Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Writing Taboos

She's in the dictionary next to "dour."

Thanks to Lee for inspiring this post, with his comment yesterday:
I wonder sometimes -- am I writing myself into a difficult corner? 1) I hate using profanity and write dialogue that feels real to me, but without foul language 2) I tend to write about themes of morality and redemption 3) I often write about subject matter that is tough and often dark, like drugs, crime, people who are very confused and involved in bad things. Is there a genre that allows me to effectively take these routes and be marketable to any particular audience? Why is profanity so prevalent in much modern writing and especially screen plays? I find it to be a disturbing trend.
Now, we've already talked a little about bad behavior and telling the truth and showing authentic consequences in fiction (with some mention of author responsibility) on this blog, but I think the issues deserve a little more attention from another angle.
  • Do you think there are/should be any taboos in fiction?
  • Do you have any personal taboos when crafting your own writing?
  • Do you think authors have any moral responsibilities to represent "taboo" or "hot" subject matter in a particular way? Does this apply to all authors, or only to authors who target certain demographics, such as YA authors?
  • If you do limit your writing according to these taboos (e.g. no profanity), how do you accomplish this while still remaining authentic, since it is unlikely that every character you write about will have the same moral standards as you?
Lee, to directly answer your questions, I think profanity is reflected in modern writing because it's prevalent in real life. And I think it's more pronounced in screen writing because everything is more pronounced in movies. Bigger explosions! Bigger boobs! Bigger everything! Give the audience some entertainment for their $9.50!

As a trend, I'm not personally disturbed by it. I generally don't give a $^!# about profanity, and there have been times in my life when I've used profanity like it's &*@%-ing punctuation. (Insert lawyer joke here.) I'm aware that overuse of profanity makes me sound less erudite and less well-educated, and since the birth of our daughter we've made an effort to make our household sound less like an episode of Deadwood. But sometimes... often... profanity is just colorful enough to convey precisely what I seek to convey.

Interestingly, I went out of my way to avoid profanity in my first novel, because I needed swearwords to have much greater power than they do in (my) ordinary life. If the reader gets more than 3/4 of the way through a novel without seeing a single f-bomb, the author will probably get some decent impact out of the word's careful, intentional, and only use at that late stage.

And anyway, my main character just isn't the swearing type.

I asked an author friend how he handled curses in his writing, and he told me that he just writes it as it comes to him, and then he edits out as many as he possibly can, which still leaves quite a few, but the manuscript at that point no longer reads like an Eddie Murphy routine. Perhaps, Lee, you would end up doing the reverse... writing dialogue as it comes to you, and then putting curses in only where you simply can't avoid it, for character authenticity. (Or maybe you can just say "He swore." I'm on the other side of the fence on this one, so I'm sure the commenters will have better advice for you.)

A final note on swearwords: I think that profanity on the page is much like the use of language like "um, ah, well..." It reads very differently from how it sounds in real life, and authors ignore this dichotomy at their own peril. for example, I can say "um" five times in a single sentence in casual conversation and not necessarily sound like an inarticulate, hesitant moron (depending on speed and context) but you better believe that it will look that way if transcribed directly to the page. (Note again how this can result in a difference in the use of profanity among fiction writers and screen writers.)

As to the broader discussion... do I think there are any taboos in fiction? No. Not for what I read, and not for what I write.

Do I think authors have a moral responsibility when portraying "hot" or "sensitive" subjects? I'm not sure, but I think that it may be a moot question because entanglement between morals and fiction is nearly unavoidable. Why do we write? Those who want to shock or titillate are going to go to extremes in these areas, and it's intentional. Those who want to tell a story with a message are also going to be thoughtful in their approach. Even people who simply want to present a little light entertainment are going to be careful, because it won't be "light" for certain people if it crosses too many taboo lines, and it won't be entertaining enough for others if it completely avoids all subjects of controversy. We're always going to be thinking of our ideal audience when writing, even if we don't realize it, and our beliefs about what is right, wrong, or unimportant in this world will inevitably come through.

Wow. Sorry this was so long-winded. I now pass the baton to you:

ETA: Hannah Moskowitz, author of Break, also briefly addresses profanity in YA today.


  1. Carrie, I love your discussion on this topic today. You hit all of the bases very thoroughly and thoughtfully! I think you summarized it well by saying that we need to know our target readers. If we care about our readers having a pleasurable reading experience (and breaking in as new authors) then we'll have to shape our dialoge and messages to their desires. That's just the way the market works.

    For example, if I wanted to be entirely historically accurate with my writing, I would have to elimninate the use of many of my contractions in dialogue. But to the modern reader that would come across as stiff and unreadable. So, yes, I must compromise to a degree to satisfy the majority of my readers.

  2. Carrie,
    I am so honored that my comment from yesterday inspired such a well thought out and informative post from you. You made some excellent points and gave me some good ideas to use. However I would like to make a point about your comment:
    "I think profanity is reflected in modern writing because it's prevalent in real life"

    As a qualifier, I will say I'm a bit older than you so I have a different perspective, although you certainly have access to earlier times through books, movies, etc that reflect these times.
    My argument is profanity is more prevalent due to the wider use in entertainment media since the late 60's and the 70's. Prior to 1966 or so profanity in movies was virtually non-existent other perhaps a strategic "damn" or "hell" for shock value (think Rhett Butler). Movies were able to portray badness and evil in much more imaginative ways or off screen.
    Likewise the great literature did not have any of the truly foul language and instead used other methods to achieve their goals and they worked. Kerouac, for example, as far as I recall used no profanity in ON THE ROAD and these characters seemed likely candidates to speak profanely.
    After censorship laxed and profanity became common is when I really started hearing in general conversation and by people who I think were going for shock value. I very rarely recall hearing my parents or anyone else in their generation using a foul word and if they did it really carried a lot of impact. Of course men all wore suits and women wore dresses all the time.
    Only after several years of vulgar language in movies and other media did that language enter into common everyday use much to the detriment of our society and language.
    I will cite one example that hit me. When I saw the movie PLATOON in the theater, the casual use of abundant foul language was so prevalent that I was distracted to the point of disliking the movie a great deal. Later I saw the edited version of the same movie without the language and really liked it.
    Sorry for the long comment but I wanted to clarify this point.
    Bottom line: foul language in popular media encouraged common use in culture and now unnecessarily is used in media to reflect realistic use now. A sad statement on where we have gone as a literate society.

