Damn Good Writing: How (and How Not) to Use Profanity

“Easy reading is damn hard writing.”

-Nathaniel Hawthorne

 

Profanity is an odd subgenre of language. From the time we are young, we are taught not to use it, and yet we hear it every day. In films, television programs, music, games, and reading materials, we see more and more of these forbidden words—to the point where the shock value has more or less worn off. The impact of a good, loud cuss is all but gone. So what’s the point?

Fact of the matter is, profanity wouldn’t exist if it didn’t serve some purpose. Using profanity doesn’t make a person bad or classless, just like not using profanity doesn’t make a person better or smarter. Replace “person” with “writer” and you’ll see where I’m going with today’s blog post. All of those media examples I listed where profanity is surging? Well, somebody had to write all of those things. Let’s talk about the function of profanity, when it is and isn’t appropriate, and how we writers can be damn smart about how we use it.

What are the benefits of profanity? Probably the oddest sentence to date that I’ve put on this blog, but a valid question nonetheless. Profanity can actually be an effective tool in communicating the severity of a situation, characterizing individuals or a group, or—if used properly—stopping readers dead in their tracks. The important thing with profanity is recognizing why you’re using it. Like all word choices in writing, cusses must be the best word to use in a situation; however, people do recognize profanity as separate from other words, so there’s a little more pressure to use it effectively.

Some people swear all the time. They modify every noun and verb with a cuss, or just replace the nouns and verbs altogether. Cluster swearing isn’t unrealistic behavior to include in your writing. Having a character who drops f-bombs like they’re going out of style isn’t a bad thing; it’s when everyone in your cast does it that readers may find themselves confused. Bear in mind that well-written characters reflect real people, and not all people speak the same way. One character who swears all the time becomes distinct, and readers will have a strong sense of that character’s voice whenever he or she speaks. If everyone swears with the same regularity, the voices blend together and muddle the clarity of dialogue.

Sometimes swearing is an indicator of where the character is or came from. Someone from the United States is more likely to swear than someone from Japan. A college freshman out on his or her own in the dorms is more likely to swear than a Catholic high school student living at home with Mom and Dad. Business professionals are less likely to swear in a meeting with clients than they are at a friend’s party on the weekend. Environment creates speech patterns. Just like “wicked awesome,” “ya’ll,” and “like, totally” communicate stereotypes of regional dialects, profanity can signal to readers that characters come from a certain place or are at a certain stage in their lives.

To combine the two above points, writers may find themselves in a situation where the entire main cast would realistically speak with the same amount of profanity. This is where a little cleverness is involved to avoid confusing readers. Maybe certain characters have favorite swears they’re more likely to use, or else characters follow a specific pattern when they cuss (i.e., always modifying nouns but never verbs, or only using swears in place of unusual verbs). Additional speech patterns outside of profanity can also let the reader know which character is speaking for those exchanges where writers don’t want to get redundant using dialogue tags.

Just as there are people and characters who swear with regularity, there are people who only swear some of the time (for easy examples, check out network television shows or PG-rated movies). Middle-of-the-road swearing is probably the easiest way to tackle profanity because lots of people swear but don’t necessarily bust out the language you’d hear in a gritty, R-rated scene. You’d see this in-between level of profanity in young adult novels and up.

To round out our three oversimplified categorizations of swear-word-users, there are folks who just never do it. The curse-less cast of characters reside in writing such as books for younger audiences, heartwarming romance novels, and anything religious. Those categories kind of go without saying. Individual characters who never use profanity are peppered throughout literature, of course. There are a few ways to play them.

Some characters noticeably don’t use profanity, having distinct substitute words (i.e., fiddlesticks) or lesser curses (i.e., darn in place of damn). Others don’t swear but also don’t have alternative words that highlight it and will not attract readers’ attention unless their speech patterns contrast with other cast members. Having characters who never swear can be as striking as characters who always swear, though a cast of characters who don’t swear or swear very little is more common than a cast that swears heavily, so writers don’t have to be as cautious about voices blending together.

My personal favorite subdivision of “characters who don’t swear” are the ones who do get to swear—just once. Nothing grabs readers’ attention in dialogue quite like the character with the politest speech patterns dropping a big ol’ f-bomb. This trope has to be done correctly; the right moment, the right swear word, and the right delivery must align for the moment to be a success. If any of these options are weak, the moment will feel out of character as opposed to profound. Generally, when this trope goes into effect, it happens during a scene that is climactic either for the individual character or the story as a whole, the swear word is always a big one, and the delivery is in a moment of anger, despair, or frustration.

The biggest risk writers run with profanity is falling into lazy dialogue. Whether it’s just the one character who’s always swearing or the whole cast, writers have to be careful not to depend on profanity to do the work for them. Profanity in comedies can be hilarious if it fits the mood of the scene and/or catches the audience off guard, but even in raunchy comedies, constructing jokes and humorous situations should still take precedence over using vulgarity for the sake of being vulgar. For dramas, profanity can signal a character’s state of rage or despair more efficiently than a monologue, but the swear dropped at the climax of the film will lose impact if it’s the fiftieth time we’ve heard that character use the word thus far.

For examples of how diverse the use of profanity can be in writing, I’d recommend paying attention to the dialogue (and general greatness) of the following films: Little Miss Sunshine (strong profanity that succeeds in a comedic setting); The King’s Speech (plot-relevant profanity, profanity from a character who doesn’t usually swear); The Fighter (constant strong profanity from most major characters); Dolores Claiborne (profanity that differentiates characters; lots of profanity versus a little versus none); and A Christmas Story (profanity from a different perspective; children and profanity versus adults and profanity). Screenplay writers and successful films are all about dialogue, so movies are a great resource for writers across media.

As with everything else in writing, profanity is a tool that can build or destroy. Before you get too deep into your manuscript, think about why and how your characters swear. Consider making a note to yourself in your prewriting about your characters’ speech patterns, having to do with profanity or not. Sometimes we don’t know how our characters speak until we start writing in their voices. Once you get to know your characters better, their dialogue will come naturally and you won’t have to look so carefully at every exchange, but having a general idea of the direction you’re taking with speech patterns doesn’t hurt. If you share your work with a writing group, friends and family, or other editors and readers, see if they mention the language in their feedback (the best indicator that it stands out, for better or for worse) and feel free to ask about it.

What are your thoughts on profanity in writing? Have swear words ever enhanced or hindered your experience of a story? Tell me about it in the comments!

Happy writing!

xo P

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2 thoughts on “Damn Good Writing: How (and How Not) to Use Profanity

  1. As someone with a literary blog, I think it is so important to understand the dos and donts of this. You’ve made some excellent points, and Hawthorne really does this well. I think Hemingway is also a great teacher of this.

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