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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » Profanity in Fiction

   
Author Topic: Profanity in Fiction
Zero
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Maybe this is my BYU exposure shining through but, besides this obvious response bias, I have found an incredible number of people who are turned off by fiction that swears in the first few pages. (Before the reader gets attached to the plot or characters) So, they perceive this "offense" and with very little opportunity cost to argue they desist finishing the book completely based on that. With some experimentation I found that I can write scenes almost as dramatically, and sometimes superiorly, by not using swearing in dialogue. ALthough it doesn't offend me, since, I myself swear occassionally. Or every day. Something in there.

Does anyone have firsthand experience with this? How it affects the reader's attitude toward the story.


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dee_boncci
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Well, I have first-hand experience in the sense I read books.

To me, swearing and vulgar language is way overblown. I grew up on the poor side of a northern Midwest rust belt city, and swearing was just part of the lingo. Actually, there are some fascinating aspects of it. The same four-letter word can be used with a dozen different inflections to mean a dozen different things--but I'm digressing.

Like anything else, it can be over-used, and when it's over-used it's a turn off.

Some characters just aren't going to say, "Oh, poo!" when they smash their finger with a hammer.

On the flipside, there are a lot of people I know here in the southeast that would place uttering an f-bomb somewhere between adultery and murder on the list of grievous sins.

My own rule of thumb is to use as little as possible in writing, just enough to keep the writing honest, so to speak.


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Zero
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Haha, "Oh poo," touche. Though that isn't what I meant exactly. Certainly if you wanted to profanity could be avoided, I understand that outlook as much as I understand the idea that it can really add something to the scene. There are other ways to express the idea than directly substituting with something more pathetic or less believable. Like "poo." Though the image cracks me up.
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Leigh
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I don't like hearing it in real life, I beat myself up (Not literally) for speaking profanity and I absolutely detest reading it in a story. I feel there is no need for profanity in writing, if there is just create your own word up or use a more toned down word. In my stories I usually make my charactors more Australian/British, as I am Australian, and instead of saying the F-bomb, I say Bloody hell as there are quite a few ways it can have meanings. I know the F-Bomb can as well, but bloody hell is allowed in PG rated movies, so come on!

I once borrowed a book from the library and it was poorly written, but I still gave it a chance. I got reading a few pages into it, my eyes already sore from the volumns of unneeded garbage when I came across a F-Bomb in italics. I put aside my own grievances, after deciding to give the story a fair go. I continued to read on when I encountered not one, not two but three pages of dialogue that had profanity, our words like "poo" and "screw", all over the page. I swear, on one page it was literally every two words! I felt disgusted with it, put down the book and returned it the next day, swearing to myself I would never read that book again.

I don't feel that profanity, especially "poo" and "screw" are really needed in writing, it's bad enough I'm hearing 8 year olds saying those works as well as other words. I'm not saying I don't say those words myself, but it's just pathetic to see them on a page where the charactors are interesting, but the way they speak is filthy.

Just my 2c.


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oliverhouse
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I noticed a while back how little I noticed the lack of swearing on _Law and Order_. (How's that for lousy syntax?) There are plenty of situations in which swearing would be appropriate, but nobody does it, and I barely notice.
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Zero
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That is very true.

Just to throw in my 2 bits again, or...$20K pesos (conversion factor...)

Someone might be offended by a profanity. Nobody will ever be offended by a lack of one.

With the exception of "ridiculous fake-profanity,"

for example: if I read a story with unconvincing fictitious profanity, I will be annoyed. Such as,

"I looked the gunslinger right in the eye. Even though I knew I was in deep kabooboo."

If it distracts or causes me to stop taking the scene seriously, unless it's meant as comedy, I certainly won't like it. But otherwise I think profanity could be reasonably omitted.

[This message has been edited by Zero (edited January 25, 2007).]


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Spaceman
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It really depends on the story. As a rule, I don't generally use it because the same ideas can be gotten across without it. However, an occasional story comes up where it just fits the story, so I use it in those stories.
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ChrisOwens
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Perhaps I phrased myself wrong some time back, but when I tried to say essentially the same thing about my adversion to vulgarity, it was apparent I offended some quite profoundly. Then again, it could've just been dislike for me. I've noticed that some can get away with saying things that I'd get slapped a hundredfold for.

I remember one book that contained a "f-bomb" every few pages and I tolerated it with much cringing. However, when they stuck it between a name (hint: initials J.C.) I quit reading the book. I felt that went way too far.

And to me, the phrase, "Hey. They're just words." doesn't cut it. Rather than the trite phrase "Sticks and stones..." I subscribe to the notion that "Death and life are in the power of the tongue" and "The pen is mightier than the sword."

