), then it's not for shock value.

Davin: I’d discuss the shock/rebellious idea first. As an editor of an online magazine, I read through hundreds of submissions in a month, and curse words are everywhere. It isn’t shocking to me. I don’t read it and become impressed that the writer has dared to go against convention. It’s so common that, to me, it has become boring, and I’m often more impressed when a writer decides not to use curse words and works harder to come up with suitable replacements. Most curse words are fads, and as evidenced by phrases like “the bee’s knees” and “it’s hip to be square,” they can lose their cool in just a few years. At the same time, people really do curse. So, it can be a completely sincere choice to include a curse word in a story. If it’s situated in a way that doesn’t highlight it, so that the word really is simply part of the language and not the climax of a scene, then I think it can be effective.


  1. "If it’s situated in a way that doesn’t highlight it, so that the word really is simply part of the language and not the climax of a scene, then I think it can be effective."

    Using profanity as a climax? I just traveled through time to eat my lunch and lose it.

  2. I think it's important to remember your intended audience too. Are you writing a thriller? A curse word may be appropriate. A historical novel? Maybe not.

    I've read several contemporary books lately filled with profanity and it seemed to be less of a shock value thing and more of a this-is-how-the-character talks thing. Either way, I wasn't impressed. It didn't add to the story.

    Interesting topic! Thanks!

  3. Justus:Yeah, that would be something to see, I know. Unfortunately, I've read things where this happens.

    Jill:I just went back and added a little phrase about this. Teaches me to write things so late at night! I was going to do a little section on how genre affects the word choices. Oh well. You've pointed it out perfectly. Thank you!

  4. Genre does make a difference. I write YA and profanity is not really appropriate there. Some authors use it. Some that I really like even. The f-bomb is pretty rare though and does tend to shock. I much prefer authors coming up with ways around the swear words. When I was a kid I was told, "When you use cuss words, it's because you're too stupid to come up with a better word." That has always stuck with me. I always try to come up with a better word.

  5. I have a MC that uses slight profanity all the time. It fits him though, and he has to think about what he's saying later, as he encounters somebody who won't put up with profanity. So I guess my opinion is similar to others. If it fits the character, use it. I will say that the f-bomb is an extremely profane word, so I would advise against using it unless it really is necessary to show the character's mindset.

  6. Eek I hate the F-word. Can we just replace it with fudge?? lol

  7. In my second novel, the Mc, a woman, is just that kind of girl. We all know someone like that...those words are just part of normal dialog for them. Over the course of the story she grows and changes and from about the half way point, you rarely see her swear at all...except at the end while she's in labor! LOL! Then in my third novel...neither my mc or her love interest swear at all....except in two scenes where they are arguing. To me, arguments are heat of the moment..there's no time to just react and emotions are running so high that you can't think properly. So in those scenes, my two characters who never drop f-bombs, do.

    In non-dialog sections...I know I rarely use swear words..with the exception to that first story I mentioned. I do because it's written in first person, so a good amount of the story is internal dialog.

  8. Nine times out of ten profanity is unsavory.

  9. Wow! A tiny question originally on a temporary blog and it ends up being answered so thorougly and intelligently. How can I say thank you enough?

    In the piece in question, I would have used it to convey the strong urge the MC had to shock the people around her, to earn the disapproval they were already giving her. She wouldn't have said it, but my question was whether I should say exactly what she was thinking, something along the lines of: "she wanted to curse, to let out a f-soaked string of obscenities.." because she is feeling that powerfully put down by the people she is with.

    But then I asked the question on my temp blog and everyone said yes, say it, be bad, and then it felt like being bad for the sake of being bad--EXACTLY what Davin was talking about in the stories he sees. And suddenly it didn't feel right. Which is why I brought the issue over here.

    I am now leaning towards not mentioning the specific word she wants to say and maybe that is authentic, because it's not her, it's something she feels pushed to do by the outrageous situation she finds herself in.

    Great post and I hope it was helpful to others as well!!


  10. Something I learned recently from a wise friend is that there is no substitute for a swear word---there are several words that mean the exact same thing as the cuss word but they are not imbued with the same meaning as a swear word. Society has given swear words a certain connotation of rebelliousness in addition to what the word actually means. Therefore, if your character is Holden Caulfield, he'll sound ridiculous saying "fudge."

    If your character is rebellious, the honesty of your writing WILL suffer if you choose a softer word. And I'm 100% okay with that because "writing honestly" is not always my number one priority.

    If I ever write about a member of the marines who is flying off the handle, I'll have to decide then if I care more about being honest with my character or more about the fact that this character represents my values to my readers because I created him. (Yeah, just try explaining to a non-writer that characters pop fully formed into your head without any manipulating on your part!) Non-writers WILL see your characters as an extension of you, even if you can't see it. And I never want to encourage/condone the use of the F-word in the YA audience I write for by using it myself through my characters.

