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On Swearing

May 15, 2009

I hate it when a good book swears swears a lot. It hurts my brain and my spirit to swim through a lot of language muck. I don’t know how much of this is a Mormon cultural thing. But my bias in reading favors books that are story honest without necessarily being true-to-life in their language.

Is that a contradiction in terms? I don’t think so. In fact, according to Robert McKee (Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting), writers place too much importance on words as story building-blocks, rather than events:

[W]riting also demands two singular and essential talents. These talents, however, have no necessary connection. A mountain of one does not mean a grain of the other. The first is literary talent–the creative conversion of ordinary language into a higher, more expressive form, vividly describing the world and capturing its human voice. Literary talent is, however, common. … The second is story talent–the creative conversion of life itself into a more powerful, clearer, more meaningful experience. Pure story talent is rare. (Story page 27)

In another place, he says (I paraphrase; I can’t find the quote right now, but when I find it I will come back and replace this) that too many writers believe that their stories are made up of words. No; stories are made up of events.

And the final McKee quote:

The “personal story” is understructured, slice-of-life portraiture that mistakes verisimilitude for truth. This writer believes that the more precise his observation of day-to-day facts, the more accurate his reportage of what actually happens, the more truth he tells. But fact, no matter how minutely observed, is truth with a small “t.” But “T” truth is located behind, beyond, inside, below the surface of things, holding reality together or tearing it apart, and cannot be directly observed. Because this writer sees only what is visible and factual, he is blind to the truth of life. (Story 24)

I have heard an argument in favor of including swearing that goes something like this: Real people talk this way, characters need to be real people, therefore they need to talk this way, or else they will not ring true, and no one will believe they are real.

The problem with this argument, I realize after reading McKee, is that the truth of a character is much more about what the character does than the words the character chooses to express himself. Based on the idea that verisimilitude can actually blind us to the truth of life, you could make a case for cutting most (if not all) bad language from many stories. I will concede that a choice word may be necessary on occasion (Rhett Butler and Lady MacBeth agree there). But I really can’t think of too many stories I’ve ever read that have had their story truth enhanced by abundant bad language. I suspect that it’s actually a crutch: it’s much easier to fill a character’s mouth with swear words and call it real than than to create a real, believable character whose actions are True, whether or not the words are true to life.

Disclaimers: 1-The McKee book is fabulous. And, ironically, contains some bad language here and there. Sharlee Glenn introduced me to the joy of inking out swearing; it’s very satisfying.
2-McKee never advocates limiting swearing; this analysis is mine.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. May 15, 2009 3:02 pm

    What drives me crazy in particular is when a writer insists on making everyone swear–even when it doesn’t fit their character. There’s one story where everyone was using the F-word. It made sense for the drugged-out chick, but when the 65-year-old retiree used it, I lost faith in the writer. It was HIM speaking, not his characters.

  2. May 15, 2009 3:31 pm


    I remember reading an article on Pulp Fiction in The New Yorker once. The article included a long excerpt of dialogue. I puzzled and puzzled over it, but the grammatical complexities necessary to squeeze in so many f-bombs in so short a space left the quote without any objective meaning visible. I had no idea was the character was trying to say. The point of the writer, of course, was that is how real people talk.

    Nu-uh, was my reaction. I don’t.

    But I’ve since learned that most people do. Most people do talk that way. So when Stephen King or Levi Peterson says you can’t leave those words out it’s because in their experience, people really do talk that way. My students wait every day to finally hear me slip up because they do not understand that some people really don’t talk that way. It’s inconceivable.

    And so it is that I run into issues as a writer. Only a small percentage of my work is about active Mormons and so I bump into the language barrier a lot. Sometimes I gloss over it and have to input some later. Sometimes I put it all in and excise it out draft by draft.

    Dean Hughes told me that it’s a lazy writer that has to swear and most of the time, in his books, you don’t really notice it’s missing. But again, sometimes it’s glaringly obvious.

    So I haven’t figured out how to handle that yet. I’m still working on it. But I figure that as long as I’m working on it, I’m doing okay.

    My idea of orthodox Mormonism is that we are constantly figuring things out. Assuming you know all the answers is the antithesis of Mormonism.

    Or so it seems to me.

    It gives me hope.

  3. Emily permalink*
    May 15, 2009 4:21 pm

    Annette, that’s exactly the kind of thing I mean. It’s the writer talking, not the character.

    Th, yes, I agree, we are still figuring things out. I haven’t written enough to have truly confronted this issue. I speak from theoretical analysis, more than practice, which is why I welcome comments from writers who have actually wrestled with this.

    I have read enough books that felt real, weighty, and honest, that also lacked swearing, to know that it’s possible to achieve truth without bad language. I’ve talked a lot on this blog about agency and honesty and allowing characters to do real things. But for me, the flip side of that is this: as LDS writers, can we figure out a way to show agency, honesty, and real things, without the accompanying “real” language?

    I think it’s possible… again, as McKee says, verisimilitude is not the same thing as Truth.

  4. May 15, 2009 4:53 pm

    I have given this quite a bit of thought. A work in progress about WWII has some of my research peppered with cursing, which is realistic for the conditions (soldiers, men together, etc) but I would also argue that the AVERAGE american at the time probably swore signifigantly less than the average one today. When I am working construction there is no end of cultured characters having but 2 or 3 adjectives for everything, butI am trying to not have to go back to construction; thankfully the economy is on my side about that.

    In Tom Wolfe’s novel and movie ‘The Right Stuff’ several of the still living astronauts commented on how accurate their portrayal was EXCEPT for the language. I don’t know who was more to blame for that Wolfe or hollywood.

    In my BoM novel(s) mentioned in your last post comments section, I do have a lead character that swears, but he uses Nephite curse words rather than English. I wanted to be realistic to human nature for temprament and have the shock value that Nephite society has for their own J. Golden Kimball. I think it comes out better than I am describing here, its not supposed to be a gimmick and its not something I would bother mentioning when it comes to the book except for this posts topic.

  5. May 15, 2009 10:45 pm


    I tend to agree that–at least most of the time–we can accomplish greatness without Those Words.

    On the other hand, those words only have as much power as we give them.

    Levi Peterson wrote about this (and about sex at the same time–only the latter of which I talk about here, but he treated both basically equally), and when I read his essay, I agreed with him that honesty is the writer’s foremost concern. But defining “honesty” is tricky — sort of an I-know-it-when-I-see-it thing….

  6. May 17, 2009 3:28 am

    I loved how swearing was handled in the Mitford series. “He uttered and oath” or “he swore” or something similar was used, letting me know “real people” were in the stories, but without having to read the harshness. It was fantastic. That said, I don’t mind a little swearing now and then, either . . . but it was so refreshing NOT having to read any swearing.

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