To Swear or Not to Swear? That is the F—ing Question

When is it okay to swear in your fiction? When should you sanitise the language and when should you just avoid it altogether? This largely depends on your audience, of course, but are there some situations that justify it more than others? Should it be limited to character dialog or are you free to sprinkle the occasional cuss word throughout the narrative?

I like to keep it real. People swear. Usually in informal settings but sometimes not so. If a character is the type of person who swears and you’re not aiming your story at under-tens, school teachers, priests, nuns, or grandparents, then go ahead and let them swear. But it shouldn’t distract the reader from the story experience. Keep within the context of the story or scene. Ever seen The Commitments? Brilliantly realistic use of the F-word. That’s how it was in those parts of Dublin.

Beware of the power of the swear word. Over-use it and its power diminishes. If you need to wield its power use it sparingly, surround it with offensive silence so it stands out. I’m thinking of the Tomorrow When The War Began movie as I write this. Ellie goes berserk when she finds Chris asleep on his watch. It’s the only time you hear the word fuck in the movie and it works.

When my daughter was in primary school (grade 5 – aged 10 – 11), her teacher said there was no place for swearing in a story. At all. She was completely against it. I found that a little harsh. Fair enough for primary school kids but as they get older I think they should start exploring characters that are more realistic than the pure and clean Dick and Janes of their under 10 school years.

Books don’t seem to be under the same restrictions regarding potentially offensive language as TV shows. How many times have you seen a TV show or a movie where the real-world equivalents of the characters would be blatant users of S, F and C words, and have their colourful linguistic art painted over with Sugar, Fungus and other G -Rated replacements? Feels so unnatural, doesn’t it?

I happened to see an episode of PG-rated Packed to the Rafters earlier this year that was guilty as charged of this heinous  crime. Most Australians know the official pub lyrics of The Angels classic “Am I Ever Gonna See Your Face Again?” (I’ll let you look them up if you’re not familiar with them.) One scene in this episode featured a character fronting a band in a pub playing that very song. What were the hotel patrons singing back at them within ear-shot of a few million prime-time family viewers? “No way! Get stuffed! Stuff off!”. Seriously? Stuff off? Who says that? No-one says that! Rafters fail. Either do it properly or not at all. Given the family viewing time they should have picked a different pub song, in my opinion. One you can’t swear to. By the way, this is the same show that aired an episode a couple of years ago in the same time slot that contained a male masturbation scene. Of course what was shown was equivalent to writing “Sh!t”. Go figure.

Oh, yes. Censorship. The beeping out of audible offensiveness, or as I’ve done in the title of this post, the written equivalent. Why do we bother? Is there really anyone reading this who doesn’t know what F— means? Whether you spell it F#$& or F–k or whatever. Or in the apparently unlikely event that someone does twig that f— is the same as fuck, are they likely to be equally offended by the hyphens as they might be by the last three letters of Firetruck?

Offense, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Art, including writing, is meant to invoke emotion. The good, the bad and the ugly. We are free to turn away from the ugly. Swear words are like any other words. They are tools, weapons, pictures, backdrops, frames. They can be subtle or bold. They are power. Use them wisely.

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