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.