Back when I was in Central America I would be walking down some dusty street in Tegucigalpa and little kids probably 6 or 7 years old would run up to me and yell a string of expletives in English, then laugh. The first few times this happened I was taken back, especially since these kids were dropping F-bombs and worse like it was nothing. It was only later that I learned to them it was nothing. You see, these children had watched American movies with subtitles, probably with their family or friends, and learned some different phrases. Arnold Schwarzenegger movies were especially popular there at the time. Anyway, these kids thought what they were saying was completely normal or funny in English, not realizing they were repeating some of the most vile things from a foreign language.

You can hardly fault the children for learning to repeat something they don’t understand. That’s true of kids who live in households where one or both parents talk like sailors. They might think that’s completely normal, until they get out into the world and realize if they use that kind of language in certain social situations they’ll be looked down upon, possibly punished. Yet there are some kids and adults who cuss up a storm and think they’re clever for doing it, that they’re fitting in, etc. and are completely clueless to the negative reactions others have to their vocabulary, or lack thereof. If you haven’t known anyone like that, you’re probably the one who’s cluelessly acting that way (that’s a joke, kind of).

I’m in the throes of my next book and since it’s not one for kids, it’s a little more realistic, grittier if you will. I’ve made the decision to not add in a bunch of cussing or gratuitous elements just to titillate certain readers; there are plenty of salacious books out there which you would think should be enough to satiate appetites, although gluttony doesn’t adhere to borders or restrictions well at all. So that’s just the thing: I’m not going to change my storytelling by throwing in those elements just because some people think that’s the only way to make a book relatable or realistic.

I’ve read Stephen King’s On Writing many times. It has some good information in there. But I don’t agree with everything he says, which really shouldn’t be a shock. The only person I agree with on everything is myself, well at least most of the time. In case you don’t know what I’m getting at, King’s take on cussing in writing is one thing where I diverge from his opinion.

Now, I get there’s some debate about what constitutes a “cuss” or “curse” word. I’m not talking about those items on the edges, but instead the words we all know are profanity. Almost never does such language add anything to a story. The same can be said for sex scenes and many other details. Yes, people do these things, but do you portray your character using the toilet just for realism’s sake? Well, some people do, but I adhere to the philosophy of art that once there’s nothing superfluous to take away, it’s ready. If there’s anything which isn’t adding to the story, including establishing who your characters are and what they’re all about, then I say cut it. What does having them cuss add? I don’t think much of anything, but that’s just my viewpoint. You can disagree and I know some people will vehemently, which is fine. This is my perspective, my opinion, and others can have their own.

The same thing goes for sex scenes. I can only think of one which adds something of value to a story, it was in Gone Girl, and that’s it. Real art comes from the heart and I must follow mine, otherwise I’m not truly creating art.

A friend of mine who cusses casually quite a bit even told me that planned cussing, in other words cussing which goes through a curated editorial process, just feels off. This person, who knows this industry well, feels profanity is such an emotional thing it’s best only as an off-the-cuff thing and not something planned. Is that correct? I don’t know, but it’s an interesting perspective.

Personally, I’m not throttled when an author uses profanity in a book, but I find if it’s loaded in heavily the message of the story gets lost. I’m about halfway through The Witcher series and the amount Sapkowski uses isn’t much, or at least that the translator uses since I don’t know what the original Polish says. I’ll do a brief spoiler-free review of that series when I’m done, because I’m really loving the books so far.

As far as what I’m working on now, I’m keeping exactly what it is a secret (I agree with King’s concept of writing with the door closed). But, you can rest assured it will be engaging and unlike anything written by me up to this point.

Lead image by Vincent Peters via Pexels. All rights reserved for this blog post text.

Full-time automotive writer, editor, and author. Sometimes I tell stories about the machines which move humanity, and sometimes I tell other stories which do the same.

2 Comment on “Profanity In Storytelling: A Necessary Element?

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