Monday, April 01, 2024

Curses! When To Use Them!

 By Thomas Kies

Swearing, cursing…include it in your dialogue?  Don’t include it?  Does it make what your characters are saying any less authentic?  Will you p*** off readers if you DO include it?

Full disclosure, I have a deep well of vocabulary to draw from when it comes to blue language.  Generally, I reserve it for when I’m driving alone, and another driver does something stupid or dangerous or both.  As long as the windows are up, it’s mostly harmless.  If I forget that my window is down, well, I’ve gotten some interesting responses to my observations.

Swearing, technically referred to as "using intensifiers," can be a potent tool in a writer's arsenal. A well-placed curse can convey a character's emotion more effectively than an entire paragraph of description. However, it's a delicate balance. Get it wrong, and it can sound gratuitous, silly, or just plain stupid. Get it right and it’s a gut punch.

I think the rule of thumb should be to be true to your genre.  If you’re writing war fiction, if you don’t use slang and bad language, it’s not going to sound realistic. You may not swear as much as real soldiers in combat (they swear all the time), but you have to create some semblance of reality.  If you don’t use blue language, you’ll sound like dialogue from a movie from the 1940s.

I specialize in crime fiction.  Working for newspapers and magazines most of my life, I’ve known good guys and I’ve known bad guys and they all swear copiously.  Writing dialogue as realistic as that would be tiresome, but not including it would sound fake. I can’t have a drug dealer shout, “Gosh darn it all to heck!”  Nor can I have a police captain growl, “Golly, get those cuffs on that astronaut.”

Oh, and politicians?  Get them away from the public and they also have a colorful vocabulary.  Surprisingly so. 

Cursing in a love scene?  You’re using a whole different set of words, and we can talk about that at another time.  Use the wrong words and you just sound like a bad porn movie. 

Why can swear words be a beautiful thing?

- They have the ability to shock.

- You can equate them to linguistic violence.

- They can mark extreme emotions, moods, or turning points.

- They can be used for comic effect. 

Now, you don’t always have to use street language, depending on the context.  Shakespeare had the ability to swear without really swearing.  He wrote the mother of all literary cuss-outs (cuss is simply a variant of curse) in King Lear, but interestingly there is no profanity or obscenity as we know it, merely terrifically imaginative vulgarisms, delivered with passion. Here it is, the Earl of Kent preparing to thrash the crap out of Goneril’s loathsome lackey, Oswald:

"Knave; a rascal; an eater of broken meats; a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave; a lily-liver’d, action-taking, whoreson, glass-gazing, superserviceable, finical rogue; one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a bawd in way of good service, and art nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pander, and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch, one whom I will beat into clamorous whining if thou deniest the least syllable of thy addition.

I don’t think I’ll use any of that the next time I’m in a bar or shooting pool, but it’s worth thinking about.

Now, can you lose readers due to foul language? Of course, but why on earth would they be reading crime fiction if they have a weak constitution?  Have a great f****** week and keep writing.

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