Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Bad Words in Books: A Different Perspective

Today, vulgarities abound. There’s no longer a distinct “polite society” where certain words are never spoken in public. To use a couple of clich├ęs, we live in a world of “no holds barred” and “anything goes.” During my lifetime, I have watched a new-fangled invention called television (with very few channels) go from I Love Lucy in which no one was allowed to use the word “pregnant” to a multi-channel medium that entertains viewers with exactly how she got that way and which may be presented in the most vulgar, demeaning terms.

We all know that profanity exists, sex exists, horrific violence exists. But must we wear that knowledge like a badge to show the world we’re privy to it? Or does it make more sense to aspire in our works to something different? I’m not suggesting a “Pollyanna” approach to writing; we don’t live in a “Pollyanna” world. The books I write allude to sex, profanity, and extreme violence. They’re realistic but not overly graphic, and they do not include vulgarities.

Someone noted that “serial killers do not say gosh, golly, gee.” And that’s right. But is it vital to the story to quote them? Or can a scene’s POV character be the victim who’s aghast at the killer’s language and even more so at his (or her) intent? Does the power of the scene lie in the vulgarity? the pending violence? Or is it in the victim’s emotionally-wrenching perspective as she (or he) comes face to face with the imminent end of life? How does the language affect her? What can you show the reader that will pull him or her into the scene and drive home its true horror?

Let’s consider an example. A young kidnap victim sits alone in a room with her abductor, and she knows in her heart what’s about to happen. Get inside her head and extract her emotional trauma, spreading it out in all its agonizing terror for the reader to experience. Do we need to hear the kidnapper’s bad words? Or is there a more compelling way to present this scene? Does great writing depend on vulgarity to underscore its quality?

Based on this brief description of what’s about to take place between these two characters, write the scene. Use either point of view, but do it without bad words, graphic sex, or gory violence. Limiting adverbs (“ly” words) and passive verbs (especially forms of “to be”), grip the reader in 150 words or less. Or write it two ways, with and without the vulgarities, to see which one has the most power. Then share your scene(s) with us.

As writers, we have many choices in telling (showing!) our stories. And the vast majority of us want to sell books. Knowing that a certain segment of the reading population will not choose to buy a book that contains vulgarities (among other things), why would we want to limit our sales to only those who don’t care about bad language? Why not grow as writers and learn more compelling ways to keep our readers turning pages and waiting impatiently for the release of our next book. What do you think?
Writer/editor/publisher Linda Lane works with writers to help them create powerful, compelling books. Her first love is fiction, but her editing team includes an award-winning nonfiction editor to assist those who write nonfiction. Linda's first writing venture into the world of the psychological drama was released this summer. You can learn more about her and her work at and

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  1. Today's post challenges you to write a brief scene that could contain vulgar language—as well as anger, terror, and a gamut of other emotions. The idea for the suggested scene came from recent news stories, but many other settings cry out for the inclusion of obscenities. Use any scene of your choice to respond to the challenge.

    IMPORTANT: remember that this is a family-friendly blog that draws readers of all ages, so PLEASE indicate profanities in a manner appropriate for those 10-100 if you choose to write a scene both ways: without and with x-rated language (ex.: *&%^@%* or something similar).

  2. I think using bad language in a book or movie is a cop-out. Think of a more creative way to present the characters, the story, the scene. Yay!

  3. Write the best story you can, be true to your characters no matter how they talk. Anything else, that's a cop-out.

  4. Linda, in your example of the kidnap victim if the scene was written in her POV it would not necessarily have any rough language. Written in the killers POV, however, would call for that harder edge. Yes, it could be done without "bad" words, but a few well-placed expletives would cement his character. I'm working on a deadline so I can't write the scene. Drat!!

  5. It's an interesting perspective - and obviously a valid one - but I'm with Naomi. If the characters swear, they swear - and I want them to. One of my favorite shows on TV is Entourage, precisely because they don't shy away from saying just what these young guys would be saying. And I think it's some of the best writing out there. Same for Dexter - fantastic writing, and no gratuitous swearing, but the characters who swear do so with gusto.

    I don't leave the hot spice out of my food, and I don't leave profanity out of my fiction.

  6. I tend to write characters that don't curse, but occasionally have included a character who does. You have to stay true to your characters, I think.

  7. A great challenge, Linda! Anything that improves the writer's craft is worthwhile. And why not find ways to increase the chances of sales to some sectors of the population? When I was a school librarian, I found that some of the other librarians were hesitating to buy YA fiction due to the graphic language depicted. That was a shame for those authors to have their otherwise excellent novel turned down, when, with a little creativity, they might have found ways to circumvent that problem.
    You've made some very good points!

  8. Maryann, I agree that the kidnapper's POV would require a definite hard edge. Having said that, I think it could take an unexpected turn by getting into his head. WHY is he this terrible person? Is he a psychopath, sociopath, or any number of things that would justify his actions in his own mind? Is this about power? Was he once powerless or a victim himself? What else might make him a preditor? The scene need not be graphic, but it does need to ring true and be intense. This, however, makes it a challenge to write.

  9. Maryann points to the dilemma I have with my bad guy character who needs his mouth washed out with soap.

    My novel is multiple point of view, and the only chapters with profanity are the chapters in his POV. The character is who he is. It's author intrusion to add comments in the narrative like "Sammy peppered his sentences with expletives."

    This debate is very helpful. Sigh.


  10. I think the decision moves you to a different subgenre and you want to be concious of it--there are readers for whom it is NEVER okay, and readers for whom it is distracting NOT TO when a character so obviously would.

    I am more likely to ADVOCATE truth to the character, and I DO find it distracting if I spend time in the head of the bad guy but he doesn't think anything horrible, graphic or rude, but I am writing cozy mystery at the moment, so my characters more often 'swear' (meaning I say they did it but not what they said) or use euphmisms (I'm fond of Holy Crap). The bad guys in a cozy are campier, and so aren't going to be entirely realistic ANYWAY

  11. I think the issue of swearing is far more complicated than most discussions suggest. It can't be reduced to a question of how many f-bombs is too many, or whether 'golly gee' is an appropriate synonym for some four-letter words.

    Swearing is often used to express anger, surprise or other strong emotions, but those are not the only uses of swearing, although they might be easiest for a writer to deal with. In most cases, swearing indicates or establishes relationships.

    There are gender, generational, cultural and status/power differences in swearing. Writers who are not attune to these will be seen as dropping swear words just for effect. Men with men swear differently than men with women, women with women and women with men. Sometimes swearing expresses bonding rather than anger. Sometimes it establishes dominance and sometimes it creates distance.

    Much of a writer's job is to portray relationships between people. A good writer should be able to do that without frequent use of swearing, but a great writer should be able to work with the full palate of words to paint the nuances of a relationship.

    In your example, a kidnapper who is trying to control his victim would probably not use profanity. He would likely try to be reasonable and accommodating. The victim, on the other hand, might try to claim some dominance and establish a distance between herself and her kidnapper. If there is profanity, I would expect it to come from her. So in this case, profanity from him might appear as gratuitous, but from her it might be realistic

  12. Your points are thought-provoking and insightful, Mark. You are quite right that relationships, not vulgarities, give power to a story. I particularly appreciated your comments about the many faces of swearing. As for the example, it was included to make writers think about perspectives.

  13. Excellent post! It's funny, in my personal life and my blog I don't hold back on the profanity but in my writing I never curse. My theory is if I'm not a good enough writer to convey what's going on without the use of those words then I'm just not a good writer. I also don't want to limit my pool of readers, if my characters spend half the book cursing then I've just offended a whole lot of people that could have bought my book.

  14. Should marketability be a reason to not write what's essential to you?

    I support those who choose to leave swearing out because it's not who they are. But when I see the argument about not wanting to limit your pool of readers, I have to wonder if you're straying from the reason you write in the first place.

    We write to express ourselves, to shake things up, to be intellectual groundbreakers, to explore new ideas and open people's minds, and to make sense of our own worlds. Yeah, I know - I write shallow crime fiction - but this is still the reason I write.

    I think the important thing is for us all to try to find OUR voice - not the voice we think someone else might like us to speak with.

    My voice swears - at least for now. Your voice might not. I think both are equally valid.

    p.s. Mark, I love everything you've said.

  15. On a side note, I would be more scared of a serial killer or thug that didn't use profanity and only said things like 'gosh, golly, gee'. In part because it's less predictable but mostly because we assume swearing means a lack of self-restraint and never swearing means a highly restrained individual. Serial killers and thugs are scarier when they seem oh-so-in-control of themselves.

  16. As more of a reader than a writer, I read for pleasure. Seeing curse words in print is not pleasurable. It's bad enough that I hear it in a grocery store, a parking lot, from a child who plays next door. It's become the acceptable "norm" in today's society, and what a shame that it is so commonplace.
    I remember, as a freshman in high school, walking into the bathroom and seeing the word "whore" on the wall. I turned to a friend and asked, "What's a whore?" I didn't even know how to pronounce it, and the way it came out of my mouth sounded like "war."
    I'm no longer that naive young girl of 14 but I don't curse, and I don't think I need to read vulgar words to comprehend the characters in a story. People curse in anger, to make a point, and to some it's become part of their everyday vocabulary.
    I, too, enjoy spicy food, but I don't allow it to burn my tongue or my eyes.
    I agree with Heather, a writer uses any words he feels is right to convey the character of his protagonist, a "good" writer uses a limited amount of undesirable words, but a "great" writer doesn't need profanity to get his/her readers inside the head of the characters.

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