How to handle swearing

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Sat Aug 11, 2007 2:33 pm Post

Hi all my first post & a bit of a block for me.

What are people opinions on crude language used by characters.

I'm busy thrashing out a story based in a Housing Dept in Britain, something I don't think you have in the U.S.

I have some experience of these offices and know that abusive language is used a lot to vent frustrations and stress caused by system, what I don't want is to turn my readers, (if I get any :D ) away from the story because of this.

any ideas
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hallogallo
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Sat Aug 11, 2007 3:06 pm Post

Curse on. I think you should stay true to what you want to tell, and to the characters that will inhabit the story. So if they do curse in real life, let them curse in their fictional lives.

TC
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Sat Aug 11, 2007 3:10 pm Post

I think the thing is to be artful in your use of the swearing. You can't shy away from it, but you can't let it become a character's only means of expression, either.

Think of it like salt. Use just enough to provide flavor.
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Sat Aug 11, 2007 6:19 pm Post

TCole wrote:I think the thing is to be artful in your use of the swearing. You can't shy away from it, but you can't let it become a character's only means of expression, either.

Think of it like salt. Use just enough to provide flavor.


Very well put. I think swearing is a bit like dialect. Once, writers like Mark Twain tried to reproduce dialect more or less exactly. Contemporary writers don't, usually preferring to be judicious and suggesting how their characters speak not just with word choice but also grammar and cadence.

The same goes for swearing, I believe, especially as it's mostly - though not always - lost its ability to shock or amuse. Dialogue is after all a completely artificial creation.

H

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Sat Aug 11, 2007 8:47 pm Post

Well, if the character swears, the character swears.

I don't think people clutch their pearls over this the way they used to. If it's accurate, and it sounds like that's your intention, it's fine.

Per this subject, my better half and I have become quite fond of the Gordon Ramsey (a famous Scot chef) shows currently running. On "Hell's Kitchen," which is on Fox in America, he is faithfully bleeped out. Sometimes there will be seconds-long rants in which almost every word is bleeped out. Now, that's annoying.

On BBC America, we watch "Kitchen Nightmares," set in the United Kingdom. Since it's apparently assumed Americans can't understand British accents anyway, (they encourage you to turn on closed captioning, but thanks to my misspent youth watching Monty Python and Prime Suspect, it's not needed) he is reproduced quite accurately. And what lovely swearing it is!

I'm serious. He gets into delightfully Joycean stream of consciousness frustration rants. I find it quite creative, especially compared to the paucity of US abilities in this field, which devolve into just using f**k as a adjective, noun, and verb.

So, by all means, rave on, John Donne.
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Sat Aug 11, 2007 10:24 pm Post

I think it's more a matter of what you're comfortable with. They are your characters and should speak however you feel they speak.

Please don't censor yourself! Edit to make a better story - yes - but don't not write something because you feel the great unknown They will not like it. Far too many bright original works are turned into homogenized sludge for just that reason.

If editors find it objectionable, they will say so. Then it will be up to you to change it or not.

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Sun Aug 12, 2007 2:09 am Post

Swearing is peculiar in writing. The way the human brain functions makes readers far more sensitive to written swears than they are to oral swears. It's as if, with each written swear, the word is more strongly impressed on the brain, and it remains there, a linger imprint on our memory. Hence, most successful dialogues that include swearing use it less often than their characters would in real life.

Dialogue in fiction is an artifice, an illusion. The way we actually speak would sound awful and artificial in written dialogues. So it goes with swearing in written dialogues.

My advice would be to use swearing, be true to your characters, but use it sparingly and carefully, lest the swearing becomes too loud and interferes with the read.

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Sun Aug 12, 2007 8:37 am Post

Hi all

thanks for the advice, it has left me with a much clearer way forward
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Sun Aug 19, 2007 5:44 pm Post

Er, before you go forth and multiply, I would just like to add that swearing can be both immensely annoying and pleasurable depending on the situation.

I hear a lot of swearing in my job. It's not something I can easily avoid, as I've recently found out by blasting my almost, perfectly good hearing with an iPod full of iTunes. I'm still getting ringing sounds in my ears even after two blinking, effing weeks!

I think Hugh's point about swearing not shocking or amusing is right, but only up to a point.

There are two possible routes you could go; make only a small group of say, one to three people who use varying degrees of swearing, but make it spontaneous within that group. I mean, if they're all arguing about one thing get them to swear within the context of whatever it is that they are arguing about, whilst those around them are mostly either ignoring this or spontaneously adding fuel, as it were, to fan whatever argument is ensuing.

I suppose the other way you could go with this is to have one or two at most who swears the most, while everyone else tries to get on with the situation as best they can. If you do it this way it will be more believable, than say, if you had everyone effing and blinding about everything. And you never know, but your readers may secretly want to read more of this too down-to–earth banter.

I personally couldn't give a fig if people aren't able to string sentences together without resorting to the use of four-letter words. So f*ck 'em all! That's what I say!