I loved how Jordan doesn't stoop to vulgarity. True, in his world his characters utter, "Blood and bloody ashes" and "Burn me" and that's shocking. To them. And it in no way detracts from the concrete realisms of his story.


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Robert Nowall
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I think I can be clever---cleverer---without using them. Certainly "everybody already knows what they mean." But I've found they lose almost all their force and shock value if you overuse them.

I think I've mentioned I know a couple of guys at work, whose every other word is a variant on the "F" word. (I'm sure most everybody knows somebody like that, too.) After awhile, your mind just edits them out...


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Robert Nowall
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A stray though that came to me after I posted the above...in Isaac Asimov's last few novels, he made the effort to completely eliminate even mild profanity. I can't say I even noticed it's absence in his work---at least not until he pointed it out in an essay.
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Lynda
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I think profanity might have its place in certain things (like "The Godfather" for instance), but in films, music and other "entertainment" venues, it's being used to a ridiculous extent. I keep hearing that "Pulp Fiction" is a great movie, but we left after watching 15 minutes in which every other word was the f-word. That's just lazy writing, IMO, and a waste of my time, as well as highly offensive.

On the other hand, people DO say "something" when they hit their thumbs with hammers or other shocking things occur. So when writing a fantasy set in today's society, I've faced a problem of coming up with something for them to say in such circumstances. Fortunately, they're British, so "bloody hell" and such non-offensive-to-Americans phrases are working well. But for my characters who live in the magical realm, I've had problems coming up with "exclamations" (for lack of a better term). "By all the stars above" is the best I've been able to come up with (said by a frustrated mage). Non-religious "expletives" are hard to come by. JK Rowling did well with "Merlin's beard" but I certainly can't use that. Suggestions are welcome!

Lynda


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BruceWayne1
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I have written "Son of a..." and then had the character bite their tongue, so to speak. and cut themselves off after hitting their thumb with a hammer, as it were. pretty much that is what I end up doing when I stub my toe. cutting it off before it can come out. I have written sailors too, and they don't cut it off and then it becomes difficult. I always worry my mom might read it some day... and I am 41.


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Survivor
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On thing I noticed about profanity when watching anime...the fundamental nature of what is considered offensive can differ radically from one language to another. It doesn't necessarily matter to everyone, but I think it's quite interesting to consider if you're writing in an invented milieu (much Fantasy and SF) or you have cross cultural characters.

We have three distinct concepts that are commonly conflated in English, but may not be in many other cultures. Vulgarity isn't necessarily offensive, but is a matter of using language that a highly refined person would be unlikely to use. In some cultures, vulgarity isn't ever offensive so much as it is embarrassing, particularly if the speaker has pretensions to higher class. It's like...mispronouncing any word over two syllables long. Nobody else feels insulted, it just makes you appear somewhat less educated or intelligent.

Obscenity is a looser concept that could be interpreted as "anything widely considered offensive". In English, we often attach it to ideas or topics which are simply regarded as being outside the pale of polite conversation at anyone's dinner table. Feces is a pretty common example. Everyone produces it, nobody wants to hear about it when eating (or attempting any other sensual activity subject to suggestion). Some concepts become "obscene" only in a specific context, others are obscene even in their "proper" time and place.

Then we have profanity. Profanity is defined pretty specifically as contemptuous treatment of that which should be accorded great respect or even reverence. As such, the level of profanity implicit in a usage is dependent on the level of respect that "should" be accorded to an object. In a morally and culturally diverse society, there is going to be a lot of disagreement as to what constitutes profanity because there is very little agreement about what ought to be regarded as sacred. In Japanese, the most common "profanity" is personal, the failure to express correct/demanded deference to another. This form of profanity does exist in strongly heirarchical relationships among English speaking individuals. One thinks of Nixon, who apparently was generally disinclined to believe that anything the President said could be profane unless he said it to the electorate. The same behavior pattern exibits itself in quite a few boss-employee relationships, though certainly not all.

For English language stories, the qualities of vulgarity and profanity, however you feel about the pursuit of mimesis, will hurt your art. Vulgar usages make your writing appear to the be product of a sub-literate internet troll. Profane usages will signal the readers that you do not share the values they may consider important. Only obscenity is relatively safe. Which is why "coprocephalic" was harmless fun even to the most Mormon of readers, while the translation into anglo-saxon might have offended some of those exact same readers. That said, if you are writing "contemporary" fiction, and you wish to avoid profanity, then you must pay the price for your abandonment of strictly imitive writing.

Still, I often suspect the arguments of imitivists, if only because they never seem to regard mimesis as a particularly important artistic quality except when it's time to portray something naughty.


