We are thrilled to welcome our newest contributor, Dennis Gaunt!
“You really think I oughta swear?” – George McFly
I have a confession: I don’t really enjoy spicy food. I pass on the jalapenos, I say “sayonara” to wasabi, and I give Tabasco a wide berth. Give me mild salsa, sweet barbecue sauce, and hold the peppers, please and thank you.
Yes, I’m boring.
Having said that, I also understand why people choose to cook with hot spices, and even why they enjoy eating them. After all, is kimchi really kimchi if it doesn’t clear your sinuses? Or would any self-respecting Southerner eat a bowl of gumbo if the afterburn doesn’t melt their molars? For many people, the heat and spice is all part of the experience.
An experienced chef will use such spices carefully and for the best effect. It’s why most of us wouldn’t dump an entire bottle of Sriracha sauce onto our Thai noodles just for the heck of it—although I have a couple of friends who probably would—because it would overpower all the other flavors in the dish. (Also, your burning hair would set off the smoke alarm.)
Writing is a lot like cooking, and there are a variety of spices an author can use to season their story, including profanity. Like Ralphie’s father in A Christmas Story, some authors work in profanity the way other artists work in oils or clay. But, like the various dishes I just mentioned, you have to use such spicy words with knowledge and caution, or you’ll risk overpowering your entire story and ruining the experience for your readers. Here are some things to consider when deciding how (or if, but we’ll get to that in a minute) to incorporate profanity in your writing.
Consider Your Genre
The kind of story you’re writing will, to a large degree, dictate the type of language you’ll be using. A sci-fi story about battle-hardened space Marines fighting giant alien slugs on Glornak 7 is naturally going to have very different language than a Regency romance about Lord Fancybreeches’s wooing of the fair Lady Proudbosom. And both of those stories are going be completely different from a middle grade comedy about a shy ten-year-old whose best friend is a sentient banana. Historical fiction has its own rules about language as well. Teenagers in the 1950s, for instance, spoke very differently than teenagers do today. In such cases, era-specific profanity may be an option as a marker of authenticity.
Nonfiction writers have to contend with profanity under different circumstances. If you’re dealing with history, then you’re likely going be dealing with some colorful language, especially if you’re using direct quotes from actual people. History is rough around the edges, and shouldn’t be sugar-coated. The language of Easy Company in Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers is as salty as you might imagine—because they were paratroopers in a war zone. The extra salt needed to be in the book because it was how they actually spoke. To dilute their language would be, in a very real sense, to dilute their story, and diluted history is the ultimate sin in the nonfiction world.
Keep in mind that some publishers, like Deseret Book, Shadow Mountain, and Covenant Communications—which deal with a mostly LDS audience—have very strict guidelines on profanity. (Short answer: they don’t like it). If the story you’re telling simply has to have some profanity in it, I would advise not submitting to publishers like these. But good news: there are plenty of other publishers out there who won’t bat an eye at your colorful usage of what my friend Sachiko calls “Anglo-Saxon incantations.”
Consider Your Audience
Similar to my dislike of super spicy food, I don’t generally go for a lot of swearing in my entertainment, and I especially don’t care for swearing just for the sake of it. (I prefer Brian Regan and Jim Gaffigan to Eddie Murphy and Amy Schumer.) Some people cannot stand hearing profanity spoken in a film but can visually skip over it in print. Others are just the opposite and can tune it out when spoken, but hate the “permanence” of seeing it in print. Still others abhor profanity in any manner and will stop reading at the first instance. Though you have no control over how your audience will react to what you write, you still need to be aware of the possibilities.
I tend to be the sort of reader who will visually skip over most profanity when I read, but even I have my limits. I can’t give you a quantifiable number of how many instances of various profanities it will take for me personally to stop reading a book. The answer is on the spectrum between “some” and “a lot.” I stopped reading one book because by page five the f-bomb had made over two dozen appearances. On the other hand, Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter International series, one of my all-time favorites, features a couple dozen f-bombs spread out over four hundred pages. In my opinion, Correia used profanity like a dash of hot sauce here and there, giving a little extra punch right where the story needed it or where the context demanded it. In the one case, it was too much for me, but in the other, it was just right.
