To Cuss Or Not To Cuss. That Is The Goddamned Question. #amwriting

UntitledThis is one of the many questions most fiction writers must ask in most projects. I’m told that the coziest of cozy mysteries eschew all profanity, but it sometimes happens that the villain is a roughneck. What then?

Personally, as a reader, I can take it or leave it. I generally don’t notice it when it’s missing. On the other hand, I can tolerate a moderate amount of bad language — more when I’m reading to myself than when I’m reading aloud to Mom. When I’m reading aloud to Mom, I generally redact most if not all of the F-bombs and pretty much all of the references to anatomical naughty bits.

I once began reading a paranormal mystery by a writer I had recently met and had found to be a very nice person. The profanity was so thick, I stopped reading after a couple of pages. It felt like a verbal assault. I was willing to concede that these characters, in this situation, would talk exactly like that; I just found the volume to be too loud for comfort.

Part of the problem was the repetitiveness. There was just enough variety to show me that the writer could mix it up, but not enough to make it really interesting. I have a friend from Chicago who used to be an artist with bad language. Every sentence popped and sizzled; he seemed to have an innate sense of the rhythm of his words. It was like listening to good bluegrass: edgy, but delicious.

Knowing these things as a reader, what do I do as a writer?

I generally make the decision to limit the bad language I use. My husband separates profanity into two kinds: irreverence and vulgarity. Irreverence is using words that would be fine if a preacher used them in a sermon. Vulgarity is using words referring to sexuality, body parts, bodily functions, or lower eliminations. I say “lower” because, insofar as I know, nobody considers “snot,” “spit,” or “earwax” profane.

It seems to me that limiting the bad language you use in your writing — if you’re writing about people who use profanity — makes the profanity you do choose to use more powerful. If the usage is so common as to be unremarkable … part of what writing is about is eliminating the unremarkable from your writing, yes? So I would go with just using enough to give a flavoring without crossing the line into a waste of ink.

What do you think about using profanity in writing, as a reader and as a writer?

A WRITING PROMPT FOR YOU: Write a scene liberally laced with profanity. Write it again without the profanity. Was the profanity a crutch to prop up weak writing? Don’t get sore; I’m just asking.

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About

I was born in Louisville, Kentucky, but now live in the woods in southern Indiana. Though I only write fiction, I love to read non-fiction. The more I learn about this world, the more fantastic I see it is.

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One thought on “To Cuss Or Not To Cuss. That Is The Goddamned Question. #amwriting

  1. Dan
    Twitter:

    August 3, 2015 at 7:54am

    I think characters have to be believable. It’s hard to imagine a tough guy saying “darn it” when a door slams on his hand. I wrote about this one from a different perspective (social media).
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    • Author

      Marian Allen
      Twitter:

      August 3, 2015 at 8:34am

      It would be definite characterization to have a tough guy who said “darn it” when a door slams on his hand! lol! My husband cusses like he breathes, but when something really goes pear-shaped he says, “Well, sir!”

      You can also squeeze around cussing if you need to by saying, for example, “He cursed.” Or, “He used language I hadn’t heard since I graduated high school.”

      But, yeah, sometimes characters have to say what they have to say. I told my grandfather I had written a story with very bad language in it. He said, “Why?” I said, “Because that’s how those particular people talk.” He considered that and said, “All right, then.” πŸ™‚
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  2. Holly Jahangiri
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    August 3, 2015 at 8:08am

    Characters have to be true to themselves. I’m just taking dictation. Mine have learned, though, that profanity used as mere “verbal punctuation” is weak language and will be edited. An f-bomb used as a comma had better be as natural as breathing to that character, or it’s gone in the first pass.

    I feel the same way when reading. I also know of one author whose books I enjoyed through about seven in a series – until the sex was not only graphic but very repetitive. I don’t want to read repetitive sex scenes until I know the author’s own particular kinks and pet phrases better than my own. The earlier books were good, because the sex was just relief from the tension and violence of a good mystery. Later it was the central focus, punctuated by an incidental mystery and increasingly shocking violent acts that seemed merely to be competing with their former selves. When sex and violence make a reader think, “Oh, ho hum, here we go again,” THAT is a problem.
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      Marian Allen
      Twitter:

      August 3, 2015 at 8:39am

      I hear you about that series. I don’t know if it’s the same one, but I have a series I stopped reading for that same reason.

      As far as cussing is concerned, we’re writing fiction, right? It can’t BE just true to life; it has to SEEM true to life. Language that might just slip past our ears IRL will poke hot spikes through our eyeballs into our brains. We don’t want to use ALL language judiciously and effectively, including profanity.
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      • Holly Jahangiri
        Twitter:

        August 3, 2015 at 9:00am

        Did it involve supernatural critters and interspecies relationships? πŸ˜‰

        I read all of them. I just stopped enjoying them as much, about halfway through. It felt they were all just trying way too hard – mainly to convince themselves there was still any point in going on.

        My vote would’ve been “no” about 4-5 books before the end.

        And you’re right – some real people use the f-word like others use like. Like, you know, all the time. Like, every sentence. More, like, verbal tic, even, than, like, punctuation. (NO, you do not need to say “f***” everywhere you’d type a comma!! Like, that’s just f***ing ridiculous, y’know?”) But that said, I won’t shy away from it like some prissy schoolmarm, either, if that’s the way the character talks.
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        • Author

          Marian Allen
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          August 3, 2015 at 9:55am

          “Did it involve supernatural critters and interspecies relationships? ?”

          Why, yes. Yes, it did.