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dee_boncci
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A couple of follow-up thoughts

I hear you Bruce, not only my parents but my kids as well. Kind of puts me out of the "Blaze" romance arena.

I have actually never used outright profanity in something I've written. Just doesn't fit with my stories. What I say when I bash my finger or lock my keys in the car is another matter. I just make my characters be careful

The only time I could see doing it is in something where creating a believable character in specific environments would demand it (like The Godfather), and then sparingly for "punch" at key moments.

I see no need to be so true-to-life that I would transcribe the day-to-day conversation of people from rough areas. To me that's kind of like altering the spelling of words to phonetically match a dialect. While possibly more "realistic" it impedes writer-reader communication, and in this case would drive off alot of readers based on mere presence.


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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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When you consider that we don't include all the times someone says "uh" and "ya know" and such when we write dialog (unless they are necessary for characterization, and even then a little goes a long way), why should it be any different for profanity?

There is realism and then there is realism. (Or as Survivor puts it, mimesis.)


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djvdakota
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Some previous Hatrack discussions you may find of interest:

http://www.hatrack.com/forums/writers/forum/Forum1/HTML/000782.html
http://www.hatrack.com/forums/writers/forum/Forum1/HTML/002109.html
http://www.hatrack.com/forums/writers/forum/Forum1/HTML/002563.html
http://www.hatrack.com/forums/writers/forum/Forum1/HTML/002873.html


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Robert Nowall
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Let me think...

(1) I think profanity in the movies is beginning to be a lost cause. Apparently, despite evidence that it hurts box office, the current crop of moviemakers like using profanity in their works.

(2) My [limited] anime watching aside...I find it difficult to assess profanity in Japanimation becauuse (a) I don't really know what's profane in Japan, and (b) I don't know how accurate the English translations of dialog and captioning are. (I did once spot a hitchhiking scene where dialog was added to make it look like one of the hitchhikers knew the guy picking them up...the kind of thing that can alter a work of art.)

(3) As Kathleen more or less points out, dialog in fiction isn't what you'd call excessively realistic to begin with. For a good example of how people actually talk to each other, turn up a copy of the Watergate tapes transcripts.


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JOHN
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It depends on the story and characters. I’ve got my self writing a story with a great deal of profanity, and then I’ll get to one line where the flows off, so I won’t. It depends on personal taste and genre.

Two of my favorite authors swear quite a bit, but do it so rather effectively. Check out Larry Brown and Charlie Huston. (WARNING: neither is for the faint of heart).

JOHN!


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Survivor
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Profanity as we understand it doesn't play a significant role in the kind of Japanese you usually hear in anime. Japanese, like some other asian languages, uses different levels of formal politeness depending on the respective social rankings of the conversants. There are certain things that are perfectly okay for even a little kid to say to another little kid, but you definitely wouldn't want to say them to someone who, say, graduated from college before you

It's also considered mocking to use an overly polite/formal form of address towards someone, okay as the occasional joke, but it wears thin very quickly. This means that it isn't like you can just learn the most polite form of address and use that all the time. So it's very difficult for westerners to learn to speak Japanese politely, one factor in the perception that all Americans are inherently rude. There's also the fact that English has a special vocabulary of words that are specialized for giving offense...which tends to affirm the basic notion that our culture not only lacks politeness but is positively more offensive

Possibly more fundamental, Japan's religious culture is far more influenced by animism and pantheistic beliefs. The moral outlook that this breeds is less divided into "good" and "evil" than "proper" and "improper". In other words, while westerners would term a non-good aligned supernatural entity to be necessarily evil, it's much more natural for kami to be neither good nor evil, but merely doing their own thing. Thus when a conflict occurs, it is a matter of which entity has moved out of the natural order and intruded on the other, rather than which is "good" and which "evil".

In other words, the basic concept of profaning something that is "sacred" is different in Japanese thought. Trespass is a matter of circumstances, not an absolute.

On the other hand, there are things you can say that are always rude. You just won't hear them normally in anime. When prfanity as we understand it occurs, it's usually in Engrish


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starsin
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So shoot me...again...for not reading all the posts. I'm horrible about that. :P

Anyways...I agree with whoever it was that said that at times, it's necessary for characterization (I know that's probably spelled wrong, but y'know what? I'm writing this at 12:30, so my brain's slowly shutting down on me). For example, I don't know this from personal experience, but rather word of mouth, if one has military characters of any sort in their story, unless they're like a Mormon or hardcore Christian soldier, if they get shot, they're not going to be like "Ow...that hurt" or "Oh bugger...I just got shot..." It's going to be more like "OHMYGOD! I've been F...ing shot! It F...ing hurts! OHMYGOD..." or if they mess something up, again, like I said earlier, unless they're like hardcore Christian or Mormon, they're not going to be like "Oh dang...I just dropped that box of glass stuff" they're going to be more like "Ah F..." or "S..." or "God D...it"

Or, you may have a character you want to make a total hard Ace (I'm Mormon...I try to avoid profanity as much as I can) you'll more likely than not have them doing at the very least a little bit of cussing.

