Being a Better Writer: The Empty Swear

Welcome back readers to another Monday! I hope you all had a great Thanksgiving weekend? Was it full of free time and food? I certainly hope it was. That is, after all, kind of the goal of Thanksgiving. Of course, some of you might have foregone some of the free time in favor of a little weekend shopping (though to judge from panicked news reports about how millennials are killing Black Friday that may indeed be “some” of you). If you did, I hope you found what you were hunting for!

Now really quick, let’s go onto news. I’m going to be a bit frank with this one, so it might surprise a few of you but … That side project I’ve been working on where I’ve been doing some experimental writing? Well, there’s a reason I do experimental stuff like that on side projects.

Because frankly, what’s resulted is not that great.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, it does some stuff really well, and I’m almost done with it. I plan to finish it, as close to its ending as I already was. But looking at the early reactions of some of the Alpha Readers, this one is a giant swing and a miss. There might be some people it appeals to, but they’re not in my usual editing crowd, and the average fan of my work will probably slide off it as well.

In fairness, that’s why I experiment on little side-projects like this before attempting to tackle something similar in a book. And based on the feedback I’ve gotten, I see where this dropped for a lot of people. Meaning that when I do try to move on with some of the techniques and ideas approached here in a published work, it’ll take the feedback and reactions into account and (hopefully) make it a lot more palatable.

On the downside, this one’s probably going to be a flop of a writing project. The last time I had one of those, it was The Phoenix (which I still haven’t managed to rework in a satisfying manner). Now, this doesn’t mean Stranded is dead. Nor does it make it wasted time—after all, I got to try some new things and see how they did or didn’t work. And along with the shorts I’ve worked on this summer and fall, it was a good break to clear my head before diving into the editing on Starforge.

But it’s definitely not my best work. What it tries is just not appealing enough, at least to the early Alpha Readers. Not all experiments are winners. And in fairness, it may find an entirely different audience … but I’m not going to gamble on that and call the work a win.

I’ll finish it this week (it’s right in the end), go through the feedback on the early chapters (before all the Alpha Readers just kind of sighed and stepped back) and see what’s worth salvaging. But then?

People, it’s time for Starforge. While Stranded was an experiment, and always had a high risk of missing the mark, Starforge was not and does not. The early feedback I’ve got for it so far is very, very positive.

The UNSEC Trilogy is ending on a bang people. And it’s about to be my job to fine-tune this ending chorus of explosions until it’s a rising crescendo of detonations that keep the readers shocked and enthralled on every single page … or quivering in anticipation of the next big bang.

So ending the news today, in summation: Stranded is almost done and by all signs a whiff, while Pre-Alpha editing on Starforge is going to start shortly.

Now then, with all that said, let’s talk about writing, shall we? Hit the jump.

So today’s topic isn’t one that was a reader request, but rather one that I arrived at on my own after watching a show that recently released on Netflix. I won’t name it, since I’m about to level a fairly specific criticism against it (and that’s the practice here, some of you may recall), but at the same time it almost doesn’t matter, because what I’m about to bring up is something that appears across almost all of Netflix’s “adult” shows. Where HBO is known for sex and nudity, Netflix seems to want to be known for this particular trait.

All in all? This show wasn’t terrible, though it was about terrible people. It had some clever ideas, and some decent character development, if it was more about the laughs at the absurdity of it all. But there was one thing that really stood out to me across the season (which I did watch all of): the language was atrocious.

I mean this in more ways than one, as will soon be clear. The first way that I mean it was that it was constant and everywhere. There was almost not a single sentence that could go by without any of the characters using the f-word somewhere in it. Sometimes multiple times, as if to make up for the few sentences that didn’t have one. Or combined with some other slur, curse, or sex organ to make a combination thereof.

Now, I’m not striking out against this because, as some have suggested when I bring this up, “What a pansy who can’t handle some adult language.” Please. I grew up in a logging and fishing town. This show had nothing on that.

