Colorful Metaphors – Does it Make Sense?

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.

Overkill

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.

Distraction

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?

Balance

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.

Trend

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.

7 Responses to Colorful Metaphors – Does it Make Sense?

  1. I love this post. It’s so funny because when I wrote Heart Warriors, I had fifty or so beta readers, and one told me, “You never say the f-word when you talk, why is in your book.” And I had a rabbi read it and that was his only objection (his teenage kids were reading it too).

    Funny thing is, I only use it two, maybe three times in close to 300 pages. Another reader, after publication, came up to me at a book signing and thanked me for the well-placed and totally appropriate F-bombs. Funny how readers who don’t know “Amanda the person” appreciate the appropriateness of when to use the word. Readers who know me had a harder time with it. I guess this is just proof that the filter on my mouth is working because the word goes through my head about 100 times more often than my mouth or my writing.

    Oh, and I was raised by a truck driver and spend a lot of time around doctors. I’d say the doctors swear more. Just my expert opinion. 😉 I never once heard my dad drop an f-bomb, not once.

  2. authorguy says:

    Similar to Good Will Hunting is The Long Kiss Goodnight, in which the transformation of the heroine from PTA to super-assassin is indicated by a lot of swearing, but in most cases it just comes across as artificial and forced.
    I just had some beta-readers point out that I had used some variation on damn three times in a story and it bothered them. I removed two of them, mainly because they were all in the same paragraph. I was concerned that the character would seem a bit lame not saying damn where it would fit, however. I don’t like to use such language in my stories, but I do if the character needs it. The junior policeman in my MS has just met a girl and is trying to tone it down, so I have an excuse not to write it so much.
    Lastly, you might want to change the title of this post, you’ve got a plural noun and a singular pronoun and verb.

  3. It’s *because* you only have two F-bombs in your book is *why* they make such an impact. It made perfect sense.

    Thing is, you’ll never find a 100% consensus on anything because we all view life through different filters. That’s why striking a balance and making sure things make sense is the best route to take.

  4. Dan Holloway says:

    In fairness to contemporary movies, the trend was at its high point in the 80s when it was a badge of Simpson/Bruckheimer honour to wear your language on your sleeve and, as with sex and violence, was considerably modified by the revisionist strands that started with the likes of Last Action Hero.

    I certainly don’t remember the language from Good Will Hunting – I *do* remember thinking how sad it was that Robin Williams’ mawkish manchild act had become somewhat of a self-parody and for me that sometimes does distract from other aspects of a film – which like you say shows it’s different things for different people, but that’s key in the context of yor comment:

    “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?”

    The thing is that here as always it comes down to your particular readers – some writers have audiences who will be more offended by punch pulling (though I absolutely agree there’s more to gritty authenticity than swearing) and awriter has more of aduty o them than the sensibilities of someone who’s not there intened audience – I think the key is that we should never worry about offending people’s moral sensibilities as writers but we should always worry about untruthful writing drawing ou readers out of the story – and if we keep our eye on being true to our readers and the needs of our story then we’ll probably get it right.

    That said, swearing is one of many examples where we do well to remember that in fiction you can get away with less than in real life. We all know people who pepper every sentence with more swear words than you could ever realistically put in a character’s mouth – likewise things will have happened to us that no one would ever believe if we put in fiction – the twin towers of keeping your world internally consistent and necessarily distilling the infiniteness of real life to a bear essence that suggests everything beside when we put it on the page mean that in fiction we always have to round off the edges.

  5. NinjaFingers says:

    Swear words are heavy. Too many of them weigh your manuscript down. And, if you use a word too much, it *loses its power*.

    I actually knew somebody, once. Very nice person. Extremely nice. She used the f bomb as punctuation. Literally. Everyone thought she was this horrible, foul-mouthed person. But it was just the way she talked…I would have trusted her with my life. And because she used it so much I eventually didn’t even hear it.

    Which means if you write a character like that, the reader may eventually not see it, and then you lose the ability to use a swear word appropriately…for effect. It loses its weight.

    At the other extreme, the f bomb out of the mouth of somebody who has not used a single bad word in the entire book will stop the reader dead and could be a very effective way of showing that that person is in an extreme emotional state.

    Swear words are a tool in our box. You can choose not to use them for whatever reason – because they would offend your intended audience, because they bother *you*, because they don’t fit your theme. Or you can choose to use them, but you have to be aware of how.

    Swear words are very powerful. They’re a weapon. Best to be careful with them.

  6. Pelotard says:

    This being said, there’s a sort of poetry in the car mechanic pronouncing his diagnosis of the old wreck with the words “The f*cking f*cker’s f*cked”.

    When writing a novel, though, I would only ever have a character use that sort of language in front of a priest or an old lady. (Having penned an entire thriller with only one curse word, I realised that a 20-something character using it in front of his friends was sort of pointless. I had him say “Go away” instead.)

  7. I think that swearing is important in some cases for emotional honesty. A lot of YA readers (and/or their parents) get up in arms about the use of profanity, but everyone knows if you’re toning down your language for the sake of propriety. My protagonist is the poorly-supervised daughter of a divorced construction foreman. She’s angry and rebellious, and has poor social skills, and if she gets frustrated and doesn’t know what to do then she’ll definitely let out with an F-bomb or two. If she were to say something like “Gosh darn it!” it would be much more jarring to the readers than the actual “F**k you!”

    The male lead in this story, on the other hand, is a well-mannered, well-adjusted, even-tempered boy who habitually watches his language so as not to be a bad influence on his two little brothers. He curses, too, on occasion, but only when he’s angry and nothing much worse than “hell.” The fact that he doesn’t use profanity is, to me, as important as the fact that the protagonist does– and the fact that the villain would never in a thousand lifetimes dream of it. For characters, word choice is like clothing. You wouldn’t put Bruce Wayne in a pink T-shirt, would you?

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