In Better Angels of Our Nature, Stephen Pinker says that swearing is a sign of a civilized society. You’re not going to be hung for comparing a member of the royal family to the back end of a donkey. We have progressed beyond that. There is no doubt that there is an offensive side to the English language but you are free to use it as you please. The question is; when should it be used, and when should it be avoided?
If you are writing a picture book for three year-olds it’s probably best that the talking squirrel doesn’t have speech bubbles filled with expletives. But that’s obvious to anyone so let’s focus on fiction aimed at adults. The reason this subject is on my mind is that I’m reaching the end of writing a horror/thriller novel and as the first rewrite looms I start to think about these things.
There is swearing in my book. It is occasional and mostly in the dialogue. I only paused for thought when I came to edit the moments where the fourteen year-old children in the book swear. To justify this I’m going to drag out two very important words; realism and context.
Fourteen year-olds swear. You might not hear them doing it, and not all of them do, but most, when amongst their peers, use “bad” language all of the time (in fact I’ve questioned my twelve year-old daughter on this and she has confirmed that many of her friends do indeed have potty mouths. She of course is an angel, or so she tells me). You can avoid it in your writing but sometimes avoiding it takes away from the realism of what you are writing. As I’m currently writing horror I’ll use horror as an example. Let’s say we have a fourteen year-old boy named Billy, and Billy has just witnessed the violent death of a parent. Is he more likely to mutter the word, “Gosh.” under his breath, or something more visceral? The word gosh would immediately destroy the believability of the scene. However, if you are writing a scene where Billy is enjoying a particularly good ice cream it would be unnecessary for him to comment on how f***ing delicious it was.
Here’s my dilemma, and the one that got me onto thinking about this in the first place; when is it okay to swear in prose, outside of dialogue? My thoughts on this are straight forward (but I have gone against my own advice a few times as I’ve looked at each individual case). If you take the swear word out no one is going to notice that it isn’t there, and so all should be eliminated. Whether or not swearing is okay in a civilised society there is no doubt that some people find it abhorrent. So take it out. People will happily read the murder scenes in your book and not flinch but as soon as they come across an F-word in the middle of a descriptive passage a big bell will ring in their head. Even if that ringing stops pretty quickly it is still jarring enough to drag you out of the scene.
So why have I left a few in? Sometimes your descriptive prose will reflect the thoughts of whichever character is in that scene, and that’s okay. It helps to clarify the mood your character is in. So you have a scene that goes – Terry stood on the side of the road looking at his smashed up car. The other driver, some drunk moron, was still sat in his driver’s seat, bleeding from the ears. Terry had two options, call a taxi and make it to the wedding on time, or help this stupid fucking drunk.
Alright, so that’s not a great example, but hopefully it illustrates my point well enough. Sometimes your prose reflects the thoughts, or the mood, of the main character in the scene.
It’s interesting to me that there are no age guidelines with books, as there are with film and television. It is up to the responsibility of the author. But we’re not talking about sex and violence, we’re talking about language. You might lose some readers because they think your use of language is vulgar, but remember, that just makes you more civilised than them. Don’t swear for the sake of it though, the novelty wears off pretty quickly for the reader. So long as your portrayal of life is true then you won’t need to think too hard about whether or not that particular word is necessary.