I remember reading a book where the main character’s wife was viciously murdered, and his reply was a salty, “Oh my gosh!”
I don’t know about you, but if someone I loved was viciously murdered, “gosh” would most certainly not be a part of my vocabulary. But that’s me. Everyone is different, and not everyone reaches for a colorful metaphor in times of angst, stress, anger, or pain. I admire their restraint, as I’ve made truck drivers blush on rare occasion.
Swearing, like anything else in writing, needs to make sense and used where appropriate. If you don’t want to inject an expletive, then at least have the character act appropriately by covering his eyes, falling to his knees and belting out a loud sob. But “Oh my gosh!” isn’t going to cut it.
But there’s always the other side of the coin, too, where every other word is enough to make my sainted mother swoon and ask for her smelling salts. The logical question to ask yourself is whether cussing makes sense.
Does It Make Sense?
Swearing is part and parcel of logical character development, and there should be proper motivation for a salty utterance. For example, if your Marine character, who just got back from a tour in Iraq, is saying things like “fiddlesticks” and he’s not the Army chaplain, then you’ve struck a blow for believability. Most military people I know can swear like the beagle drinks margaritas – it’s second nature. So if your character is uttering things like “Mercy me!” then you need to connect the dots as to why this makes sense.
I have a character in my novel who swears like a truck driver. I made her that way because it was a fun counterbalance to the fact that she’s an OB/GYN and a closet softie for pregnant women, and it drives her other doc friends nuts. It’s an affectation, like Telly Savalas munching on a Tootsie Pop in the Kojack series.
What I didn’t do is riddle my character’s dialog with salty dog language because I didn’t want to overpower the reader. There was no point in doing so, unless she had Tourette’s. I had Mags swear just enough to remind the reader that she is a walking dichotomy of truck driver and caring doc.
Overkill is when a writer loses sight of the overall picture and focuses on one element that ruins a good story.
Overkill has many faces; exclamation points, humor, similes and metaphors, sex and violence, dialog tags, adverbs…and swearing.
Whenever I think about swearing overkill, I think of Good Will Hunting and The Blair Witch Project (don’t ask me why I saw it; it’s 1.5 hours I’ll never get back).
I wanted to love Good Will because the story is so good. But I was constantly distracted with the F-bomb overkill to the point where it ruined the movie for me. I’m no prude, but I kept wondering what was the point? I understand the need to show how Will is a rough-around-the-edges guy who happens to be brilliant and needs Robin Williams to help him find direction. But I found the reliance on every other word being an F-bomb tedious and sophomoric. Where is the literary genius with an entire book (or movie) jammed with dialog like, “Give me the f*cking car, you f*cking moron, or I’ll break your f*cking neck with my f*cking fist.”
It takes no talent to cuss ’til peel the paint off the wall. I remember my son, in the heat of a tense moment, letting his entire repertoire cut loose. When he was finished, I said, “Ok, now try it again, using your adult words.”
Effective communication? I think not. Any moron can inject soap-in-the-mouth invectives.
When something is used to excess, it becomes distracting, and the reader loses focus on the story. I had a manuscript that contained some derivative of the F-bomb 760 times. It’s an understatement to say that I was distracted and had the author do some editing. You can easily get the idea across that a character uses a lot of colorful metaphors without driving a stake through the reader’s eye. Readers are very smart and will believe that your character is a bit of a vulgarian by simply getting in a cuss word here and there…and it’s not always the F-bomb. That’s what talented writers do. That’s the magic of effective storytelling.
Being distracted can to lead to being offended. While I think the notion of being offended has gotten way out of hand, I still hold true to the tenets that say swearing is/can be offensive, depending on the words and the situation. After all, you don’t swear in front of little old ladies and your girlfriend’s mother, right? RIGHT? If you don’t want to offend little old ladies or your girlfriend’s mother, then why risk offending your readers with over the top sewer talk?
Effective swearing shouldn’t be taken lightly. Ostensibly, your character is swearing for a reason. If it’s just for $hits and giggles, then it loses its power because there’s no point. There are characters who can’t blink without injecting a colorful metaphor, but that doesn’t mean you have to write them that way. A character isn’t just bawdy with his language; he/she has other characteristics that convey the point. Maybe he scratches where it itches, or drinks to excess, or leers at the secretaries or water delivery guy.
My point here is to think about balance. For instance, I think Damon and Affleck effectively showed Will Hunting as a rough around the edges character via his tough Boston accent and lack of proper English skills. The excessive swearing created an imbalance to the point where it’s the first thing I think of when I think of Good Will Hunting. And that’s tragic.
Creating a balance means that when your characters swear, they’re doing it to emphasize a point.
I realize the Great Blue Streak has infused itself into our culture with increasing frequency, which I think is sad because we’ve lost our ability to communicate effectively. Instead of of saying, “Your betrayal destroyed my trust,” we know go for the easy punch with, “Fuck you, asshole.” Sure, there are places where the latter is appropriate, but not throughout your entire manuscript. Then it becomes all Tell and no Show.
This trend is showing up in TV shows, and they appear to be excited as a kid ditching Sunday school to be able to say “bullshit” with impunity and, therefore use it as often as they can. To me, it’s simple-minded because they’re delighting in the shock value – when they should be focusing on content. Once or twice is fine because sometimes there is nothing better to say than, “Oh, this is just utter bullshit!”
And like any trend, it’s overused and as inelegant as the obligatory sex scene back in the 70s. You couldn’t watch a movie from that era where some actress wasn’t ripping off her top, even when it had zip to do with the story.
The most important thing to remember is that trends come and go. At the heart of it all, you’re a writer, not a vulgarian, so ask yourself if your colorful metaphors are overkill, a distraction, and lacks balance. You want your writing to be timeless, and just because our language skills have devolved doesn’t mean your writing should.