No, what I had issue with was that the use of language itself was atrocious to the point of being nonsensical.

See, I grew up in a place where a lot of people really did talk with that kind of language. And here’s the thing: There are rules and logic to it. Yes, swears have rules, and I’ve actually read a few papers on the topic and how the “grammatical rules” of swearing are a real thing.

This show? It followed none of them. Despite its language being so over-the-top there was hardly a single character that couldn’t manage a sentence without a few swears, none of it felt the least bit organic or real. In fact, it felt cheap and tacked on, to the degree that I commented to a friend of mine who was also watching the show that it felt like someone had written a script and then sent a machine through it to randomly drop computer-constructed swears into the dialogue.

To which my friend, who is not a writer, a linguist, or anything similar, nodded and said ‘I can see that.’

The end result? Utterly nonsensical dialogue that while good at explaining what was going on in the show honestly missed a lot of marks because it was so full of these empty swears that it made the dialogue feel stilted and unnatural, like a twelve-year old trying to prove how “adult” they were by sticking random swears they’d overheard into their sentences.

Sadly, this kind of thing is not an uncommon occurrence. I recall one interview I read from a writer who had worked in Hollywood who said they had a slang name (which I sadly cannot recall) for newbie scripts that came in dripping with swears from writers that thought more curse words randomly inserted into the text made a work more “adult.” Again, I can’t recall what the name was, but it was a akin to “script babies,” basically setting down a rule of “the more ‘mature’ a script tries to be in this fashion, the less ‘mature’ it actually is.”

Thing is: They’re not wrong. Just like with this show, the dialogue quickly became nonsensical. Because the truth of swearing and swearing well is that you don’t just throw curse words in at random like you’ve been rolling dice to decide how many more words you have to go in a sentence before the swear occurs. There’s structure. There’s cadence.

There’s meaning.

Now some of you might be wondering “But hey, I’ve read your work, and a lot of your characters don’t swear much, or when they do they’re using words that in-setting are curses, but not curses in the real world. So what do you know about this topic?”

Fair question. I reply “What does it matter what the word is? If it’s a curse in setting or in our world, it’s still used the same way, and a lack of proper usage is what we’re discussing here today.”

See, there are rules to swearing, if soft ones. Look at how people who really speak use swears or curses. What they use them in response to, or how they may use them in their moment-to-moment language.

There’s a structure. A rhythm. Swears that are used as filler words in sentences, as “um” and “uh” are? They’re used following that same structure. And they do not, usually, cross over with the words an individual who uses them as filler will use when they actually want to swear. They’ll have “separate” words and phrases for that. They will not use them interchangeably or use the same word or phrase for both.

Combinations of swears and the like follow a similar pattern. They aren’t just random bits of biology picked by a machine. They tend to follow themes and coalesce around a single term. For example, one employer I once had (who was a really good employer) combined most of their curses with rats. Everything was either a “rat-swear” or some other combination of a rat’s anatomy with their chosen swear.

Why? Who knows! I certainly don’t. But that was their focus.

Contrast that, then, with the writing from the Netflix show that spawned this whole post, where there was no pattern, rhyme, or reason to any of the swears used by most of the characters in about 90% of their dialogue. Sands, in one instance a character used three f-words in a single sentence, each of them in a nonsensical place that made no sense, but also didn’t align with any of the other uses inside the sentence.

Was this a big moment where this was supposed to shock the audience? Not at all. They were simply talking. See my aforementioned comment about all the dialogue sounding like it had seen a machine go through and insert curses without any reasoning.

Okay then, so we’ve ragged on using swears and curses badly long enough. We’ve discussed poor usage. Now let’s talk about good useage.

See here’s the thing: Good writing is going to have curses and swears in it. They might not be colloquial to our time, or to our individual culture (case in point, the number of swears that mean almost nothing to an Australian, while still remaining “heavy” in the United States), but there are going to be swears or exclamations of some kind. Not simply to have the curses or swears, mind, but because the characters will use them as part of their language.