  3. Are subjects taboo? For me, personally, as a writer, yes. There are subjects and words I do not and will not write about. However, I don't put the same taboos on other writers. I think each person should decide for herself what she wants to write.

  4. The profanity in my work just happens, usually when characters have arguments, or when the narrator is a certain class of person. I let it go when I'm drafting, and often excise the cusses when I'm editing. As you implied, swear words lose their impact if they're used too often.

    As for "moral responsibility," I only tell stories I'm interested in. Some have morals, some are based on images, some are just moments I wanted to explore. I think my responsiblity is to present the story as truly as I can, as it flows from my imagination. The story comes first. Readers will bring their own aesthetic to my work, and I can't control that.

  5. I don't use profanity, except in traffic, so I don't put it in my writing, but that's not to say I'm against it in a storyline, if it is needed. My opinion only: I think if a writer uses too much profanity it becomes noise.

    My taboo: I don't write about cruel acts against children or animals- that's just who I am. I can't do it.

    Wonderful and thought provoking post!!

    PS As I started to post this I got the word "puritan" to enter before posting. FUNNY

  6. Not a single swearword in my co-authored inspirational book, but the current womens fiction ms I'm revising? Whole nother story. I let them fly freely in the writing, but am eyeballing them hard in the edit.

  7. Hey, Carrie! This is a great discussion!

    I write CBA, which doesn't use cursing or explicit scenes. That's fine with me; I feel like my stories are real enough without those elements.

    I think what you said is really important: that we need to remember why we write and why we are supposed to write that particular story. That might answer what is important to authenticate the novel.

  8. I think you may have just inspired me to a blog post. I usually find a lot of profanity is a sign of weak writing. Of course there are characters for whom it's not only appropriate but mandatory, but there's far more than books actually require.

  9. Great discussion Carrie. Taboos in writing? Well that is a tricky one. Because I agree with Jody, you have to know your audience. And yet I agree that writing needs to be real. This is a fine line to walk. But a really important one. Get it wrong and the writing is false or pretentious.

    Thought provoking as usual Carrie, thanks :)

  10. Agree iwth Jody and Tabitha. Have to know your audience. Mine would be Christian women. Most likely women who don't want to read f-bombs. So although I have characters in my novels who would use that word, I have to find more creative ways to authenticate speech.

  11. I think the use of profanity is the author's choice. If you choose to use it because it's natural to the situation or to make a point, use it. If you choose not to, then don't.

    As far as responsibility, that's quite the sticky wicket. I think if the author is going to handle a hot/controversial topic, the author must do ACCURATE research, not just repeat pundits or media cliches. I think there needs to be a reason to include the topic beyond sensationalism and the desire to sell books.

    I think that we can often express more emotional/moral truth in fiction than in non-fiction, and, if we choose a topic like that, then, yes, it is our RESPONSIBILITY to get a basis of actual fact from which to build.

  12. If it happens it happens. I don't spend a lot of energy on it.

  13. I'd agree that less swearing gives the unavoided cussing more impact, but what Lee seemed to be discribing may be perfect for a Religious publisher. If Lee's is so-inclined anyway, why wasn't that considered off-the-hop?

  14. Simon: "The story comes first. Readers will bring their own aesthetic to my work, and I can't control that." I love this!

    Devon: I think you're making a great point about ACCURACY going hand-in-hand with AUTHENTICITY, but I don't think they're always one and the same in fiction. As Jody said, in order to tell a historical tale that sounds natural to a modern reader, some sacrifices to accuracy had to be made. Similarly, if you follow that link about the series Deadwood, they explain that the profanity is anachronistic because period-appropriate cusswords ("goldarn") just made the characters sound like Yosemite Sam to the modern ear.

    Will: I had assumed that Lee knew about the CBA markets, and was perhaps considering whether there were appropriate "mainstream" markets or genres for his material (for example, I think that cozy mysteries will always have less grittiness and profanity than crime fiction even though both have murders), but we all know what happens when you assume... Thanks for mentioning it!

    If anyone here does not know about the Christian publishing markets, go to Rachelle Gardener's blog immediately and read everything!

  15. I have had a hard time trying to balance my own novel, with regard to swearing in dialogue. I wouldn't say I'm a saint, when it comes to swearing, nor would I call myself the stereotypical sailor, but there are times where a well placed swear word just comes across as more real. (Not to mention that it helps us authors feel good at times to say something hardcore Dangit!) >.<

  16. Great discussion, Carrie!

    I don't mind a smattering of profanity for impact or for building authenticity, but I do tend to get distracted by copious amounts of profanity for the sake of profanity.

    In my own WIP, which is a YA novel, I believe I've only used one swear word. I'm not opposed to using swear words in my writing, but I tend to shy away from it in YA and it just doesn't "feel" right in my current WIP. At one point my character mentions that he "spewed forth profanities befitting an ill-bred ruffian." But I don't feel the need to spell these profanities out.

    Oh, and interestingly enough, one of my recent blog posts focused on profanity in conversation. Here's a link if you're interested: