Cussing in Fiction

Years ago a (now former) friend of mine agreed, with enthusiasm, to read an early draft of a novel I’d written. (Not the official first one I published this year. I never developed the novel I’m referring to in this story.)

I got her address, boxed it up and mailed it, all the while excited about what she’d think of it, wondering what suggestions she might make. I was twice as excited when she confirmed that it had arrived a few days later.

The next day all that excitement went away, replaced by irritation and disappointment. My friend emailed me.

“I’m sorry, but there are curse words in this book. You didn’t tell me there would be curse words. I can’t get past chapter one. I’ll have to stop. I’ll sent it back.”

Way to go back on a deal, right? And way to be sanctimonious about life. (There is more than one reason we are no longer friends.)

She informed me, after my stunned objections, that good stories can be written without “resorting” to “curse words.” This after I told her I was going for realism, and that there were some bad people in the novel. It didn’t matter to her.

Though I eventually left both that novel and that friend behind, I’ve never forgotten how it made me feel to be told that in essence my manuscript was not readable, after just a few pages, because someone in there said, “Damn it all,” or the equivalent. Characters, plot, theme, the vast majority of my prose, none of that could possibly have any value because, “I can’t get past the curse words.”

I sometimes wish that as a parting gift years later, I’d have mailed her not a manuscript, but a crowbar, with a note attached saying, “for the stick up your ass.”

Harsh? Yeah, probably a bit. On the other hand, get a clue. She knew this was based on some historical events, and that it involved royal intrigue and murder. That, she was ready to embrace, but the word “shit,” just crossed a moral line.

She’s not alone in this assessment, I know, but she was the only such person to read that manuscript.

Not that she altered the course of my future writing. When I think a curse word will work, or is realistic I use it in my fiction. I will continue to do so, unless writing a kids book, or some other genre that requires a particularly curse word-free story. Even then, only if I think there is such a story that I need to to tell. Story first, or what are we to make of anyone who writes a murder mystery?

Using curse words is for poor writers. Jumping right to bad words just proves you aren’t creative enough to come up with another way of conveying your meaning. It’s lazy.

Writers hear this literary pontification all the time, but is it as true as it is snooty? Yes, but only indirectly. What should actually be avoided in our writing is laziness, shortcuts, distractions. Curse words can be used in all of these poor ways, but so can twist-ending, character stereotypes, or any number of devices. If you don’t like to read or hear common swear words, fine, own up to that and be done with it. But don’t go out of your way to blanket their use as “bad writing.”

Let’s face it, sometimes a lack of swear words take us out of certain kinds of stories. Would a thriller set in a Bronx police precinct feel authentic, or naive if nobody in it, good guy or bad, ever swore? It might end up being an interesting literary experiment, possibly even a masterpiece of language and diction. Yet it would not rightly be considered a “gritty thriller” that takes place in anything like our own world. At that point, the criticism for cussing doubles back on itself; it becomes lazy writing to plug in a non-curse word every time. Who is using the crutch now?

Just as using a curse word is not de facto lazy, avoiding them is not de facto creative.

“Jake, I’m so tired of your feces.”

That line conveys something, and does so without a curse word in it. We probably have a general understanding of how Jake has made the speaker feel. It’s a correct, clean line as far as that goes.

It’s also patently absurd. It’s an atrocious, hackneyed, juvenile replacement, that outside of parody would almost certainly never be uttered in anger by a single human being on this planet. Using it would bring any semblance of story skidding to a halt, and proceed to beat the reader senseless with a wooden beam that has, “I, the author, refuse to use swear words because I’m clever,” burned into the side.

And yes, the opposite is certainly true. “I fucking hate going to the fucking store with that fucking stupid fucker.” I grant you, lines in this extreme are often deemed gritty and en vogue, and thus get better press. The truth is, though, it’s not any better than the feces line, because in this case the swear words are being used to establish cheap (and false) gravitas. This is what needs to be avoided, not curse words in their own right.

Truth be told, even when going for a realistic tone, I don’t have as much swearing in my fiction as I do in real life. At least not in the stories I’ve written so far. Just like good writing doesn’t include every single “er” and “umm” it probably doesn’t need to contain every swear word the average person in the situation would use. Yet to ban all of them, unless writing a children’s book or heavily religious fiction, does more harm than good, to me.


1 Comment

  1. Most people swear, especially when angry or when things go awry. I never mind it, unless it’s excessive and in there for… I don’t know. I’ve seen some people try to use it as voice. I use foul language, but only because some of my characters do. It’s not my decision. It is how the character I have created would react in their situation. If you wrote without being honest to your characters, or about only characters who never swear… it’s probably not my kind of story/read. I prefer rough, raw and difficult stories, stories that build inner strength and test you. When dealing with that content, sometimes foul language surfaces. Another oft discussed taboo is sex. Yes. I realize it is a part of life, natural, etc. However, I’m not a fan of reading it. Depending on subject matter, it may be necessary. Again, depending on character, discussing the specifics may be relevant to that character arc, but a lot of times it’s put in to bring excitement to a book. I often see it as a cheat, a way to convey the love between two characters without conveying it in dialogue, in tone, etc. I’m a firm believer that most times, you can side-step painting the full picture. You can allude to it, but don’t have describe. I see foul language the same way. There are characters that swear on occasion. There are character who cuss as their primary language. However, when you are too descript and lean on either of these crutches too much, it seems like a cheat. Of course, staying true to your characters is another thing entirely, not a cheat, not a crutch. So…. my point? I agree. To omit true character dialogue does more harm than good. Be true to your story. Be true to your characters. If people don’t like it, they don’t need to read it. Though, if one were to offer to beta read, they might disclose they’re opposed to any and all foul language… just a thought.

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