Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Writing With A Potty Mouth

Now I admit if you’re writing Christian fiction or a book on the saints, you may not have a use for foul language, but for the rest of us, how do you handle it?

Where does the line fall? I think it all comes down to character. No, not your character but rather that of the person you’re creating. If you’re writing a book on prison, then having your characters speak in sanitized Queen’s English isn’t going to be believable.

A murderer isn’t going to to say, “Oh darn you, you rotten scoundrel. I’m going to have to stab you in your posterier with my shank.”

Cussing is almost required in that situation.

But how much is too much? We’ve all watched movies or read books where the f-word becomes so overused that it doesn’t have any meaning anymore. As a writer, you’re going to eventually get a feel for your character’s cadence and style.

Until you get a feel for it, here are a few tricks to help you.

If you’re not sure if the swear words should be there, then take it out and read the line aloud. Would you still know your character made that statement? If the answer is no, you’ll probably need to put it back.

But that doesn’t always work.

So ask what is the point of the swearing?

Is it for emphasis? Is it showing a character’s anger, strain, or loss of temper? If so, then use it sparingly so it stands out like a red dress at a black and white ball. The use of one ‘fuck’ will catch the eye of the reader more than if you litter the page with it.

However, if the swearing is to show the character’s upbringing or true demeanor, use the foul words more in dialogue and less in description. Remember, every word your character says or doesn’t say reflects on who they are. Description reflects more on the narrator/writer.

How does it show character? A person answers, “Have a nice day,” with a “Screw you, Asshole,” isn’t the same person who’d answer it with “Fucking hippie” or “Thanks, you too”. These three answers reflect three distinct personalities. So all words, even the bad ones, really matter.

What if it’s situational swearing?

Try asking yourself, ‘Who is this person talking?’ and ‘What kind of day are they having?’

Always consider your situation.

Even a priest might say “hell” if he just got shot in the groin. But whether or not he says it illuminates who this priest is as a person. If he suffers in silence, passes out, or prays for his shooter, it gives you a look at his true character. People under extreme stress usually stop pretending and be themselves.

Don’t be afraid to say damn, hell, shit, fuck, and piss. But don’t love it so much that you don’t when to hit the erase key. Keep your key questions in mind. Why is there swearing? Who is my character? What kind of day is my character having? Does it make the same statement without the bad words?

After awhile, you won’t need the questions, you’ll just know.

Until then, have a nice damn day.

*Also posted on my collaborative blog, Journeys In Ink.


  1. Tirzahhhhh! It's me, Lala, from WDC. No, I'm not stalking you. I swear. Mindy mentioned you in her blog so I thought I'd check this out. I like what you have to say about swearing. =] You've always had the best advice. You told me something years ago that has stuck with me since. I've had this quote on my wall in my room for years: "Lala, let me give you some of all my worldly advice. All people suck given the right day, no one will ever completely love you, love is wonderful but never expect it to last, and a good lollipop is enjoyable no matter the age." And isn't that just great? You've inspired and motivated me more than you'll ever know. Love and miss you!

  2. Hi Lala---all that advice...still true...LOL.

    I miss you too. You can always reach me here if you need me.


  3. I guess it really depends on what you are trying to achieve with your material. In the television series, "Deadwood", the words fuck and fucking were used to such an absurd degree, they became like characters themselves. The way the series was written highlighted the times being written about in the way they were written about in those times: as an out of control, over the top, larger than life, and anything goes wild west that became a part of our national mythology. The over use of the words seemed to fit the intention.


  4. In my experience, people like a good fuck (word) thrown in now and then. It makes them smile. Unless they are holier than thou - and in that case they really should be reading something else :) I avoid it on my blog though - there's a time and a place for it as you so rightly say!

  5. And thanks for adding the feed. I've now got you RSS-sed. :)