    Another point from aforementioned wise friend---if you can make your character relatable, you don't have to write down everything the guy says. If the reader understands what the guy is like, feels like he really knows him, the reader can fill in the gaps for himself as far as what kind of language he most likely uses. I'm not sure I have this skill for this yet, but it sounds possible to do.

    Sorry to ramble so long.

  11. Lotusgirl, That's often my sentiment too. Curse words require far less imagination, so I'm not as impressed by them.

    Eric, Yeah, if your character's voice has curse words built into it, I think that makes a lot of sense. For me, the f-word is no worse than many other bad words, *$%@ and %$#@ and $*#* just to name a few. Peole use it so often that I barely even notice it.

    Litgirl, I use golly.

    Stephanie, Those are some great examples. I think I would have made the same choices as you did from what you described. Thanks!

    Rebecca, I'm usually okay with unsavory! It's lack of imagination that irks me. :P

    Jennifer, I hope this was useful to you! Thanks for describing your story scene more specifically. From what I just got in your comment, it really does feel like a coin toss. I think if you use the word, it would make it seem like your character uses it quite naturally, and that her repression is more due to society. If you work around it, then it will seem like she's more internally censored. So, I think it does affect the character, and you can decide what you think is best.

  12. Kim, You clarified something I said early very well in your last paragraphs. Whether or not a character uses the word doesn't mean you have to put it in. A good writer is able to imply as much of a characters actions, thoughts, and words as he or she wants. Thanks for your comment!

  13. I don't think it adds anything to the story. If it is important, makes a difference, shows us who the character is, then I think it's okay, but in most situations, I believe there is ALWAYS a better word. And I read some of the comments that also said this, plus I think Michelle mentioned it in her section of the post.:0)

  14. Interesting and thoughtful discussion. Thanks for sharing your opinions on a controversial topic.

  15. I'd just like to say that I don't find the word in question to be offensive (I admit that I use it probably every day); I just think that profanity in books and film is usually gratuitous and adds nothing to either character or story. I can't speak to the appropriateness of profanity in YA (because I don't read it and am sadly unfamiliar with the genre), but I can say that throwing in profanity as a way to show coarseness of character is likely the mark of a lazy writer.

    On the other hand, I can't imagine a book about gangster rappers where characters didn't curse. Also, I have a character in the book I'm currently planning who is based on a boss I used to have, a man who turned the air blue with every sentence he spoke. I've not decided how profane his speech will be in my book.

  16. Mr. Bailey,

    I'd like to berate you for advocating profanity, but I know you would use it only when necessary (e.g., in a meanie-boss rant). So, now what can I do to release my pent-up rage?! Oh, I'll get you Mr. Bailey, and your little Hamlet too.

  17. Mr. Bowman,

    I could suggest you let fly with a few good "gollys" as Mr. Malasarn suggests.

    Last night I didn't think about little Hamlet at all. Luxury!

    But to clarify: while I don't find the f-word (a construction I despise) to be shocking or particularly bothersome, when I pick up a novel and it's clear from the first paragraph that the narrative voice is going to be filled with profanity (Vernon God Little leaps to mind), I put it back on the shelf. Do I want to spend time with characters who so rankly abuse my ears? Not so much.

  18. My current run of characters have bad mouths. To me, it fits the world (and I do love my hopeless end of the world, humanity is screwed senarios). I've asked beta readers how they felt about the level of profanity, and none have had a problem with it yet.

    My editor did start cuting a few sh*ts, though. And she was right. Just because a character would say it or think it often, doesn't mean it needs to be in all the time.

    But, if you have character where if really just seems to be part of who they are, if they're panicking, upset, frustrated, it might make sense for the mouth to get worse.

    All and all, I think it varies from piece to piece, story to start, character to character. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

    I agree though, that it's hardly a successful tool if the goal is simply to shock. That boat sailed a long time ago, just like being hip to be square, I do think. :)

  19. I'm kind of on the fence about it. I find the "f" word offensive and like scott said if the first page of a book is filled with it, you know what to expect from the book. It would be a book I probably wouldn't continue to read.

    However, it depends on the character and letting loose a few times to me would be okay if it fits in with the scene.

    I chose not to use the 'f' word in my stories, even with the tough guys. There are other words or slang to use without diminishing the toughness of the character.

  20. All words part of the English language are part of the English language. None are off-limits to me, even while I personally can't stand certain ones. Censoring, whether self or not, words destroys the best (and worst) thing about English: that there are so many words available for describing (which is the worst thing too because it can make learning and being proficient in English so damn difficult).

