Swearing: The Lazy Writer's Choice

I know a lot of four-letter words.  I’ve been known to send out a blue cloud myself. But is swearing the best way to express a thought?

One of my favorite shows--a well-written show--is “Deadwood”. The f-bombs are as deep as the mud on the town’s streets. It took some getting used to, but people talked like that back then, and though laced with profanity, the language is poetic in many ways. If they’d just used everyday dialogue filled with the “F” word, the “C” word and a whole lot of other words I wouldn’t have thought to string together, it would have been an unpleasant gimmick.

My late Great Uncle Joe said that swearing was lazy. “There are so many other creative words in the English language.” I think Uncle Joe makes a very good point.

As writers and storytellers, I think we have a responsibility to make an effort for our readers. One reason old movies such as “His Girl Friday” and “Philadelphia Story” are so enjoyable is because the screenwriter thought enough about us as an audience to put some effort into great dialogue. I realize that swearing in movies wasn’t acceptable at the time, so think of some current catch-phrases from a modern movie, words that stay with you long after the film has ended. 

“You had me from Hello.”  Not “You had me from effing Hello.”

“Show me the money!”  Not “Show me the effing money.”

If the words are strong enough, the emotion high enough, and the characters well-drawn, the profanity punctuation isn’t necessary. 

I know a play reviewer who was chastised for being a prude when she commented that a certain play relied too much on profanity. Playwriting is the pinnacle of good dialogue, and peppering everyone’s vocabulary with swear words WAS lazy. This writer took the easy way to show that a character was angry or upset or frustrated. Instead of creating great dialogue, he chose to fall back on the lazy way to express emotion. 

A gang-banger is probably not going to say “Shoot” or “Darn”, but wouldn’t it be refreshingly original to show a gang-banger who didn’t swear? Who spoke eloquently about his darkest deeds? That’s a character that would stay with me. 

When profanity enters the picture, my respect for the writer goes down.  I assume that they didn’t work for a creative word choice and just threw in a swear word. 

Alluding to foul language can be funny, such as when comedy skits bleep over the swear words and the bleeps keep on coming. You get the gist that this character is extremely foul-mouthed without being pounded over the head. The idea is funny. The reality is not. It’s like Alan Alda’s line in “Crimes and Misdemeanors”. If it BENDS, it’s funny. If it BREAKS, it’s not.

Jacqueline Vick
(Jackie Vick, a friend I made on the Internet and a member of Sisters in Crime is guest posting today, and I totally agree with what she has to say.)


Ariella said…
That was a really interesting article. When I write, I try not to swear too much, but since the majority of my characters are in their teens, as am I, swearing is a fairly large part of their (our) vocabulary.
But I have found other ways to work around. Only a few characters swear a lot.
Hi, Ariella,

I certainly wish teens didn't swear so much. There are so many wonderful words we can use to express ourselves. So glad you visited today and left a comment.

C. N. Nevets said…
Great post!

This is a difficult one for me because, in my real life, I don't really swear. Most of the time when I buy rock or rap music, I opt for the clean versions, both because I don't feel like inundating myself with the language and because I find that the extra creativity exercised in coming up with other ways of saying things often results in stronger lyrics.

That said, when I'm writing, sometimes swearing is an important part of a person's character, for either personality or authenticity reasons.

But I do tend to think twice, or thrice, or even four times or more about every swear word I use. If I remain convinced that it the best choice for that moment, I leave it in. If I'm even on the edge, I rewrite it another way.

Even so, I have a few salty characters.
Jackie Vick said…
I met a writer at Love is Murder who didn't want to include swearing. She would write "John looked at the corpse and swore." I like that idea.

And I do know that people swear. Even Agatha Christie used "bitch". However, she used it so infrequently that you sat up and took notice. I want my character's swearing to be so infrequent that it's noticeable and means something.

I went through my manuscript and took out the swearing. The substitutions I came up with really said something about the characters, and in some cases was much funnier or more revealing! It was actually fun!

Good for you, Ariella, for starting your writing career at such a young age AND for being aware of what you put on the page. Making a creative choice is different than just being lazy about it.
Linda Leszczuk said…
Moderation is the key. A little swearing, the right words in the right places, can be effective. Lacing the dialogue with continuous f-bombs accomplishes nothing. MHO

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