A Time to Curse: When is it appropriate to use swearwords in creative writing?

swearwords in creative writingA while back, I took all of my most complete manuscripts and, for curiosities’ sake, tallied up the number of swearwords in each. I made an interesting discovery – that the new novels seemed to have increasingly higher number of swearwords, and, rather surprisingly, my most light-hearted and least violent novel had the second highest total. As I am now re-editing that novel, Gun City Bohemian, for publication, I thought it a prudent time to step back and ask why these patterns emerged – and to muse on appropriate levels of swearing in creative writing in general.

Off the bat, I can comfortably account for both of these patterns. Firstly, the level of swearing was not increasing in my newer novels because I was growing increasingly volatile or abusive as a writer. It’s because the newer novels have gone through fewer redrafts. Secondly, the level of swearing was high in Gun City Bohemian because of the nature of its scenario – light-hearted and (mostly) non-violent as it is, its characters are people who are likely to swear. And not because they are low class or especially offensive people, but for a variety of equally justifiable reasons.


The power of redrafting

In Stephen King’s excellent writing analysis, On Writing, there are two very useful tips on redrafting: firstly, editing means making something tighter, and King says he’ll typically shorten a manuscript by about a third with each edit. Secondly, he has a mortal hate for adverbs, and tries to cut them out as much as possible. Adverbs themselves do, of course, serve a purpose – but the unnecessary or clumsy descriptive qualities they add can often lead to lazy writing with a weak flow.

For me, both of these reasons help account for ongoing reductions in swearing each time I edit a script. In the first instance, an edit tightening text in general will typically reduce both how much people say and how many words they use to say it, leading to a lot of swearing being cut out. At the same time, as is the case with King’s adverbs, it becomes apparent in editing that there’s an awful lot of filler in what people say – and with lazy writing, adding emphatic words in lieu of real description or emotional depth, the easiest filler comes with curse-words.

Want tighter writing? Start by trimming out a lot of the swearing.


What about accurately depicted swearing?

When I’ve helped edit other people’s fiction and screenplays in the past, I’ve seen similar trends to the swearing filler I find in my own writing. Swearwords to denote anger, or to denote a lack of sophistication in a character – aggressive people swear, unimaginative people swear, people with no respect swear. Some people just swear for no good reason. People use swearwords in real life in these ways, so we use this justification to do the same in creative writing.

The problem is that in creative writing things need to sound better than they do in real life. Just as coincidences can create impossible and fascinating stories in reality, but create unbelievable and unengaging stories in fiction, so too excessive swearing can lead to off-putting and seemingly ‘unrealistic’ writing, even if reflective of actual usage. This is because blanket swearing does not sound creative. It sounds lazy. To create a convincing character who swears profusely, it needs to be done with an element of art – variety in swearing, carefully poised timing, and exactly the right diction.

If you want an example of swearing done right and wrong, in my opinion, compare the dialogue of Don Logan in Sexy Beast (of course) with the dialogue of James Gandolfini’s “CIA Director” in Zero Dark Thirty. The latter has a very short scene in a long film, which stood out to me as excessively punctuated with unnecessary swearing, which sounded like the rant of an angry, unimaginative teenager. The former populates half of a feature with abusive language, but comes across as someone who’s been perfecting this kind of cursing his whole life. To say that one feels like too much swearing here has nothing to do with the actual number of times they swear. It’s all about how they do it.


Creating variety with swearwords

Part of the beauty with a character like Don Logan is the variety in his language. He does not stick to one swear word, and even simple, otherwise less offensive, words seem nastier, in the context of what he is saying. Varied pacing, varied insults and using words that are not swearwords to be offensive offers much more entertaining and memorable writing than simple repetition. It may seem obvious to point out, but say the same curse a thousand times and people will get bored; say a thousand different curses and it’ll hold attention. With excessive swearing in creative writing, the danger is never so much that it will be too offensive, it’s that it’s simply not creative.