Just my 2c, but with inflation and whatnot...that's going to be more like...40c. If you don't like it, I'm always happy to give refunds :P.


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Donelle
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I’m all for strict censorship when it comes to profanities. In fact, I would tell other writers not to use profanities at all. But only so it’s more effective when I use them.

For me, the purpose of profanity in literature should be to grab the reader’s attention by violating their expectations. One of my favorite authors, Kurt Vonnegut does this to delightfully comic effect. Slaughter House Five, Breakfast of Champions, Time Quake, etc, would not be the same without the occasional profanity.

My only fear is that through overuse profanity may someday become banal, losing its power. To quote Dennis Miller on the use of the F-bomb:

quote:

Take it from a connoisseur, it should be used sparingly, like saffron in a F^cking paella.

QED.

[This message has been edited by Donelle (edited January 27, 2007).]


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BruceWayne1
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One thing that confuses me abit on this subject. we are trying to paint a picture for the reader, is realism not important? I mean I was a sailor and profanity was simply a fact of life and not offensive to anyone because eveyone did it. It was simply a matter of lazy thinking, it is easier to swear than think of an appropriate response. I know the reader might/would be offended by this level of language but are the characters talking to the reader or each other and for those of us who have been in the military when we read a piece about soidiers and they aren't swearing every third word we know it has been sterilized for the public and it loses some realism.

Is realism not the goal or is getting published?


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dee_boncci
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Believability is maybe more important than realism, especially for those that dabble in fantasy and science fiction.

Part of the concern is to avoid coming up with a work that is unpublishable/offensive, but a more noble cause that lurks beneath is to find an effective way to communicate with readers. In a case like this it might be a function of who the writer wants to communicate with. If she/he wants to write to a general audience of various age groups then there are some things she/he should probably tone down. If someone is writing for a narrower group (say military veterans and others highly interested in all things military) then perhaps a more true-to-life portrayal is called for in things like language and violence.


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Robert Nowall
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Well, when you're writing SF, you'll have to come up with any number of unfamiliar terms or turns of phrase, and you've got to give them meaning and (if possible) emotional content---and if you're flinging around a few profanities, how can your made-up word compete with them?
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Survivor
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Right, the "but I need the crutch" argument

Make a choice, folks. Either the profanity is "realistic" because it's "just the way everyone talks", in which case you must remove it because it's offensive to the reading public and not "just the way everyone talks", or the profanity is "shocking" because using it is so rare.

You can't use both arguments at the same time. They totally contradict each other. If profanity is so "realistic", then it's like all the hemming and hawing and umming and whatnot that we leave out of written dialogue because it doesn't #*<!<ing mean anything. If you want to use it for cheap shock value, then accept that many people aren't impressed by your lack of effort to think of something truly shocking.


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oliverhouse
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I think it can be either shocking or realistic, depending on context.

That doesn't matter much. Dialogue is an artificial variant of speech, a realistic-seeming fakery. Profanity isn't necessary, but it might be useful. If it is, you should know how to use it well or forgo its use.


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Ash
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I am going to say what has probably been said a few times, but from a slightly different viewpoint.

I am an actor by trade, and at times I come to a place where I am scripted to swear. The first time this happened, I refused, edited my text to remove the language, because I have always found swearing vulgar, crude, and unnecessary. But on thinking of it later, I realized that the character I am portraying on stage is not ME, I have never been a murderer, a newspaper writer, a rapist, or any of the other parts I have played, nor have I been a person who will swear. And since the character is not ME, it is irrelevant what MY standards are. What matters are the standards of the CHARACTER. If the CHARACTER would swear, who am I to prevent him? If the CHARACTER would force a woman to sleep with him to save her brother's life, it is not MY choice, even if I am acting the part, to stop him from doing so.

I feel the same way about writing. Some characters will occasionally drop an f-bomb. If we write them truly, we ought to put that in there. I agree, in many cases this is avoidable, you can always put in the exposition "followed by an expletive, a very harsh expletive" but things like that change the tone of the piece, which sometimes you don't want to do. In other words, some dialogue will have swearing if reported honestly, and some swearing should be written out, to keep the story real. Of course such realness will change your market from kids perhaps to adults who don't care about reading an occasional swear word. But that is your choice as an author, whether you want reality for a few readers, or falsehood for a bunch.

