My time is spent, more or less to an equal degree, either writing and editing fictional dialogue or editing factual dialogue. It’s a point of pride with me that there isn’t a swear word I haven’t seen or invective I’ve yet been unable to spell.
Swear words are wonderful things — adaptable, friendly or funny, aggressive, violent, accepted or abhorred. We have a profanity for all occasions and if we don’t … well, it’s the matter of a moment to make one up.
Curses are our secret lovers, our linguistic bit on the side, a guilty pleasure that most of us fall back on behind closed doors. A polite society doesn’t swear because that would make it seem somehow less intelligent, less cultured, less civilized. Swearing in public is the preserve of the uncouth, those who leave shopping trolleys in the front garden and who saddle their numerous children with names beginning with the same letter. Right?
We’re fooling no-one. When we’re feeling the strain, nine out of ten of us will hire a curse to take on the emotional heavy lifting. There are few pleasures in life that match the slow, building hiss of air escaping from between your lips as you formulate your cuss of choice. It’s anticipatory, the vanguard of a sweary satisfaction only moments away from attainment.
It seems funny then that the world of fiction has more of a problem with bad language than real life itself, highlighted by the confused approach writers have when dealing with it.
A few weeks ago my interest became piqued on reading a thread in a writing forum. The subject up for discussion surrounded the issue of whether or not to include dangling modifiers (and other such hanging offences) in fictional dialogue. Many participants held the belief that a writer has a duty to The Truth — that if we say something in real life a certain way then our characters must say it too. Only to a point, I would suggest.
Here’s an everyday example of the type of thing I come across in my factual work:
“Because I f**king said, right, ‘You’re having a f**king—’ No, wait. This was right, er, but no. ‘There’s no f**king way yous getting your f**king hands on my f**king sh*t, you f**king c**t.’ That f**king dog weren’t mine, innit.”
Real people talking just like this. Real people whose sentences are composed mainly of modifiers and non sequiturs, talking The Truth but no less annoying to read and punctuate for all that.
While you can, up to a point, get away with this in performance dialogue, if you’re writing genre fiction you should consider how it looks on the page. How easy will it be for your reader to absorb the substance if it’s cowering underneath the lexicon of a pub brawl?
Swearing is a powerful weapon in any writer’s gun cupboard. It can classify your character by class, education, temperament and mental state. It can indicate any emotion from grief to ecstasy. Just one swear word, carefully placed and carefully timed, can have the impact of a bomb going off. However, swearing can just as easily disempower your writing. So you’re trying to have, oh dear, grit in your realism? Let’s nip back to the example above. I’ll wait …
For the non-literary fiction writers amongst you: I repeat. It’s. Horrible.To. Read. If you insist on writing your characters with such slavish attention to all the hideous stumbles, grammatical infelicities and pulpy word fillers that each human being is guilty of deploying in every day speech, then I would worry that you could lose your readers by the second page. They’re there to be entertained, to escape, to be presented with a selectively edited version of the world. They don’t want to have to work for it.
Worse, effing and blinding on such an epic scale can weaken your characters and pigeon-hole them as one single, tedious caricature. Yes, him with the shopping trolleys and the kids.
For the scriptwriters amongst you: I hate to say this but, come on, it’s not big and it’s not clever. At best swearing is the easy way to a quick and cheap laugh; at worst it’s a lazy attempt to shock a fading script back to life. You’re better than that. When I see a script stuffed with characters showing how ‘edgy’ they are simply by saying f**k every other word, I switch off. Your characters need to have more to say. Each time you type a swearword ask yourself “How is it serving the script?” Aim for the single swear bomb rather than Desert Storm.
Remember, every word counts so don’t make them meaningless fillers and, whatever you do, don’t substitute reality for readability.