As a quick tip on this note, consider the difference between swearing as adjectives and nouns, though, for a little more depth to your insulting language. Adding a swearword as an adjective is rarely a creative endeavour. It adds emphasis, and can create some colourful sentences, but unless you use a creative curse instead of the standard swears, few people will consider it clever dialogue. Using swearwords as nouns, meanwhile, opens up room for more dynamic use. If you are writing curses as someone who doesn’t curse often, it’s easy to rely on the standard swears to get all this across. As with any dialogue, though, there has to be some art in executing swearing in an interesting and creative way.


When do people swear?

There are people who swear a lot in this world. Some of them are people who use swearwords as a short cut to completing an idea, for lack of alternative vocabulary. Some of them are just perennially angry. Then some do it deliberately, to offend or just to be noticed. You can create a realistic representation of such people with unimaginative swearing in your writing, if you choose, but it’s important to be aware of what you’re doing. Do you want an unimaginative character in your story? Is there enough contrastingly creative dialogue to balance them out? And, most importantly, are they swearing in a true to life way, or just because you feel they should be swearing?

For the above examples, swearing is almost instinctive. It has to flow in sentences in a natural and instinctive way – not as haphazardly thrown in bits of colours (as might come across when a writer simply adds swearing ‘because this character swears a lot’).

For others, swearwords are used for specific reasons, and should come at specific points of dialogue. This may not be as simple as a sentence where a character is at their most frustrated; it should be a point within that sentence that the peak is reached. The swearword is an indicator of talking pace, it has to be used thoughtfully.

The reasons for swearing stretch far beyond anger, frustration and offence, though. This is something reflected in my high use of curses in Gun City Bohemian. Many of the characters are students, on the cusp of adulthood – swearing makes them feel tough, and is an assertion of their self-perceived grown up behaviour. It is a component of living in excess – students drink as much as possible because it feels like a challenge, and is an opportunity to do things only adults can do, to their maximum potential. Swearing falls into the same mindset, and I like to think as these characters mature they’d realise they’re not as grown up as they once thought. Another character swears almost non-stop, because, as an outsider wanting to fit in with the student lifestyle, she has taken this idea to the extreme.

Incidentally, my novel that contains the most swearing, which may never see the light of publication, follows a jaded older man, mostly reflecting on how much he hates his life. His swearing fits into what seems a universal model for talking to yourself: from my experience, at least, when you find people talking to themselves, they mostly talk in curses. Because talking to yourself so often emerges from frustration.


The absence of swearing

When you really start to pay attention to the purpose of swearwords, you can start to cut out the most unnecessary, or unimaginative ones, and you’ll find that the ones that remain carry that much more weight. If you desensitise a reader to a character’s vulgar vocabulary, after all, you have to continually raise the bar to offend. If you have a character who never swears, and utters one terrible curse, it will have a greater impact. Consider the white space of swearing.

There are two things that helped me frame more of a consideration for swearing, both of them nothing to do with actual curses. One came from Mark Twain, in one of his accounts of tramping (I forget which one!) when he describes an argument. In a brief summary, he notes that he removed certain words from the dialogue and challenges the reader (I’m paraphrasing) to “see if it makes a difference to your understanding.” The point being that the argument remains venomous and still holds up in detail, there is simply no need in his account for the offensive words. While I do believe a certain degree of cursing and abusive language can give plenty of room for creativity done right, it’s a great point to remember, that if you can remove a swearword and it doesn’t devalue your dialogue, what does it do when you add that swearword? (Hint: often, it doesn’t add value.)

The second thing that I like to consider is an old computer game I played at a friend’s house when I was young. I can’t remember for the life of me what it was called, but it was one of those point-and-click adventures where you could select from a list of dialogue to interact with people. You could also write your own dialogue to elicit a response. If you put in a swearword, the characters invariably responded, “The mind is a terrible thing to waste.” To this day I still think of that response when dealing with swearwords in creative writing. It’s all too easy to use swearwords as an escape from thought. Really, though, cursing gives you a huge degree to think about.



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