          You’re always going to have readers who want rampant cussing because that’s how certain people talk, and you’re always going to have readers who want NO cussing because they disapprove and feel it’s unnecessary. In the end, you have to do what feels right to YOU through the medium of your characters. Then, if you’re offered a contract, you have to do what you can negotiate with the house editor. πŸ˜‰
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  3. Dan
    Twitter:

    August 3, 2015 at 9:44am

    @Marian Allen – I might also like to see the inverse, the occasional cuss word in real life. When the President or some other prominent politician gets asked some really stupid-baiting-for-a-sound-bite question at a news conference, I’d like to hear him say “wtf, are you serious?”
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  4. Jane
    Twitter:

    August 3, 2015 at 10:36am

    Yes, I DO like me some Cussin’ Joe Biden!!

    Cussing. I cuss. But I like to think I usually take into account who’s listening. Here, for instance, a reader.

    Yes, I stopped reading BOTH series by that writer. Because of the useless sex. I’d start thinking about the very first book in the set and about how really innovative and fun it was. Then I compare to what’s in my steaming hands. YUCK! is my conclusion.

    In “Callie,” I make it clear that, between themselves, the girls will say just about anything, but they usually don’t. It’s actually more fun to make up some off the cuff remark. Or a personal slur. Or a telling truth. Then when they’re in heated dialogue, when you throw in the “F*&k it all,” it has some impact.

    Graphic descriptions of sex:
    This language is really all over the place. But my preference is to match the telling to the context of the story. I TOTALLY HATE when a male POV turns the story into a TMI situation. I don’t care if guys think about sex 40 times an hour. I really don’t want to hear about it. I signed up to read a kick-ass story, not a nasty-assed account of rearings inside pants, tightening of balls, clenching of — well, you get the drift. I often hit parts of a story where I can absolutely tell when the male part of the co-authors takes over.

    I DON’T LIKE IT!

    Advice: ALWAYS read the opening samples of an ebook when offered. Frequently, you can tell right away that you might not care for the thing. Sadly.

    Great post, Marian! You are 110% right!

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      Marian Allen
      Twitter:

      August 3, 2015 at 11:00am

      Wouldn’t it be funny if we were talking about three different series?

      A little of that TMI is clinically interesting. I’m like, “Your WHAT does WHAT? Seriously???” But that does rather break the flow of the narrative.
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  5. Perry Block
    Twitter:

    August 3, 2015 at 2:56pm

    Shit, you make some good points here. It’s what I’ve always told my son ever since he was old enough to know bad words. I said that it’s okay to use them in writing and sometimes speech when they are called for (i.e the power they convey is appropriate and/or necessary), but once you use them all the time, they lose all power and meaning. Of course, we don’t always follow this as much as we should in real life, but the point is there.

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  6. Kiril Kundurazieff
    Twitter:

    August 3, 2015 at 10:56pm

    Well, #h!@, I don’t give a rat’s #s* if a character cusses a &^#k@!* blue streak as long as it’s believable that the character would and is relevant to the story.

    Heck, I have used the word pussy from time to time on my cat blog (including 2 versions of an essay in defense of the word from vulgarians!) and haven’t had many complaints, at least not for 7 yrs or so. πŸ˜€

    As for graphic sex…. it has to be believable and relevant….In the 70’s -90’s I was an avid reader of the Historical Family Saga Genre…
    There was one series, purporting to tell the story of the US Military and famous battles, via the lives of generations of a family, but each book was ruined for me because the movement of the story and action was stopped when characters had sex.
    The scenes and language were not believable for the time period of the story and were not neccessary to telling a good story.

    The series lasted about 15 books, I think, telling it’s tale from the Revolution to Vietnam.
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      Marian Allen
      Twitter:

      August 4, 2015 at 8:17am

      I’m with you on all counts. I would usually prefer not to be present while other people are having sex, but I have one series I like — the Flashman series by George MacDonald Fraser — that Charlie calls “your dirty books”. Flashman is what the people of Flashman’s time called a bounder. The sex scenes generally move the rest of the action forward and showcase important elements of the characters. A hard standard to meet.

      And I know all about your pussy posts, you silly man! Again, I agree: That’s such a sweet little word for cats, I hate it that the slang meaning has consumed it.
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      • Kiril Kundurazieff
        Twitter:

        August 4, 2015 at 10:11am

        re: “And I know all about your pussy posts, you silly man! Again, I agree: That’s such a sweet little word for cats, I hate it that the slang meaning has consumed it.”

        LOL! For the curious the post in question is here:

        May I have a Word: An Essay by Mr. Nikita Cat ( It even got a response, of sorts, from PETA hee, hee! )

        http://www.opinionatedpussycat.com/2010/01/may-i-have-a-word.html

        In my cat book collection are several late 19th/early 20th century books about cats, by women, that use Pussy or Pussies quite a lot.

        Would such a book be possible today, even if self-published? πŸ˜€
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  7. Pat Garcia
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    August 4, 2015 at 6:37am

    Hi Marian,

    That is a dilemma for me also. To be honest, I don’t care for books where the character’s every second or third word is a cuss word. In many cases, I think that is a matter of poor language skills. But then again, I look at my own philosophy of what fiction should portray and I think the main reason that I dislike cussing excessively in books is because I believe fiction should help make us better people. Now, I know that can be considered as moralistic but that is my opinion.

    Shalom,
    Patricia
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      Marian Allen
      Twitter:

      August 4, 2015 at 8:22am

      “Poor language skills” — YES! That’s why I had Connie, in SIDESHOW, never cuss. She made her living off her language skills, so I had her make herself clear without using imprecations. Jackie, on the other hand, makes his living designing clothes, so he falls back on the old standards for emphasis. At the same time, Jackie is probably the nicest, kindest person in the book, although that’s damning with faint praise.
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