Thursday, September 23, 2010

Cussing tips

I can give cussing tips because early experience made me somewhat of an expert.

When I was young my sister and I were allowed to walk the block to our elementary school to play on the outdoor equipment. My favorite set of monkey bars stood beside a court where older boys played basketball. I’d scramble up as high as I could then perch there to watch. And listen. And learn.

After warming up the boys would remove their shirts. Around each neck the sun glinted off a gold crucifix pointing downward toward the slight swale between their adolescent pectorals. Their mouths loosened up with their muscles and my vocabulary lesson began—effing this and sh*tting that. Sometimes they dribbled the words effortlessly; sometimes they shot them with force.

But for me this was also a lesson in characterization: Catholic boys cuss.

Eventually I learned we all cuss in one way or another. From Dennis the Menace’s “Creepers, Mr. Wilson” to characters that roll about in a virtual verbal manure pile, we reveal ourselves through the language we choose. Hopefully, your novel will have a situation in which your character is pushed to a stressful extreme. When that happens, what will come out of his/her mouth?

My favorite example of cussing is from a 1946 children’s book by Elsie Church, Slappy: A Little Duck with Big Ideas. Slappy does not like being a duck; he wants to be a “pusson.” But when he goes out into the great wide world its challenges make the frustrations of quacking and swimming lessons pale in comparison. Slappy is always making up imaginative cuss words. “Oh whiffenpoof and tripe!” “Fishcakes and flyboots!” The book is fun to read aloud and my sons and I would laugh every time we read it.

What can Slappy teach us about the use of cussing in literature?

Choose cuss words consistent with your character. Slappy was wrestling with identity issues that resonate with adults—but he was so young he hadn’t even completed quacking lessons. His imaginative experimentation with language here is spot on. Even without using the standard lexicon we know he’s cussing, which is what makes it so funny.

Choose words acceptable within your genre. Adults are capable of choosing books whose language falls within their comfort level. Kids love evocative language, period. So genre guidelines aren’t dictated by the reader so much as by the gatekeepers—parents and publishers. All of Slappy’s words are acceptable for a young audience. The use of cussing in young adult novels is much debated, but since we all know young adults both hear and use these words, their use is realistic. If you come across cussing in a YA book and hope to use cussing in yours, jot down the name of the publisher as a submission possibility. Some publishers put language guidelines on their websites. And my youthful conclusion about Catholics aside, you might consider toning it down for most Christian publishers.

Foreshadow its use. Slappy was a feisty little duck facing some major challenges—we are not surprised when he cusses. But can you imagine Miss Marple letting the "f" word fly? Neither can I. Characters steeped in a culture of violence and sex, however, will naturally use harsher terms in their everyday speech.

Give careful thought to overuse. Slappy cusses only a handful of times in his book. This restraint is so seductive my sons asked me to read it again and again. In a novel for older audiences, a character who is always angry might always have a reason to cuss—but is that character well-rounded enough to be of interest to the reader? If “whiffenpoof” showed up on every page of Slappy’s tale it wouldn’t pack the same punch.

Craft question: share your ideas

Cussing is typically evocative of high emotional states. If your character cusses indiscriminately throughout your story, how would you escalate the emotion when push comes to shove?

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Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, an independent manuscript evaluation and line editing service. Formerly a dance critic and arts journalist for 19 years, she now writes literary women's fiction.

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18 comments :

  1. It might be interesting if a casual cusser turned to prayer in times of extreme stress.

    There are tough talking assassins who go quiet and tightly focused when they have their target in their sights. Think of Anne Bancroft in "Point of No Return." I'd rather hear that character cuss than to hear her say, "I never minded the little things."

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  2. Great post! I for one, agree with you. I do use curse words, carefully chosen to fit the character and the occasion. Not in all my books, but in my first one, the guys was a really bad guy. Even when I was in his head, those words were there expressing the depths of his degradation and pain.

    In my latest book, a damn or hell is used maybe once of twice--since the book was set during WWII, a man at the shipyard might throw out a curse word because that was "his" world the woman had usurped. If she couldn't take it--so be it.

    Curse words are so expressive of an emotion, and when they fit, they fit. Bad guys don't say "Oh, Shoot!"

    When there are so many nasty words in a book or a movie that I am turned off, I stop watching. I don't care for nasty, but I'm not turned off by a well-placed four letter word.

    Makes me think of the golden Florence Henderson on Dancing With the Stars this week! LOL

    Best, Sylvia Dickey Smith

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  3. I use cuss words in my books, but sparingly and to fit the character/amount of stress. If my criminal is exploding, I can't have him say, "Golly." He's going to say, "F*** this."
    In this era of people boldly walking in public with that word on a t-shirt and not getting arrested, the handful of words I use in an entire novel is a little thing.

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  4. We need a few more folks to comment before this is a full jury, but so far the verdict seems to be that a cuss word here and there when appropriate to the character and the situation is perfectly okay.

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  5. Holly, I love your idea, which if written well could make a compelling turning point for the character.

    You may have dropped the word "casual" casually--perhaps you meant "frequent"--but I think we need to examine whether there is such a thing as "casual cussing." Even with frequent use and even when cultural expected I think cussing is meant to be provocative and keeps the character in a constant slow boil.

