Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Power of Words (Part 3)

Stephen King is a bestselling author of horror, science fiction, fantasy, and screenplays. Look for his latest novel, Under the Dome, scheduled to come out 11/10/09.

For the last week and a half, we've been discussing the masters and their amazing use of words to create effects that resonate with readers for years. Stephen King is well on his way to joining their ranks, if he has not done so already; only time will tell.

I bring him up today because his particular style runs rampant with the ever dreaded...swear word! Yes, I'm going there.

There is an ongoing discussion around the swear word. Some believe that it is never necessary, no matter what the situation, while others are a bit more lenient and will concur that people will drop the f-bomb on certain occassions. I'm of the latter opinion. Stephen King, on the other hand, seems to take this argument to the extreme. I will admit that I am often put-off by his blatant use of some words. For one, I can't stand the "c" word or the "p" word in any situation, and I believe that it should just stay out of the literary field altogether. And it seems that he is more than willing to drop the "f" bomb even when the situation didn't necessarily call for it. But, it's his style and a lot of people love it.

The point I want to make, though, is that swear words instantly change the mood (and often, classification) of a piece. I don't care who you are, or what situation you put your characters in, if you are trying to write Middle Grade, you cannot use swear words. The moment you do, your classification has just changed to at least YA. But more than likely, you've just entered into the world of adults. And if you've spent the majority of your novel setting up one of your characters as a lady or gentleman, but just had them spew a swear word, you've lost that impression. You must be very careful in the words you use, and the swear word brings this point out better than any other.

Stephen King gets away with it (and justifies it in his book, On Writing) because he's been in the business a long time and has earned a bit of leeway from the publishing industry and his fans. And, even though he uses swear words a lot, he doesn't make his story about them, which is what a lot of amateur writers do when they want to be "impactful." Too many swear words is the equivalent of a horror movie that is more gross than scary. Yeah, you can show that someone is angry by having them swear, but it's often the cheap way to go and you run the risk of losing your audience.

What are your thoughts on the matter? Are swear words ever justified? And if so, when?



  1. For me, it depends entirely on the character and what they would say in that situation. There are some characters for whom it's normal to swear and would of course swear when they're stressed out. There are other characters who would never swear no matter what.

    Then there are those characters that you can illustrate as being under trememdous pressure by having them swear when normally they wouldn't. I read a book by Laura Kinsale where one guy had a stroke and couldn't talk properly. Curse words were some of the only words that came naturally to him. So someone made him angry and before he knew it he'd spewed a ton of curse words at that person, forgetting completely that there was a lady in the room. It was hilarious.


  2. I tend to be of similar mind to Jai here. Certain characters almost, mind you almost, have to swear while others should almost never.

    For example a gruff, tough as nails, battle hardened Marine-type character would almost certainly drop an f-bomb or other equally devistating curse in a tense situation. In my opinion, it'd ruin the whole "believability" of such a character if she spouted off with "Oh fudge!" in the middle of an intense battle, etc.

    Now for my own writting, no matter the character or situation I veer wide of using blasphemous curses. I don't liberally pepper my writing with "colorful" expressions (at least not intentionally) but I'm set on that one "rule".


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