Curse-ive Writing

Have you ever been reading a book and been jarred by the use of a curse word?  While I believe that swearing is something to avoid as a matter of personal virtue, I understand the dramatic effect and occasional necessity to a storyline.  However, sometimes the use of curse words doesn’t fit with the story, or character, making it come across as more out of place than your maiden aunt in a mosh pit.

When deciding if a curse word is appropriate, try thinking about two things.  One is the background of the character.  For instance, how would the character’s mother react upon hearing her child swearing?  Would ‘conniption fit’ describe her as she got out a bar of soap to teach the kid a lesson?  If so, your character is not likely to use swear words easily, even as an adult, with the taste of Ivory soap lingering in his memory.  Is the mother not around or doesn’t she care what the child said?  In this case, it’s quite possible that using expletives has become second nature to your character.

The other thing to think about is the situation.  Even a character living with flashbacks of soap dinners can be in a circumstance where a curse word will slip out.  Someone pushed to an emotional breaking point can let loose words she never thought she could.

There’s a great scene in the movie Speed (1994, screenplay by Graham Yost) where you can see this playing out.  Keanu Reeves, as Officer Jack Traven, is hanging through an access panel of the floor of a bus to check out a bomb that could blow him and the passengers up if the vehicle falls below 50 miles per hour.  Alan Ruck is Stephens, a passenger using a cell phone to act as the relay for a conversation between Traven and another officer.  After describing several aspects of the bomb, Traven reacts with a phrase that includes the ‘F’ word.  Stephens’ reaction is hesitation and then to translate it as “Oh darn.”

Traven’s outburst is situational from seeing “enough C4 on this thing to put a hole in the world.”  In light of this, any resistance he may have to swearing has broken down.  On the other hand, Stephens doesn’t know about the C4 and hasn’t reached that point.  He grapples with repeating the phrase then settles for something more compatible with his state of mind.

As people ‘mind their manners’ in everyday life, it’s up to you as an author to mind the manners of your characters.  Making the dialog realistic to their temperament and situation is important when using curse words.  Considering the impact of these expressions, tread carefully.  Your character’s mother may be watching.

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