Wednesday, December 10, 2014

To Curse or Not to Curse

I found this article, excerpted in the January 2015 issue of Writer's Digest from Jeff Gerke's The Art and Craft of Writing Fiction, very informative and helpful. Just passing along the highlights in case anyone is interested. I've personally decided that profanity has no place in my writing , but the article (Handling Controversial Language in Christian Fiction) has some great insights and tips for fleshing out profane characters.

Understanding the debate on this subject in Christian fiction, Gerke surveyed published Christian novelists on how they deal with the issue. I highlight here a brief synopsis of proposed solutions.

1. USE ALL THE PROFANITY YOU WANT. One problem with this is that your typical Christian fiction publisher will not let you get away with this. (Me: Good luck with that.)

2. USE WATERED DOWN-DOWN PROFANITY. Will the typical daily vocabulary (dang, crap, heck, and geez) really make your depraved character seem evil? More like he'd like to cuss but is afraid of his mom.

3. USE EUPHEMISMS. This is the most commonly employed solution to the profanity dilemma. Let characters be as foul-mouthed as you want them to be- but don't spell it out.

When Jerry learned of Mary's affair, he let us all know exactly how he felt about her character, her physical attributes and choice aspects of her ancestry. 

This is the literary equivalent to how old movies used to handle sex scenes. The door shut and the screen faded to black. We knew what was going on, but it wasn't demonstrated for us onstage. Gerke uses the term metaprofanity - information about the profanity. We don't see the swearing itself, but we see a description of the swearing. This requires more creativity.


It's something we've heard a million times. SHOWING INSTEAD OF TELLING. The example from his own writing chilled me to the bone without a single curse word:

Little blond Barbie dolls. Cute.
      Dwayne moved through the house with the silence of a roach. He entered the girl's playroom and crept inside. Must be nice to have a playroom and a big room of your own. He bent over the large dollhouse, where a blond plastic bimbo sat askew in her chair having a burger and fries with a redheaded plastic bimbo.
     Moonlight cast soft shadows on the toy cabinets and dress-up bin and pink beanbag chairs in the playroom. Typical. Delicious.
     Dwayne picked up the blond doll and caressed its molded smile with the tip of his hunting knife. The stiff yellow hair fell across the edge of the blade. 
     He snatched the locks in his thumb and fingers, slightly less dexterous because of the rubber gloves. He put his left hand over the doll's face, held the knife to the scalp, and pulled the hair across the blade. The strands came away in his hand reluctantly, like pulling a wing off a bird.
     He rotated the defiled doll before his eyes and felt the excitement rise in his neck. Pretty little thing.
     Dwayne dropped the doll to the carpet and stepped into Camille's bedroom. The kindergartner lay sideways on her Powerpuff Girls sheets, blond hair arrayed over the pillow like a yellow skirt.
     Pretty little thing. 

Yep, totally evil, and not a word spoken.

Gerke challenged readers to reveal the character's foulness through scene, action and thought instead of a direct use of profanity. The same issue of Writer's Digest includes another article of Jeff Gerke's from the same book, Cliches to Avoid in Christian Fiction, and an article by Dinty W. Moore titled Writing the Spiritual Essay. I recommend getting your hands on the 2015 issue of Writer's Digest for the full article highlighted here, and the other two equally informative articles.

What is your opinion on the use of profanity in your writing?

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  1. I'm not a writer but a reader...Louis L'Amour used very few cuss words in his books and certainly not the vulgar ones most common in today's western. And all his westerns are still in print? Another thing about his sex scenes...and very very little innuendo. And all his books are still in print?

    One thing that disgusts me about most Christian fiction is the way they emasculate the men. You don't need to cuss to be a man but for crying out loud...find a way to make them men! Not the touchy, feely wimps in most Christian Romance books. Whew! Got that off my chest!


    1. Hi, Ray, point well taken. I'm writing several things from the male POV, and I will certainly keep this in mind. Thanks so much for stopping by, and for sharing your honest thoughts.

  2. I appreciate your comments, Ray. Thanks for chiming in. It's always a fine line, and the publisher's dictates, that force writers of certain genres to toe a line they draw. I did use one curse word when one of my characters fell apart, and only after getting the idea from a very devoutly Baptist friend. The book was published by a secular publisher, too, but doncha know what I get dinged for the most? Glad you're still reading. We are readers too, obviously, but wouldn't have any reason to write without folks like you.

    1. Hi, Lisa, glad you stopped by. Interesting that you get called out on that when it was a secular publisher.

  3. I'm just a lowly self-pubber of secular-oriented books. Because I'm writing YA/NA, my characters don't cuss too much. If they do, it's usually "He swore softly" or something. In my third book, since the characters are a bit older and rougher (an assassin and a bounty hunter) they occasionally drops a mild swear. I think the book has three or four. But it just came out, and nobody has read it yet and/or complained. :-)

    I think there will be more umbridge taken about my paranormal romance. My hero is a devout believer who clings to Christ--and he's an undead monster with tremendous powers. He never uses bad language, heh.

  4. Hi, Kessie, glad you dropped in. Sounds like you've put some thought into your usage. You're not "lowly"! To me, skill in showing rather than telling eliminates the need for profanity in any genre. P.S. You're not lowly:)

  5. Great post, Jody--and terrific comments. I agree with Ray about "emasculated" male characters, especially in Christian romance. That may be why I don't read much of it. Strange thing for a romance writer to admit, isn't it?

    But I really appreciate the example you provided. That's mighty fine writing. The excuse writers give for using profanity in their works is "realism." Frankly, though, I believe it's more symptomatic of lazy writing.