Graphic Writing: Swearing
Swearing, in the modern western world, appears constantly, and the impact of the words is less than it was a century ago where obscenity was tried in court. That being said, to include swearing effectively requires a balance of conviction and control, as worrying about the use of a word will weaken it. This guide is to illustrate that by not worrying about a particular word, or combination of words, the power they deliver can be maximised.
This essay contains graphic swearing and bad language.
To swear effectively on the page you must be confident in placing that word there. Shying away from it, especially if it is a word you find you have to use, will only cause damage to the paragraph you are working on. That doesn’t mean you have to swear – you can allude to or insinuate your word choices just as effectively – but instead that you must follow-through with your decision to swear or use a taboo word.
The words you use when writing swearing can complete or destroy a scene. Much like any other element of your writing, don’t just include swearing for the sake of it. Bad language must benefit your story; whether it is a character that swears or it is integrated into the narrative, it needs to be there for a reason. To paraphrase Samuel Taylor Coleridge: if they are the right words for that sentence, and in the best order, then that is what you should write.
But while I was sitting down, I saw something that drove me crazy. Somebody’d written “Fuck you” on the wall. It drove me damn near crazy. I thought how Phoebe and all the other little kids would see it, and how they’d wonder what the hell it meant, and then finally some dirty kid would tell them – all cockeyed, naturally – what it meant, and how they’d all think about it and maybe even worry about it for a couple of days. I kept wanting to kill whoever’d written it. I figured it was some perverty bum that’d sneaked in the school late at night to take a leak or something and then wrote it on the wall. I kept picturing myself catching him at it, and how I’d smash his head on the stone steps till he was good and goddam dead and bloody. But I knew, too, I wouldn’t have the guts to do it. I knew that. That made me even more depressed.
The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
In this extract the narrator quotes obscene graffiti and then proceeds to explain his rage using what were, at the time, similarly profane words. The frequent uses of ‘damn’ and ‘goddam’ were enough to cause controversy upon publication and the novel is still contentious in some parts of the world. Salinger used these words specifically to show the antagonistic nature of the protagonist and his separation from the status quo, whilst denying him realisation of the irony of his word choices to express his outrage during this scene.
Words that are explicit or viewed as profanity change with time, and so the setting and period of a story has some bearing over what is said. A rich and vibrant environment can be created using the right words, and swearing is part of that tapestry that writers weave.
‘Aye, you’re not gonnae be the smart cunt in there!’ the policeman says.
Focus on his face. It’ll help keep the shrinking back. He’s got green eyes, a squint nose, and the hair on his neck and forearms is thick as fucking pelt. You’re giving me the boak, fuck-pus. He’s loving this. They’re wanted my banged up away from town and their stations, for how long? They think if they put me far enough away then I cannae get in trouble. Aye. Okay. There’s still buses, fanny-heads, I umnay behind locked doors yet.
The policeman is watching me in his rear-view mirror. He gave me a stoater of a slap yesterday. Old radgio el fuckmong, I call him, old cunt-pus himself.
The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan
The words used by Fagan’s fifteen-year-old narrator are so much part of her vernacular that they begin to lose their impact, but that is intentional. The use of Scottish dialect adds to the feel of the voice and the terminology suits the character, the setting, and the time-period of the novel.
Swearing, like any other expression, needs to suit both the characters and the story. If the words are not required they should not be there; but if they are needed, be sure to include them and use the right ones.
One of the main criticisms with swearing in writing is how unnatural it feels when forced onto the page. People swear in certain ways, and it is important to understand how and why they do to effectively swear in your work.
Listen to how people talk. When you are in a bar, or on the bus, or in the street, eavesdrop on conversations. The way people swear is integrated into their vernacular; it is part of how they speak.
‘You prick,’ I told Jimmy, ‘you make me sick.’
‘I know you didn’t mean that, Hank,’ he said.
Jimmy walked into the kitchen. ‘She’s got a nice family. She lives here with her father, mother and brother. Her brother knows I’m going to fuck her. He’s right. But there’s nothing her can do about it because I can beat the shit out of him. He’s nothing. Hey, watch this!’
Ham on Rye: A Novel by Charles Bukowski
The characters in this scene, particularly Jimmy, use swearing to accentuate what they are saying, either as loose insults to each other or to stress specific points. Bukowski crafts natural conversation that reads, despite its subject matter, as something that could easily be overheard given the right setting.