Looking back at this post, I think it is primarily rambling, but whatever. Maybe someone will find it intelligible.


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RMatthewWare
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I hate when swearing is overused to the point that the writer seems to be trying to sound cool or 'in' with the people they're describing. Again, to me it brings attention to the writing. I'm not seeing the scene when I see too many swear words, I'm seeing the writer, and it destracts me.

There's an article I read that I hope Christine doesn't mind me posting on swearing that states it well:
http://thewritersezine.com/t-zero/archives/2004-texts/2004-10-craft2.shtml

I also read in a book called "Self editing for fiction writers" by Renni Browne and Dave King that it used to be considered cool and edgy to use swearing in your stories, that it somehow challenged the system. But they stated that now it is so common that it isn't cool or edgy anymore.

Many hack writers use swearing to compensate for bad writing. I think that they think they'll be cool, like saying, "look at me, I just used the f-word".

A potential problem of swearing is that if you use it all the time, how can we tell when your character is really mad. If I see only one f-bomb in the whole book, I'm going to know the character is royally peeved. If I see nothing but swearing, I'm going to miss it.

Matt


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Donelle
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There is no question that profanity is often used (and or overused) in real life. And it is also shocking. The very fact that we’re having this discussion is proof of that! The two are in no way mutually exclusive. But the fact that some sector of the population will always find it offensive is no reason to discredit its use in any art form.

quote:

Many hack writers use swearing to compensate for bad writing.

…Please. I hear this argument invoked for just about any literary element a particular critic may find personally distasteful. Among the many literary devices that have been deemed "crutches" are Plot, Violence, Sex, Genre (particularly Science Fiction or Fiction of ideas) and a host of others.

If you find it offensive, just say so. I personally think it’s a glorious thing that some are offended by profanity. The worse offense that can be suffered by profanity is to be ignored. As long as it evokes strong negative reactions in people, it still has power. And it is a specific and singularly unique kind of power. And it cannot be substituted.

If you chose not to read a book because it contains profanity, that’s your choice. Just as there are literary snobs who will put down a book because it’s Science Fiction or Genre. Just as there are certain demographics that will not read/watch material that contains scenes of sex or violence. The notion that there is one "reading public" is absurd!


I’m a vegan, so I’ll never walk into a steak house. I hate excessive violence so I will never watch Hostel. While I personally find these things ugly and objectional, I think the fact that they exist is absolutely beautiful. It all just contributes the human drama. And I think art should reflect all aspects of the human drama, weather they be grotesque or sublime.

In many ways profanity embodies the essence of drama in that it represents conflict so compactly, so densely and efficiently. If we should all be stuck on the rails staring down the growing light of an oncoming fright train or some other form of swift oblivion 99% of the English-speaking population will reach for one word. One word to express the essence of our mortal dilemma. One word that begins with the fricative scrape of the bottom lip against the top of the teeth and ends in a hard glottal stop. Here, I'll give you a clue; it starts with an F and rhymes with Duck.


[This message has been edited by Donelle (edited January 28, 2007).]


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thayerds
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I hate to point this out, but there is no Constitutional right for an individual to never be offended. There is however a Constitutional right to free speech. In a free society thick skin is just part of the wardrobe one must develope.

But take heart, those who hate profanity, for you also have the right to not speek it or acknowledge those who use it; and you have the right to tell all the abusers of language exactly what you think of them (using any four letter words you like).

[This message has been edited by thayerds (edited January 28, 2007).]


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RMatthewWare
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I do think that too many hack writers use profanity to compensate for bad writing.

From the rest of my post, I would have hoped that you'd realize I do not intend to be a prude. I think most points can be made without resorting to it, and if you limit it, the profanity can be so much more affective when it is used.

Yes, I think profanity is offensive. That's the point. To me, using certain words are the height of offense, and that's sometimes the point of what you're writing. So, I didn't say don't use it, I think the point I was trying to make is, don't use it because you're trying to be cool, use it because its necessary to your point.

If I was caught on a train track with a train coming at me, I don't think the f-word would be the one I'd choose. I've been in auto accidents, and things moved so fast words escaped me. But that's just me.

And I do believe strongly in free speech (or else why would I want to be a writer). I strongly believe in the "if you don't like it, change the channel, put it down, etc".

So yes, I dislike profanity, but I also understand its use in literature (sometimes to great affect, by the way), and I don't think anyone should be barred from using whatever words they choose when they write. In the end, the market will decide what people want and don't want.

