Question of the Week: Swearing

2 Apr

This week’s Question of the Week comes from Spira, who asks:

“When writing a close to realistic fiction, how much swearing should be incorporated? I know it’s kind of annoying to read a story that has so much but when you think about it, a lot of teens and adults nowadays swear like a banshee screeching. But when wanting to write a publish work, how much should be there be and how much should be screened? Or should writers just use alternatives altogether?”

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Write as many swear words as is apropriate for your story. For middle grade audiences (12 and under) or younger, cussing tends to be a no-no, but for YA (12+) the possibilities are wide open. Go read NICK AND NORAH’S INFINITE PLAY LIST if you think you can’t swear in YA.

That said, remember that a written cuss-word is more powerful than as spoken one. They land on the page like rocks and draw the eye in. So while your character might cuss every other sentence in real life, it comes across really excessive on the page.

Also, remember that you can use cusswords to your advantage. Mindi Scott’s debut, FREEFALL (Simon & Schuster) features a boy protagonist who does indeed cuss. But she saved that first F*$&# for a moment when she wanted maximum impact. The resulting dialogue is much more powerful than if she’d been cussing from the first paragraph.

The Literary Agent and Writer Who Just Sold Another Book!

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It depends on your audience. I haven’t read or written much YA so I can’t say what’s typical there. If you’re writing regular adult fiction you can get away with practically anything and the amount you use is entirely at your discretion. I’m thinking of Kurt Vonnegut here. That being said I don’t think it’s necessary to completely match reality as writers don’t do that with dialogue. Otherwise there’d be far more um’s and conversations that go nowhere and nobody wants to read those.

It’s all about individual taste and judgment at this point but I think swearing works best as emphasis. If you’re trying to convey just how affected someone is by a situation it can help to let them slip a few curses in. It can also be useful to distinguish classes or show rougher characters because people often associate coarser language with lower classes.

The Writer Querying Agents

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I think you should do your best to give a realistic portrayal, but keep in mind your market. If you’re writing YA, there isn’t a rule that says you CAN’T swear, but if your book is YA and marketed at a more conservative or religious audience, then dropping F-bombs every other page probably isn’t going to work. Also, if you’re writing general fantasy, sometimes using our real-world vulgarities can be jarring.
There’s one scene in a later QUEEN OF GLASS book, where two of my characters get into a massive argument, and the only curse that worked well enough to encompass this character’s anger was an F-bomb (AKA “Funk you.”). However, I grappled with whether or not I should put it in there, not because it’s an offensive word, but because it seemed like SUCH a word from our world that it kinda threw off the scene. However, “Go to Hell” didn’t quite do the same job as “Funk you.” I still don’t know if it should be in there or not…Odds are, I’ll eventually remove it, just to avoid the possibility of it being too “modern” for QOG.
But yeah–don’t worry too much about the swearing, as long as it’s done in a realistic way, and as long as it fits with the world you’re building. But don’t insert swearing just to make your novel “edgy.”

The Writer With Her First Book Deal!

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I strongly believe that swears can be an insight to character. It would all depend on what situation your character’s in, and what they’re like; do they lose hope easily, do they get angry easily, are they just about to be told they’re going to live/die. Using alternatives might be a good idea for a book geared towards younger YA audiences, but I think that if somebody’s meant to say the f-word, they should just say the f-word. At times a character not swearing can be what sounds unnatural.

The thing is, people swear a lot in real life, but they also say a lot of other things. If you listen to someone speak, (unless they’re trained in rhetoric, or something,) you’ll probably hear them repeat things often. In writing, especially in books, that’s not quite how it’s done because it can get boring. In script or screenplay though it’s a whole different area because you have people acting it out, so they can make it sound realistic without sounding repetitive. It really depends.

Just keep it at a level where it still adds to the story. It’s when swearing takes away from flow that it becomes obnoxious.
~The Writer Revising Her First Novel

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Trying to make your book realistic… Sometimes a writer needs to know that reality needs to be edited. It’s one thing to listen to a friend who says the word “like” a hundred times per sentence. But to imitate that in a book would get annoying to the readers. Likewise, with swear words, it becomes redundant when used constantly.

The Writer Who Got a Full Request

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I think you’ve answered your own question when you say ‘close to realistic fiction.’ The amount of swearing you use should be ‘realistic.’ Okay, so what defines realistic? Essentially it’s whatever you think your characters would use. However, as the other ladies have pointed out, you need to consider not only the natural tendency to curse of your character, but also your potential audience. Additionally, just because your character likes to curse doesn’t necessarily mean you should let them. Be careful of cursing too much, or your book might appear to be trying to make itself ‘edgy.’ Ways to get around this yet still show the frustration of characters is to use ‘Mary Sue swore. “This isn’t working!” ‘ That way you know she swears, you know she’s frustrated, but you don’t know explicitly which swear words she used. That’s pretty much the only alternative I can think of that you could use without looking corny. You would never want to use ‘gosh darn it’ or ‘ham dingus’ as substitutes for actual swear words, unless your character is just like that.