    Other thoughts on this anyone?

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  6. Wow, the subject of using cuss words in writing seems to be flying around the writing blog world lately. A pretty hot topic. But your point of over useage is a good one. I think that's why shows such as the Sopranos was so annoying to me. Were the characters all constantly in high anger mode? How DO you distinguish a character's emotional state when they ask you to pass the *$#!! sugar at the table then scream it again when someone shoots at them? What is the level of emotion and how can you tell?

    At the same time, I don't see too many characters turning to prayer except when they're begging for some type of mercy. Too bad. If we as writers set the tone perhaps it will affect our readers response in their lives.

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  7. Wow! This week's great discussion on cussing has received an extraordinary number of excellent comments and made several thought-provoking points. Kathryn, your all-encompassing view of our topic creates great food for thought in writing—and even in talking. Obviously, cussing can take forms far beyond the usual (and overused) expletives. Excellent post!

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  8. Just as in my real life, I save cuss words for special occasions. They have a bigger punch that way. I'd rather have my characters find some phrase to use rather than cursing. Casual cursing throughout a story may be realistic but it's not very imaginative.
    DL Larson

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  9. I must say, I have nothing but respect for writers of YA fiction. Having spent a bit o' time around my son's high school, I can tell you that teenagers experiment with cursing - they try words on, make up combinations, play with the language. If the subject weren't "curse words", most people would applaud their imaginations. If I wrote YA, I can't imagine trying to tone it down!

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  10. I am a Christian writer. I am a human being writing about human beings. Some people cuss all the time, some never. I occasionally cuss. I think God understands. But if I'm writing a Chrisitan book I can't use cuss words, or even what the publishers call euphemistic cussing, like shoot. But I have written a book about my experiences as a registered nurse working in a variety of settings and to get some points across I have used the F-word at times, as well as other cuss words. I have also talked about Jesus and God in this book even though I intend to seek to publish it with a secular publisher. It goes both ways. Life is life and that's what we try to portray in our stories.

    But, as most readers and writers agree, anything overused is annoying and weak. And, yes, as a nurse, I have heard people cuss and pray in the same breath. Heck, I've done it myself on occasion. And if I cuss, I usually ask God to help me not to next time. Still waiting for that. :)

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  11. I like the question about 'casual cussing'-- in my writing (mostly suspense) I use less than in life, and cussing has tended to be very character specific. In my first book the only cussers are the teens because that is truly how teens talk (I know this... I have one)--with each other they use a little of it, but casually--it's just language, when they are with adults it means EXTREME distress or anger--none of the adults cuss.

    In my second and later books though, there is usually an 'underworldish--predominantly male' circle. These people are NOT AMERICAN (I think it is easier to cuss in a language foreign to you--it doesn't seem as bad) and they are cussers. They don't take up an inordinant number of pages, but when they are present, so is cussing.

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  12. A very entertaining read, Kathryn! You make some excellent points.

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  13. It all depend on the setting and on the characters. Anyone who has been in a soccer team's locker room, or observed a group of teens talking together knows that cursing is common. The same group of teens in classroom or in church would use a different vocabulary. That's the way it was when I was young, that's the way it is today. I think it's OK to use bad language to describe a real situation, in particular in direct speech >:)

    Cold As Heaven

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  14. Some great comments here! As for the realism of cussing, keep in mind that there are many ways to create verisimilitude; you need not rely upon cussing just because it's realistic.

    Character voice is as important as word choice. And an establishing quote could go a long way. After an especially spicy passage the narrator could say, "That dude, he always talking like that. Eff-ing this and eff-ing that--my grandmother woulda beat him from here to the other side of Hades." Sprinkle in a few "f" words and then thereafter, every time the "dude" speaks, we'll hear it. This technique also works well with physical abuse: establish the pattern and we'll get it with the slightest hint.

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  15. These are some wonderful insights and guidance -- what great reminders!

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  16. What a fantastic entry! And you're so right about the effectiveness of those loaded words being diminished by overuse/misuse. While a sailor might pepper his every sentence with colorful curses, very few books have a salty seaman on board. So use the explicatives sparingly. When a 'f' bonb is dropped, it's not wasted words in your word count.

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  17. Wow, this is interesting.

    I like the "casual cussing," as opposed to "frequently cussing," comment. Here's my thoughts:

    There is such a thing as casual cussing. I mean, when I'm writing a certain character, he's pretty rough and harsh language is no problem for him. So he'll say, "Yeah we got ramen and $=i+, finally stocked up my bare-aR$e cabinets," with a smirk. That's just how he talks.

    When he's super serious he won't cuss. I guess, for him, cussing is only for the familiar, and joking. "You're such a bloody sod," as opposed to, "You're annoying, dude. Jump off a cliff,"

    When he's really angry he drops F-bombs off the fly, non-english cuss-words and latin... Probably Shakespeare, too (he's cultured on the inside).

    That's just how he talks, though.

    Usually (in my experience) cussing can be either casual (learned, not forced, etm) or frequent (rowdy, player, wannabe, etm)

    Sometimes more laid back language is used, "freaking, ship, crap, danget, gawd," etc... also, you'd be surprised what can be a curse! People are creative with them.

    Ha, so that was fun, bye.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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