October 26, 2007

Write Whatever You %$#@*%$! Want

My former career as a police officer seemed like an alluring one to many. All the way back to the old 1951 TV series "Dragnet" with Jack Webb, and later on with 1968 to "Adam-12" with Martin Milner and Kent McCord, these shows planted an image of police officers as curt professionals in the minds of the public. Their language was official, and they were all business. Jack Webb's character, Sgt. Joe Friday, made "Just the facts, Ma'am" part of the American lexicon. The awful truth however, is that cops have filthy mouths. Also, the criminals that police interact with tend to spew obscenities as a second language. Together, police and "suspects" become a cursing, swearing, and profane, mega-force whose power doesn’t always switch off in polite company. I’ve been to many an occasion where I had to suddenly remember "where I was" and not drop the "F-Bomb" at my wife's, Grandmother's 83rd birthday party.

Since I left the police department in 1999, I switched careers and now work in the information technology field. Still, I am a writer as much as I was a cop or a computer geek. Much of my writing revolves around the world of crime, patrol officers, and the occasional shootout. But, to balance my credibility with the reader and the dialogue between my characters, I am very selective with my use of profanity. It is said that a good novel is not what you put into it, but what you take out of it. So, in order to allow my characters to converse with each other without my story reading like a wall in a public restroom, I save the vulgarities for moments where it would have the most impact.

For example, in my most recent story, my protagonist is a retired cop who lost his wife and daughter to a drunk driver. His best friend is a retired detective whose lover died of cancer. They bond because of their loneliness, but have to defend themselves from the organized crime figures who wish to take revenge against the detective for arresting them decades earlier and landing them in prison. My original draft had the two of them cursing, swearing, and expressing themselves with incredible vulgarity to the point where it became tedious, boring, and ultimately ineffective. In the end, I deleted all of the four letter words and discovered that in some scenes they really weren’t saying much of anything each other, let alone the reader, and that much of the dialogue was worthless. After scrapping much of the unnecessary bad language, I began to write more dramatic discourse without the F-word and the like, and I told the story with a fresh voice.

Towards the climax of the story, where my protagonist is confronted by the murderer of his wife and daughter, I finally allowed my character to unleash his rage, and he did it with every available tool on his belt, including the four-letter variety. The words became more vile, hurtful, and effective because the reader hadn’t seen them for most of the book and they come on as a bit of a surprise. At least that’s the feedback I’ve received from those who have read the manuscript already. So, I’m glad I held back, trusted my instincts, and washed my characters' mouths out with soap.

Am I saying that a writer shouldn’t allow his or her characters to curse? Of course not. As always, these articles reflect my method of writing. If anyone finds any of this useful, I am happy to have helped. If you think that I am being too careful and that you can have your characters curse early and often in your stories, then go ahead. Do whatever the fuck you want.

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Kristyn said...

I certainly agree that using less profanity makes that which you do use more effective. It's a matter of not desensitizing your reader to the language, at least for me. Thanks for the great insight, glad to know I'm not the only one who finds it easier and more effective to be light on the four letter words.

The Red Stone by Craig Smith said...

I know what you mean. Where I work you start to wonder if something has gone wrong if you haven't heard a curse word in the last 15 seconds or so! I agree writing can be just good or in most cases better without swearing in it. But if it's an adult book you're going to have it in there somewhere but as you say too much can be too much. The less you use the better I think. You also get a wider audience that way.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Kristyn,
I think you used a good word, "desensitizing." If your characters do nothing but curse, then what do they do for an encore? Thanks for stopping by!
~Mike~ (Mr. Grudge)

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Craig,
Yes, I believe you do get a wider audience by using swear words sparingly. Folks don't mind a cuss word here and there; but they don't want to be bludgeoned with them either. Thanks for reading my post.
~Mike~ (Mr. Grudge)

Kimchihead said...

I agree with you. Overuse of or gratuitous profanity is just plain distracting sometimes.

Mr. Grudge said...

Thanks Kimchihead,
I don't know if you saw the HBO series "Deadwood;" but, this series had the F-Word in it so many times, that folks on some websites actually counted the number of times it was repeated in each episode. That's overuse. Thanks for your comment.
~Mike~ (Mr. Grudge)

AntiBarbie said...

I've found that I agree with you. Too much cursing does detract from the words until they become quite flat and lack any real impact. For my crude characters I've had to walk a very thin line to find that balance.

A New Destination said...

It is interesting that you bring up swearing. whenever my brother and i argue, it's a small escalation. I may say shut up, then he says a swear, i drop a fbomb, then he repeats it, then we come to blows. It is a natural way for us to express our anger. I don't think swearing is that bad. It's still 50 X better than fighting.

footiam said...

I remember those days when a movie could be censored for a line like , " I don't give a damn" Having profanities all over the book will cheapen the book. I do like a good story with a twist and a turn there but too many of these will kill what could be a good book.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Antibarbie,
I too try to walk a fine line with crude and rude characters; but most times, I think I trip. Thanks for stopping by.
~Mike~ (Mr. Grudge)

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi A New Destination,
Yes, cursing is not always bad, but it can be oversused in fiction. Thanks for stopping by.
I'll check out your blog.
~Mike~ (Mr. Grudge)

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Footiam,
Ah yes, the days of censorship. I too remember those days when language was monitored closely on TV. Nowadays, things have coarsened to the point where we are all enured to vulgarity. That is why as a writer, I try to use profanity sparingly, to save the reader, and to increase the impact of vile words. By the way, look at my new post, I've tagged you for a meme. Thanks footiam.
~Mike~ (Mr. Grudge)

The Red Stone by Craig Smith said...

Hi Mike,

No problem. You seem to have an interesting blog. Some books I've read seem to be tame and then the characters curses about something and it has more impact. Thanks for stopping by and voting on my cover.