The Writer Waiting on Submissions

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What’s your take on swearing in fiction, especially in the YA category?

Remember, if you want to ask us a Question of the Week, click on QOTW at the top on our links. We mostly answer questions in order, unless there’s something really pressing at hand.

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8 Responses to “Question of the Week: Swearing”

  1. Rowenna April 2, 2010 at 11:56 AM #

    Really good points–swear words do hit like rocks, as Mandy said, but they’re also a part of the English language that for some characters get used a lot! Still, as a lot of the posts said, writers write dialogue, not verbatim conversations.

    I think, too, that in real life and in writing too much cursing comes off like a crutch–a person can’t think of how they really want to express themselves, so the f-bomb takes the place of a cogent thought. For the most part, we require our characters to express more cogent thoughts than might be realistic for the sake of the story 🙂

    If someone is a rabid curser, and you want to express that but don’t want to include too many real swear words, how do you feel about peppering in some “he cursed under his breath” and “the stream of obscenties offended even the dog” sort of statements–hinting at the character’s language without openly repeating it?

  2. Samantha W April 2, 2010 at 12:25 PM #

    Maybe use alternatives to tone the word down. Instead of “You’re suck a F#@$% dork” it could be “You’re such a freaking dork”. Of course, this still depends on which character is saying it. If your character is supposed to be moody and intimidating, you may not want them to use an alternative… Because they’d sound silly 😛

    Personally, curse words don’t bug me if they are tastefully placed, but I do find them irking when they are used excessively (ie.”You Fing B!%$, don’t you Fing show your Fing face around here again your Fer!”) Even if the character is supposed to be that way, it’s super annoying to read… So if I’m reading a book and there is a character like that, hopefully it’s just a minor character who’s dialogue I wont have to deal with that much in the book… Other wise I may not want to read it. 😦

  3. Caitlin April 2, 2010 at 3:59 PM #

    Something to consider that’s being used in the world of Sci-fi television. Often alternate or future societies are being portrayed and the writers get around FCC regulations and world-build at the same time by having their characters swear in another language (Chinese in Fire-fly) or creating an alternate word (Frack in BSG) that’s developed as swearing in the language.

    Also the point to make may be that because of FCC regulations, unless you’re HBO or Showtime TV networks have to limit their use of swearing, but they still manage to seem “realistic.” (The whole world of television and film in general is fascinating in that we’ve gotten used to editing conventions as a form of realism even thought that’s no where near how we actually see the world.)

  4. Gabriela da Silva April 2, 2010 at 9:01 PM #

    I swear a lot. A whole fucking lot, to be realistic. Dunno why, my friends and I, we just do. In as many languages as we can.

    But in a book, swearing has to be regulated by three factors, I think they have already been mentioned. Public’s age, insight into the character (cussing does say a lot about the characters – from how often they do to which curses they use) and impact.
    In my book, for instance, I have maybe one or two cuss words – I’m certain only of one, and I used it only when the entire world seemed to be falling apart around the character and he just couldn’t take it anymore.

    However, I sometimes feel like making a character who cusses so much that these words pretty much lose their meaning, and become just another staple of the conversation, so you have to think of new words.
    Like me and my friends. Saying “mega poop!” is or new “shit”, you see.

  5. Elen April 2, 2010 at 9:42 PM #

    I agree with everything that the LTWF contributers said, and additionally I would recommend looking at J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series (the latter ones), because she does a good job of saying “he/she swore” in various ways without necessarily saying the word.

    • Sarah J. Maas April 2, 2010 at 11:09 PM #

      Good point! Also, JKR has one of the BEST instances of scene-appropriate cursing. I stood up and cheered when Mrs. Weasley faced off against Bellatrix and said: “NOT MY DAUGHTER, YOU BITCH!” One of the best lines ever, thanks to the choice use of cursing.

  6. Kayleigh April 3, 2010 at 10:58 AM #

    It’s strange because I swear a lot, but when I write, my characters don’t swear that often. They only swear if they’re angry or frustrated. I just write what seems like a normal thing for the character to say. I don’t censor anything.

  7. Renee April 5, 2010 at 2:37 AM #

    Ah, great QOTW! I wrote a three-book series for my pleasure (and my brother’s) over the winter months and the main character cursed an AWFUL lot. It was also First Person POV, and it actually began to annoy me as the writer after a while, because Tris (the main character) simply could not seem to become honest-to-goodness literate enough to speak without swearing. It just wasn’t in his character by the end of the second book. @.@

    Ever since then, I’ve been absolutely wary of letting much cursing into my writing, just because I don’t want to hit that spiral again where one swear leads to another, and then…

    But that’s just me, of course, and everyone’s different. 😛 And I do believe a well-placed “H*ll”, “d*amn” or even “f*!@k”, etc. can be useful! The example of Molly in the last Harry Potter book is the best one. 😉

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