Wednesday, April 21, 2010

First Refuge of the Inarticulate: Profanity as Cliche

SF classic author Isaac Azimov had a character named Hari Seldon (The Foundation series) who invented a science called 'psychohistory' which was the science of predicting the behavior of large populations.

This is irrelevant, except to introduce one of Hari's favorite sayings, which was: 'Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.'

I have my own version: 'Profanity is the first refuge of the inarticulate.'

Now, if you have an inarticulate/asocial character, then profanity might be perfectly appropriate, but there are more subtle and effective ways to show that kind of character. It's also appropriate in a military type setting, but not to be overdone or it becomes distracting (like too many erotic scenes) and of little use in advancing the story.

In everyday language profanity has become common, and so, you might argue, I'm just reflecting the norm of the culture. Really? Since when is dialog just conversation? If I want to experience an expletive filled conversation I'll have lunch at the nearest truck stop, I don't have to read your book for it. Profanity is nothing more than a one-word cliché, a cheap device to make a character or situation seem 'edgy.' But it is just as much an evasion of your responsibility as an author as any other cliché.

My characters do spout an occasional 'damn,' 'c**p,' or even 's**t' as an exclamation in the appropriate circumstance. Indeed, there are places where if you don't use one of those words (the plane is about to crash into the mountain, for instance) it would be as unrealistic and distancing as using them in too many places.

Words like that are spices to be used sparingly; least you dull your reader's appetite. An overspiced dish is as unpalatable as an underspiced one. So sprinkle expletives carefully.

BTW, least you think me a prude, I was a Marine, where you can't eat a meal without someone asking you to pass the f...'in salt. True, but once again of no use in advancing a story, unless the story is about how crude Marines can be.

But that's not a story, or even news.


  1. I agree. Too much swearing, especially pointless swearing, dilutes the effect.

    Great post, Bart. I've subscribed for future entries.

    Thanks for sharing :)

  2. I agree, also. I find it throws me out of the story when used too many times. Then I don't buy that authors books anymore.

    Linda Burke

  3. I agree, Bart. As one writing workshop instructor told me, swear words really stand out on the page--almost as if they're in all caps--so, as writers, we should use them sparingly. And, of course, overuse of anything completely dilutes its effect. Besides, there are certainly more original and unique ways to show personality or convey emotion. Then again, there are times when nothing works quite like a well-chosen curse word... :)

    As for the military angle, as you know, my hubby is a retired Marine, and in the 30+ years I've known him, I've only heard him use an expletive a handful of times. And no, I'm not kidding. Not that he doesn't use them away from home, but to his way of thinking, an officer and a gentleman doesn't swear in front a lady. Old fashioned? You bet. But doesn't that tell you more about him than any amount of description ever could?

  4. Chris, sometimes the absence of the expected is as articulate a statement as the presence of the unexpected.

    Wow, I'm waxing profound today. Now if I could only get those pesky characters to cooperate. Which is why I wrote this blog instead of the 4-5 pages I was supposed to write. Oh well, maybe tonight.

  5. Must be an anti-swearing kind of day, Bart--I blogged on a similar topic today as well. Great post. I agree--books that use profanity gratuitously turn me off. Same with movies! My theory is: if the words you're using (whether they're profane or flowery or whatever) draw attention to themselves, you've lost as a writer. You want readers to look at your story, not the words you're using to tell it.

  6. I heard recently that "Nuts!" was once a very bad swear word. And then there's the British "bloody"... It depends on the story's time period and the story itself. Swearing is like sex in a story - it has to be there to mean something and not just to fill space. JMHO.

  7. I generally agree: Gratuitous swearing in books is like gratuitous sex in movies. Eventually, it's just a bunch of "blah blah blah." But what if the genre I'm writing in *really* is about gratuitous swearing and sex? I don't think I could sell a Romantica/Erotica story without them -- loads of them. It's what that audience expects. Plus, shock value always grabs people's attention...

  8. "Chris, sometimes the absence of the expected is as articulate a statement as the presence of the unexpected."

    Bart, I couldn't have said it better myself. Actually, I couldn't have said it nearly that well, LOL, but it was exactly the point I was hoping to make. Thanks for clarifying it!

  9. I dislike profanity appearing on the first page for the same reason I dislike profanity yelled out in public; I don't know the speaker/author yet so think he/she is intending to assault me, physically or verbally.
    A little profanity later when a character is experiencing strong emotions is fince.
    I my own writing I use quite a bit of explitives but since my stories are set on another world I use custome made cus words.

  10. i agree. i hate the argument: "everybody talks this way." (well, everybody you know...). it also takes away from dialogue & continuity. it rather jars the reader. try reading lyrics from the rap artist Slim Shady (aka Eminem).

    on the flipside i do admit to being drawn into a novel because in the first paragraph the protagonist finds herself being thrown overboard by her soon to be ex-husband. her last thought: "wow, i married an ***hole."

  11. Great point Bart. I like the "words are spice" analogy.