Swearing tends to fall into two categories: conscious and subconscious. Conscious swearing is where people choose to use a certain word to make or emphasise a point, whereas subconscious swearing is accidental as it has become part of their everyday speech. Conscious swearing is the easiest type to write, as it is a deliberate action on the part of the individual; swearing is included to increase the strength of a statement or question, with intention and purpose. Subconscious swearing can be harder to master, but done properly, this can lead to seamless dialogue. The key is finding the rhythm of the character’s conversation and punctuating it accordingly with swear words, the way the character would.
I didnt think yahung around with those kindda fucks. Theyre o k sometimes. Theyre always good for loot when they got it and they getya high when yawanna. Stick around. She may be around later, smiling. Hahaha, rolling the chair back to the desk. I dont go for that shit. Im strickly a cunt man myself. I was just wonderin how come than ya could fuck in a year. Shit, last night I had ta chase one away, a good lookin bitch too, but I promised the old lady Id throw a fuck inner, you know how it is.
Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr.
The conversational, everyman prose Selby writes in is amplified by the casual, repeated swearing, including using profanity as placeholder words in dialogue instead of ‘um’ or ‘so’ thereby lending gritty realism to the vernacular. The slang further adds to the feel of the story as a tale told verbally and then transcribed to the page. By numbing the reader with recurring coarse language, Selby is then able to tackle other, more taboo subjects without overt shock, allowing the issues addressed to come to the fore in a naturalistic and relatable fashion.
Whether the word or words you are using are for effect or punctuation, ensure they sound right in the character’s voice and dialect. As with all dialogue, and inner monologue, everyone talks slightly differently and this needs to be reflected. Slang and cursing take on different methods of delivery and grammatical reasoning within different areas, and that can be used to your advantage within your writing.
Swearing shouldn’t just be thrown in, but used to enhance or change the pace. Words can increase the flow of a paragraph or stop it dead, and swear words hold particular emphasis. Using them well can change the entire dynamic of a scene, whether that is because they break up sentences, or as they are dropped in naturally and without consequence.
No, not like that. A barren land, bare waste. Vulcanic lake, the dead sea: no fish, weedless, sunk deep in the earth. No wind would lift those waves, grey metal, poisonous foggy waters. Brimstone they called it raining down: the cities of the plain: Sodom, Gomorrah, Edom. All dead names. A dead sea in a dead land, grey and old. Old now. It bore the oldest, the first race. A bent hag crossed from Cassidy’s clutching a noggin bottle by the neck. The oldest people. Wandered far away over all the earth, captivity to captivity, multiplying, dying, being born everywhere. It lay there now. Now it could bear no more. Dead: an old woman’s: the grey sunken cunt of the world.
Ulysses by James Joyce
Here Joyce builds on his description of the scene around his protagonist and combines the character’s thoughts with the narration, entwining the two and using the setting as an analogy for the character’s mood. The scene builds in detail and draws both the barren landscape and protagonist’s morbid thoughts together into a single metaphor that is delivered through the only use of the word ‘cunt’ in the novel.
Swear words can specifically punctuate a point or be used to add impact to a moment within a story, but equally can be used to desensitise the reader through their frequency.
You can forgive a young cunt anything. A young cunt doesn’t have to have brains. They’re better without brains. But an old cunt, even if she’s brilliant, even if she’s the most charming woman in the world, nothing makes any difference. A young cunt is an investment; an old cunt is a dead loss. All they can do for you is buy you things. But that doesn’t put meat on their arms or juice between their legs.
Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller
Miller dismisses the profanity of the repeated word by using it as a general, almost subconscious description of a woman. This speech by Carl, a friend of the novel’s narrator, demonstrates both his misogynistic character and his lack of inhibition when uttering what is widely considered to be the most offensive word in the English language in such a habitual and throwaway manner. The repeating of the word punctuates the speech, leading to an echo-like pace that both magnifies and breaks up the character’s bigoted tirade.
Swearing can stop a reader mid-sentence and cause them to pause when reading, or it can draw them further into a scene and create a more immersive setting. Either way, it is a formidable tool for setting or changing the pace and needs to be used sensibly and with consideration.
All graphic writing is, in effect, a way to both further engross your readers whilst simultaneously repelling them. The most successful explicit writing works much the same as witnessing a tragic accident: you want to look away but are drawn to observing in greater detail than you would usually. By creating that contradictory sense, one of both fascination and revulsion, you can truly craft visceral and engaging moments within your writing.
Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.