Being amused or shocked by an author's words depends, I suppose, on an author's ability to coax its readers into an expected an norm, and then of course to surprise them!
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Sun Aug 19, 2007 9:56 pm Post

I wanted to add that I think it depends on your target readers, too. The readers of, say, an underworld crime novel, would be turned off if the dialogue was too 'clean'. It wouldn't feel real.

On the other hand, another kind of book, say a tea-cozy mystery, with a different target readership might be completely turned off by a lot of swearing, even when the characters are of the type who would curse and swear a lot.

In other words, it's a judgment call of the writer's.

Someone else has probably said this better, but I wanted to make sure the notion of it got sent out into the ether. 8)

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Wed Aug 29, 2007 4:55 pm Post

Only just saw this post...

You know, one of the funniest, laugh-out-loud moments I had with a book was with Rachel Cusk's The Country Life. Cusk - in her earlier novels (I've only read the first three) - styles herself very much in the Jane Austen tradition - long, eloquent sentences with a flamboyant use of words, usually twisted into a wry humour. She's a brilliant writer. In The Country Life, the heroine is staying at a large country house. She is polite, well-brought up, everything is very mannered, and there is the typical hideous, stuck-up housekeeper who intimidates. At one point right in the middle of the book, the heroine runs into the housekeeper on the stairs or somewhere, and out of nowhere, she just says, "You c***." It's the only swear word in the whole novel, and because of it, and because no one was expecting it but it's spot-on about the character, it's hilarious.

At the other end of the spectrum, take Irvine Welsh. Go to amazon.com, search for Trainspotting, choose "Search Inside" and then take a look at the "Text Stats". Then have a look-see at the 100 most frequently used words. Now that's swearing. And that book was a runaway bestseller and turned into a cult movie starring Ewan McGregor in the role that made him.

Honestly, there is nothing that would annoy me more in a book than having some aggravated chav sitting in the housing benefits office, discovering that his benefits are being cut, and saying, "Oh bother! You really are rather unhelpful, aren't you, old chap?"

Of course, there are sections of my own writing where I think, "Oh crap, what if my mom ever read that?" But Stephen King has good advice there: the first draft is written with the door shut - that is, without worrying about what other people will think. After you've written that first draft, then you can worry about the swearing... Uh, talking of which, I really should start on a first draft... :)

Best,
Keith

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Wed Aug 29, 2007 4:57 pm Post

Only just saw this post...

You know, one of the funniest, laugh-out-loud moments I had with a book was with Rachel Cusk's The Country Life. Cusk - in her earlier novels (I've only read the first three) - styles herself very much in the Jane Austen tradition - long, eloquent sentences with a flamboyant use of words, usually twisted into a wry humour. She's a brilliant writer. In The Country Life, the heroine is staying at a large country house. She is polite, well-brought up, everything is very mannered, and there is the typical hideous, stuck-up housekeeper who intimidates. At one point right in the middle of the book, the heroine runs into the housekeeper on the stairs or somewhere, and out of nowhere, she just says, "You c***." It's the only swear word in the whole novel, and because of it, and because no one was expecting it but it's spot-on about the character, it's hilarious.

At the other end of the spectrum, take Irvine Welsh. Go to amazon.com, search for Trainspotting, choose "Search Inside" and then take a look at the "Text Stats". Then have a look-see at the 100 most frequently used words. Now that's swearing. And that book was a runaway bestseller and turned into a cult movie starring Ewan McGregor in the role that made him.

Honestly, there is nothing that would annoy me more in a book than having some aggravated chav sitting in the housing benefits office, discovering that his benefits are being cut, and saying, "Oh bother! You really are rather unhelpful, aren't you, old chap?"

Of course, there are sections of my own writing where I think, "Oh crap, what if my mom ever read that?" But Stephen King has good advice there: the first draft is written with the door shut - that is, without worrying about what other people will think. After you've written that first draft, then you can worry about the swearing... Uh, talking of which, I really should start on a first draft... :)

Best,
Keith

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Wed Aug 29, 2007 6:19 pm Post

Cheers Keith

I liked the idea of the "door shut" approach and basically writting for me rather than anyone else, guess I've no more excuses now not to carry on, although that bit blue lint over there realkly looks like it needs picking up

thanks
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Wed Aug 29, 2007 6:20 pm Post

Cheers Keith

I liked the idea of the "door shut" approach and basically writting for me rather than anyone else, guess I've no more excuses now not to carry on, although that bit blue lint over there realkly looks like it needs picking up

thanks
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Thu Sep 13, 2007 8:51 pm Post

Me personally I think that getting the correct presentation and feel can make or break a character more than how many times they can say F U C T .

In other words if you have a savory character that swears like an old sailor remember that people that choose to swear a lot also tend to use more slang and improper language usage in their conversations. It would be odd to see a character that swore a lot and yet spoke using proper grammar.

Example. Two characters are East LA Gang members.

Conversation One

"Sup holmes. Phat ride you be kickin' up the screet. You ever cap a muthaf$cka in that bucket?"

or

"What's up. That sure is a nice car I have seen you driving up and down the street. Have you ever shot a MotherF@#$ while driving it?"

I guess you can say that swearing depends on the character. Just make sure it gives to the character and doesn't make them a distraction if the style doesn't fit.
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