October 4, 2013

The use of swear words in fiction

Dear M,

What do you think about all those swear words in books? We have got used to them in a way, what with people freely tossing it around in TV shows and social media and everywhere. But I wonder if it is essential in stories. I have arguments for and against them.

When we were younger, the books we read did not have any expletives in them. People would say something like "Well, I'll be-" when they are surprised, the suggestive word swallowed, or in anger, "What in the world do you think you're doing?" If we heard some new word, we spoke them in hushed tones only with our friends and giggled, and when angry, used them without thinking and got shouted at by our parents. We felt a thrill when we were able to direct them towards our friends while fighting, and we felt very grown-up about them.

In contemporary novels, it has become the norm to throw a few curses around. Anyone who is a little annoyed would easily use them. On the one hand, people do that (these days), and if you want to be truthful, you could write those words exactly as they would use them. On the other hand, too many curses ruin the flow of the book, and make it look like trash (my personal opinion). Maybe because I have outgrown the age of the swearing (as I hope).

If you look at books written half a century (or more) ago, or movies made several decades ago, people did not use so many bad words in them. In actual life, they did, I am sure, but those words did not make their way into fiction as much. There was some level of constraint that the creators exercised (or were forced to). Similarly, in old movies we did not see much of gory scenes as we do in modern ones. It is a sign of the times. So the argument is, do we want to be so truthful and depict every thing people do?

I still believe it is good to exercise constraint in everything. Too much swearing in every line takes the joy out of reading. There are places when it is realistic to expect swearing. (Or gory scenes.) In those places if the mad protagonist ready to flare up in rage says something mild like "What in the world are you doing?" it is difficult to believe it.


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1 comment :

  1. I agree with you. Sometimes, swearing can be an integral part of the story but those times are few. I think swearing expresses anger strongly so it's an easy way out. If you exercise restraint, then you'll need to really write well to express the same sentiment. That would require hard work.