Tag Archives: swearing

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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