Matt


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Survivor
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I'm not personally offended by swearing. That may sound contradictory, but it's true. If it weren't for the sensibilities of others, I would probably swear a lot. Heh...true story, when I came back from my mission I shocked everyone with my potty mouth. See, in Korea the missionaries (at that time, I'm sure this is no longer true)...well, let's just say I came back with a relaxed standard for my language

Truth be told, and I've mentioned this before, I have never encountered any human that could out-blaspheme my father. After growing up with his kind of language, it would merely be silly for me to be offended at the frankly boring profanity most people seem to find "shocking" or "expressive". Heck, some of my fondest memories and a few of my favorite phrases involve the F-word, and I at least find the concept of that one highly offensive (by usage and etymology it literally means "to brutally penetrate in an intimate or sexual manner, causing much damage"). But the word itself is just a phoneme, one that happens to be pretty common in some languages...say, Vietnamese.

But I don't say it, and I don't write it, and there are good, communication oriented reasons for that. Because my personal lack of being offended by the word itself isn't the issue. If you're trying to keep an audience involved in the story, then it's a bad idea to do things that are going to make them want to throw your book away. And the literate audience, by and large, are highly sensitive to many "common" profanities and will put a book down after encountering just a couple of gratuitous usages.

On another note entirely, I have to take issue with this.

quote:
I have never been a murderer, a newspaper writer, a rapist, or any of the other parts I have played, nor have I been a person who will swear. And since the character is not ME, it is irrelevant what MY standards are. What matters are the standards of the CHARACTER. If the CHARACTER would swear, who am I to prevent him? If the CHARACTER would force a woman to sleep with him to save her brother's life, it is not MY choice, even if I am acting the part, to stop him from doing so.

Okay, if you can act something without actually doing it, then the distinction is meaningful. You can act out a murder without actually killing anyone, just as you can act a death scene without actually dying. You can act out a seduction without actually committing adultery...well, a lot of Hollywood types seem to have trouble with this. That presents a good case of how an "act" turns into the act. Like, you can act like you're taking off all your clothes and cavorting in bed with another naked actor. But when you actually take off most of your clothes and "cavort" in an actual bed with another actor who is likewise pretty much naked...it's moved from "just an act" to being a definite action. You still might only be "acting" like you enjoy it, but you are actually doing it.

And the same thing is true of using profanity. If you say "rock!" and the editing department bleeps it out so that it looks like you used profanity, it's still an act. But if you actually use profanity, then you actually used profanity, whether or not the editing beeps it out. And if you use profanity and it isn't beeped out, then you have actually deliberately offended a bunch of people.

I'm not among them...until you try to pretend that it wasn't really you that did that. If you're going to use profanity, then just own up to it. If you don't want to bother with the negative consequences of using profanity, then don't use it. I've probably edited...several dozen profanities from this post. Yes, I edit my language habitually, because otherwise it doesn't serve the purpose of communicating. Editing "bad" language is just the same as editing bad language, you do what you must to get your intended meaning across. If I resorted to extensive profanities in a post telling people not to use profanity in their writing...it might get the point across, but only by (highly ironic) example.


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Donelle
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Matt, I read you loud and clear! I was just using your quote to attack a subtle theme that kept appearing in some posts. You stated it so plainly that I couldn’t resist.

One more thing: I can’t find the exact quote but Vonnegut advised writing with one person in mind. Maybe your best friend or your grandfather. “If you write to an open window your story will catch cold and die.” Or something like that.

Because the business of writing is about choice. Every choice we make in a story will likely alienate one person or another. Weather we choose to write science fiction, Fantasy, Horror, Comedy, Mainstream, Drama whatever. And ironically, trying hard not to alienate anyone will alienate readers too! I would advise we make choices that stay true to the story. That may mean including profanity or science.

And I think the advice is contrasted nicely by the knowledge that great works aren’t written: They’re edited.


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RMatthewWare
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Gotcha Donelle.

One more word on this, I think this topic has evolved to include people getting offended.

If I were writing something, I wouldn't write something to deliberately offend someone (again, drawing attention to the writing rather than the story). On the other hand, I wouldn't take something out because it might offend someone. Sometimes its good to offend people because it makes some think about things, and the others are just too closed minded anyway.

I'll stop before I start rambling.

Matt


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dee_boncci
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A comment on something Survivor said a couple posts back.

Profanity can be both shocking and commonplace, but in different contexts, so I would argue that it's a matter of the context of your story that would allow it to be one or the other.

A more general thought. I don't think there is a valid "rule" about it one way or the other when it comes to writing. Going back at least as far a Chaucer you can find bits of racy stuff in English literature. If you don't like it and find it offensive, then don't write about it/with it. It may cost you some believability with some readers in certain situations. Otherwise, if you feel the situation warrants it, use it, but realize it might lose you some readers.