    I like swear words, I use them, I will continue using them. I am a rebel--and with more than one cause.

  21. As with lotusgirl, I was told at a young age that people who used swear words weren't intelligent enough to think of a better way to express themselves. That impressed me. I tend to shy away from bad language in books. I picked up a book my mother raved about (a Kthy Reichs novel - I probably spelled her name wrong), counted nine f-bombs in the frist three pages, and put the book back down. Mom had accepted the language because the characters doing the swearing were members of a violent biker gang, but it was a bit much for me.

    I personally feel that even if you have a character with a potty mouth, you don't have to fill your book with profanity. Yes, it might be realistic. Yes, we all know these words are in common use. But you could also use phrases like "string of curses", "a few choice words", etc., and the readers' imaginations will fill in the gaps.

  22. Kathy Reichs. Ahem.

    *pokes the 'a' key a few times*

  23. Gratuitous cursing, like gratuitous violence and/or sex, either detracts from a good story or attempts to take the place of a good story.

  24. Back again-just wanted to say that I don't think it's always wrong, just trying to get at how it changes the voice of a piece, particularly when it's not dialogue.

    I LOVE Augusten Burroughs' work (Running with Scissors, etc). Filled with profanity but somehow totally heartwarming and endearing, and frankly I can't imagine his voice without the swearing. And I consider him intelligent. Of course, it's nonfiction/memoir, but still.

  25. Jennifer: Yeah, as many others are pointing out here, I think genre has a lot to do with it.

    If the memoir of somebody contains author's voice, and that happens to be cursing a lot, well, it should ring true.

  26. I think I have to agree with Glam. I'm personally against profanity, but if it fits a character and adds to to the story, then I might find a way to work it in.

  27. Becca:I just can't see your mother reading something like that... *blinks and drops mouth open*

  28. I write fantasy; I also like historicals. Both make cursing problamatic.

    I once read someone's complaint at a writer whose Roman soldiers used four letter Anglo-Saxon curses. This felt much too "modern." Aside from the fact that these are probably some of the oldest words in the English language, it made much more sense to me that Roman soldiers would cuss than speak like Cicero. Yet I understood why it would "feel" modern, because a modern reader would be unconsciously comparing it to elegant Roman historians, or even Victorian prose which sounds "historic."

    The same is true in fantasy, where terms which make us think of urban crime don't sit well in mouths of dragons and wizards. The result comes across as comic. Some "hard fantasy" does use cussing to good effect, but it's challenging to pull off.

    In my fantasy wip, I let my characters cuss with other than the usual words. They are using words, which to them, may be profoundly offensive, but can sound mildly amusing to our ears. For instance, they don't use "fudge" but they do use the term "muck" which rhymes with but is neither a synonym nor a substitute. The effect, I think, is somewhat lighthearted.

  29. Tara,

    Nice. Fantasy allows for much fun. Although I use many strange interjections in real life. One of my favorites is "Crude Oil!". Perhaps emphasis on "crude" and vibrato on "oil." Ha ha. I guess it varies a bit. Glad you asked.

  30. Justus, I'm still laughing at imagining that curse phrase coming out of a hardened criminal. It's great!

  31. Great topic. I certainly didn't use it in my co-authored inspirational books, but the bombs do drop in my current womens fic WIP because it is a natural part of the language patterns/dialog of the characters.

  32. Great answers. I think it depends so much on the scene's context and audience, but am not a huge fan of lots of swearing. Lots of times the swearing can be a cheat for showing emotion.

  33. Angie, you state that so well. That's exactly it. Cursing is often a cheat to show emotion. Like a shortcut or being lazy. There are other ways to show it much of the time.

  34. If I were writing a crude criminal in a modern story and wanted to have him cuss without going 4-letter, one method I've considered is having a curse unique to that person.

    Think of Pulp Fiction where the term "go medieval on your a%@" was used. They had plenty of other profanity, but now all one has to say is, "I'll go medieval on you" or "Don't make me get medieval" and the implied cuss comes through on what would otherwise be a rather geekish insult.

    I can imagine doing the same thing. Introduce a villian (or tough guy hero) who says something extremely bizarre but profane. Afterward, he can use the expression over and over, with just the bizarre half. It becomes both expressive of character and implies a lot more cursing than has to actually appear.

  35. "There are no bad words, only inappropriate places to use them."

    - Anon

    Fuckin'-A right.

    PS- I'm pretty sure the punctuation in the expletive above is incorrect, and would be a wonderful topic for a future post.

    PPS- I consider low-brow humor to be an appropriate place to use the F-bomb.


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