Consider Being Creative
One of the truly wonderful things about writing fiction is that you are free to do what you want, and that can include playing around with language. If you are writing sci-fi or fantasy, the sky is literally the limit. Some of the most memorable sci-fi stories in recent memory feature a litany of completely made up swear words, many of which have taken on a life of their own. Battlestar Galactica famously gave us “frak” and “felgercarb.” Firefly gave us “gorram,” along with the ingenious use of actual Chinese curses (many of which would make the late George Carlin blush). Red Dwarf immortalized “smeghead,” and one still hears the occasional “shazbot,” made famous by Mork from Ork. And, of course, James Dashner’s Maze Runner series substitutes “clunk” and “shuck” for their less polite alternatives. So if the thought of using profanity makes you nervous as H-E-Double-Hockey-Sticks, take heart. There are ways around those literary landmines. You’re a writer, after all, so get creative, gorram it!
Consider Not Swearing
On the other hand, there’s a case to be made for not using profanity, even when the situation appears to demand it. The pivotal moment in Back to the Future comes when George McFly opens the car door at the school dance in order to save Lorraine, the girl he likes. George thinks it is a staged moment for him to act heroic, so he throws open the door and offers the famous line: “Hey you! Get your damn hands off her!” (Admit it: you just read that in George McFly’s voice, didn’t you?)
The line comes across as stilted, wooden, and rehearsed, because that’s exactly what it is, and exactly how Marty taught him to say it. Rather than sounding like a hero, George sounds silly. The audience doesn’t buy it, and neither does Biff, who warns George to just turn around and walk away. But then George discovers that Lorraine is in real trouble. She pleads for him to help her. And it’s at that moment when George McFly finds the strength he didn’t even know he had, and instead of slinking away, he stands tall and says, his voice still shaky yet full of resolve: “No, Biff. You leave her alone.”
The single most powerful moment in the entire film is made all the more powerful because we know it wasn’t in George’s nature to swear in the first place. Despite Marty’s emphatic insistence earlier in the film that George should swear, it turned out to be the wrong advice. We cheer for George because he’s showing strength in his own way, and with his own voice. In many ways, it was finally finding his authentic voice that gave George the courage and strength to knock Biff out, because authenticity is strength.
A memorable moment such as this is what every writer hopes for, but it can only come when you understand your characters intimately. You need to know not only what they think and feel, but why they think and feel that way. If you give your characters words to say that they wouldn’t—or shouldn’t—say, then don’t be surprised when those words ring hollow and fall as flat as George’s rehearsed line initially did.
Whether or not you choose to include profanity in your story is ultimately up to you, but be sure it is truly your voice coming through. You can’t—and shouldn’t—write to please everyone, because not everyone will like everything you write. You shouldn’t include profanity just because you think you’re supposed to, or because you think it will magically bestow a degree of street cred to your writing. It’s possible to write wonderfully compelling stories that are clean and entirely free from profanity, and many authors do it all the time. But whatever you write, whether you spice it up or keep it mild, remember: it’s your dish, and people are anxious to taste it.
Dennis Gaunt has worked as a slushpile reader for Deseret Book and Shadow Mountain publishers since 2000. All those years of reading other people’s words inspired him to take a crack at writing himself. His first book, Bad Guys of the Book of Mormon, was published in 2011, and he has since published other books and magazine articles in the LDS market, and has even recorded talks on CD for LDS youth and young adults.
Though primarily a non-fiction writer (for now), he loves reading and talking about what makes great fiction stories work. His years of wading through the slushpile from the other side have given him a unique perspective on the writing and publishing processes, and he’s excited to be a part of Thinking Through Our Fingers.
Dennis lives in the Salt Lake City area with his wife, Natalie, who still has the text he sent her all those years ago that read “Holy cow–I think I’m writing a book!” In his spare time, he enjoys photography, playing the guitar, cooking (hold the onions, please), going to Disneyland, and Godzilla movies.