At the end of the day they are words, many with synonyms that are not considered profanity, or commonly expressed by circumlocution. Often they are used as simple expletives to tersely express anger, surprise, frustration, etc., with no connection to their literal meaning. (I'm not including religiously offensive phrases here, although they are often used in the same manner, but that's a whole different situation).

Rats, I forgot what my point was. Maybe it was just to use whatever vocabulary best suits your story, tells it honestly, and don't worry about having a rule that says you have to exclude a handful of words a priori. Exclude them when/if your story dictates it.


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Survivor
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Exclude them when your audience requires it. And recognize that the vast majority of the literate audience demands writers with the skill and imagination to write without resorting to profanity, whether or not they actually do.
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rickfisher
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All right, I've been avoiding posting here because it seems that everything has been said, sometimes repeatedly, by both sides. The repetition indicates that at least some people, on either side, aren't getting what people on the other side are saying.

But I finally couldn't resist. I started wondering just how much profanity/vulgarity I really use. So I went to my novel and did some searching. The result:

"damn" or variation: 16 times
"hell": 7 times
"bastard": 5 times (actually six, but the other one is used according to its meaning, rather than as an insult, so I didn't count it).

This was in 469 manuscript format pages. Is that a lot? a little? It all depends on perspective, I suppose. I think that the the great majority of English speakers wouldn't think twice about 1 such occurrence every twenty pages, but there may be a few who would put the book down after a single encounter. I doubt those people read much, but maybe they'd like to.

Really, what are the issues here? Let's see if we can get some order on this.

1) Free speech. This could be an issue, but it isn't. NO one has suggested censorship. All the discussion has been about whether strong language is appropriate/beneficial/offensive/ineffective etc., not whether it should be allowed. So this is a non-issue for this thread; let's keep it that way.

2) Realism. This is also a non-issue. Fiction is not realistic. Actual dialog would never pass muster in a work of fiction. In fact, it's hard to believe how disconnected and downright ridiculous transcriptions of most conversations would sound. The goal of fiction is believability, not realism. However:

3) Appearance of realism. Here we hit one of the real issues. Including something like "Oh, poo!" is not only unrealistic, it sounds unrealistic (for almost all characters, that is; for a few, this would actually be appropriate). That's bad news. The reader doesn't generally make a distinction between realistic and believable; that's one of the secret tools of the writers. The reader just says, "I don't believe this" and puts the book down.
However, as has been pointed out, alternatives to "Oh, poo!" exist. "He swore" generally works pretty well. So the actual hard-core vulgarism doesn't have to be used all the time for the appearance of realism. On the other hand, repeatedly having characters swear and curse without ever indicating what they're saying might begin to seem either unrealistic or annoying to some. On the third hand, doesn't everyone already know what they actually said? Obviously, authors have to make judgment calls here.

4) Shock value. Well, this one's rather lame. I'm sorry, folks, but the shock value just isn't there anymore. You can achieve surprise, perhaps, if the right character says something once after having been established as someone who, at least normally, wouldn't. But it's not going to achieve any shock, if that's what you're after.
That doesn't mean it won't work if done really well. The only example that springs to mind right now is the movie "On Golden Pond." The kid keeps saying bull$#!+ all the time, and its really tiring. Maybe he's just trying to annoy the old fogies (Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn), or maybe he just talks that way without thinking. Henry Fonda asks him why he keeps talking like that--obviously he doesn't really care for it. But at one point, when the kid makes some fine-sounding but ridiculous claim, Fonda just looks him in the eye and says: "Bull$#!+." It's really very effective. If you can do it that well, it's probably worth while (especially since all the people likely to have been offended would already have stopped reading by then because of the kid).

5) Offensiveness. Okay, 2) and 3) are usually given as reasons to include strong language. This is the main one usually given not to do so. The question is audience. However, rather than appealing to an audience, the issue is one of driving an audience away. Now, if you want a really broad audience, you'll try to do as many things as you can that most people like (to increase your audience), and as few things as possible that drive people away. Sometimes, though, the same thing can pull some people in and drive other people away. Obviously, we're talking about author choice, here, not what you should or shouldn't do.
However, I am going to lean toward the side of the nay-sayers on this one. I mean, if I can avoid losing a fifth, say (I know we don't have any actual figures here, but it's clear that many people DO put books down and avoid future books by that author if there is a lot of profanity), by the easy expedient of toning down the language, well--honestly, it seems to me to be rather stupid not to do it. We're NOT talking about which fifth we want to lose--toning it down does NOT drive away a fifth of the readers who either want the profanity or who don't feel the story is believable because of it's lack. Very few will even notice, and of those, it will merely reduce their enjoyment, not drive them away. (Of course, that makes it less likely that they'll buy your next book--but we're talking about an extremely small minority here.) The Vonnegut quote is appropriate--for the writing--but when an edit like this can widen your audience without driving anyone away, well, I'm just baffled why anyone wouldn't take advantage of such an easy thing.
As for the argument that sometimes you want to offend the reader--well, I don't think that you as the AUTHOR want to offend the reader. However, you might well want a CHARACTER to offend the reader, and, yeah, one of the best ways to do that is have them overuse profanity. But I don't think you want to offend the readers so much that they put the book down. That's kind of self-defeating. As with certain other tools in the writer's toolkit (e.g., dialect), this is one where you want to come on strong (just strong enough to establish things) and then back off, retaining just enough to remind the readers that this is an offensive character.

By the way, I ought to give my personal position on this. Although I virtually never swear (if I hit my thumb with a hammer, I say "AAARRGGGHHHHHHHH!"--perhaps I acquired my speech habits from "Peanuts"?), except deliberately, or if I think I'm drunk (I know I'm not really drunk, because I don't drink either--though I have nothing against it, particularly)(oops, I'm drifting off topic). Though I virtually never swear, I don't, like Survivor, find any of the words offensive. What I find offensive is the use of those words in situations where other people are present who DO find the words offensive. In other words, it's rude, folks, and that I do find offensive. There aren't any laws against rudeness, so you're free to do it, but don't give that to me as an excuse, all right? All that says to me is that you don't care about being rude--that you have no concern for the feelings of others. In order to keep from seeming too condemnatory, here, I'd like to remind everyone that I do use some profanity in my own work, and so obviously I am being rather cavalier about the feelings of those people who find even that small amount offensive. All I'm saying is, make sure you think about it in those terms. You're still free to make whatever decision you want, and live with the consequences. OK, this last paragraph is not meant to be part of my argument. I tried to keep that as balanced as I could. This is just to let you know where my biases are on the matter.

[This message has been edited by rickfisher (edited January 28, 2007).]


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Spaceman
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quote:
"Oh, poo!" is not only unrealistic

Come on, Piglet and Owl say it all the time.

[This message has been edited by Spaceman (edited January 28, 2007).]


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Elan
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I've read rickfisher's novel (a good story), and frankly I don't recall ANY swear words in it. That tells me he handled the swearing with skill, that it flowed seamlessly with the narrative and wasn't out of place nor gratuitous.

A novel that uses swearing continually isn't, in MY opinion, a good read. Any element in a story can be overdone, and swearing can quickly hit my tolerance level.

I usually use the phrase "he swore," instead of giving the actual swear words. For my purposes, it conveys the idea without getting into the tedium of the language.


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Survivor
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I think that rickfisher has nicely summed up the entire discussion.

Not that we're not going to eventually have it again


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JOHN
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quote:
And recognize that the vast majority of the literate audience demands writers with the skill and imagination to write without resorting to profanity, whether or not they actually do.

I’ve heard people say this all the time and think it’s completely myopic point of view. Just because one person doesn’t swear or doesn’t like to read a book with profanity doesn’t mean an author who does is illiterate, ignorant, unimaginative, lazy, or whatever.

If you don’t like swearing, it’s your story DON’T swear or read books that do.

But I’m rather proud of my novel, and the f-word appears 83 times in my novel of 71,903 words. The s-word 100 times. And there’s quite a bit more profanity than that. I didn’t set out to do this, but it flowed very naturally. There’s one character who’s deeply religious, though. When the story shifts to his POV, there’s no swearing.

Nothing, should be gratuitous and overused be it sex, violence, profanity, crassness (ie potty humor), etc. But just saying that books with an abundance of swearing lacks skill or imagination is ridiculous. Again, Larry Brown is one of the most critically acclaimed authors I’ve ever read, and it would take you months to count all the f-words in any of his books.

My point is a GOOD writer uses swearing or not swearing to their advantage. The prescense or absence of swearing isn't good or bad.

Also, as I pointed out another thread. Let’s not forget the origins of a lot of these words.


quote:
Most "curse" words we know and love today come from Germanic roots. They are not, in and of themselves, bad. In fact, they were merely the common terms for what they describe in the Saxon-ruled England. However, after 1066, the nobility spoke French due to William the Conqueror's roots in France's Normandy coast. The old words became low-class, common, or in Latin, vulgar. The only actual curses in the English language involve the words "hell" and "damn" and are generally considered pretty mild. So consider that [if] you criticize someone's work for using vulgar language, you are only telling them the truth -- that they are using the language of the common people. Because, let's face it, most people use some of those words now and then.


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rickfisher
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quote:
Not that we're not going to eventually have it again

Wow, Survivor. I knew you were right on this, but I didn't expect to have it again this soon.


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