Which means that they’re going to use them appropriately, by the “rules” that swears are used by. Now, these rules vary by culture and whatnot, so you can Google “rules of swearing” to get some ideas on how those rules might work for what and where you’re writing, or you can make the rules up, and yes the rules will be loose, but the fact remains that the rules will exist.

Much like the old “How do you do, fellow kids!” meme that circulates online whenever someone is outed as obviously trying to fit into something they don’t understand, not following the “rules” of swearing is an instant sign that someone didn’t do their dialogue properly. It’s an out that says “This writer doesn’t understand cursing; they’re just sticking these words wherever.”

In other words, it’s a sign of weak writing.

Whether writing something set in our world or in a world of our own making, we need to understand the why of our characters cursing. We need to understand how it’s used, what the aims are. Where words can be strung properly to express discontent, or even if stringing multiple curses together is something this society does.

How does polite society react to the swears. Are there “uncultured” and “cultured” swears (aka polite and impolite)? Can they be used as filler, or only certain words? Where do the phrases or terms come from? What’s the history? Can they be used as an expletive infixation? What’s the “hierarchy” of “seriousness” in how they’re used?

Now some reading this might think “Well, that’s way too much work for something that doesn’t have rules.” But here’s the thing, swearing really does. The rules are “softer” because we don’t track them as rigorously as more defined rules of language, but they’re still rules. Just social ones rather than something decided upon by a batch of English professors stuck in a university closet somewhere.

Those professors, however? They know what other people understand by virtue of being immersed in a society: That all usage of swears and curses follows common rule of culture, rule that can be tracked back thousands of years. Romans had their curses with their own usage. So did the Greeks. Or the Zulu. Or the Maya (even if we probably don’t know many).

Modern culture is no different. We have these unspoken rules for how one swears. And when something breaks them by throwing curses about with no regard … We notice. Even if unconsciously. There’s just something off about it. It would be as if someone were an alien wearing human skin with a faulty translator and kept using the wrong terms for things, such as calling a door a “portal” every time they spoke. There isn’t an official rule being broken there, but we all know it’d be weird.

So then, where can we go from here? What’s the takeaway?

Again, I’m not arguing that characters shouldn’t swear. Not. At. All. As some of you have no doubt observed, I’ve had characters swear in my books. So that’s not what I’m getting at here.

No, what we should takeaway from this is that we should do so properly. What is the aim of a swear? What’s the goal? The usage?

That’s what we should ask ourselves. Ultimately, the aim of a curse is to “shock” to draw attention to something or a severity of something. If we have a character that swears a lot, it might be more effective to not have them swear to show that something is serious. Or use a discretion scene change or cut to make the reader fill in the blanks and make something a little humorous to ease the tension.

Sands, one of the “jokes” in Galaxy Quest is made all the better by the fact that it’s a dubbed line. When Sigourney Weaver’s character exclaims “Well screw that!” it’s very obviously a dubbed line, with her lips and face very clearly having said “Well f— that!” Except that a lot of audience members have agreed that having it dubbed is even funnier because it fits the spirit of the movie with the show its made as a tribute to, which makes the line better for being dubbed.

In other words, what I’m getting at here is that swears, curses, and other forms of expression are valid tools that fit in the “dialogue” section of any writer’s toolbox. However, like a drill bit for a drill, they are to be used in specific situations that call for them, rather than simply applied over a work en-masse like whipped cream atop a piece of pumpkin pie.

Actually, that’s a good analogy. Some pumpkin pie is fine without whipped cream, others rely on it. Just as your scenes and your characters may or may not need cursing.

Ultimately, at the end of the day, our aim is—or should be, anyway—to write and deliver realistic characters and dialogue in our stories and settings. Cursing and swearing is part of that. However, if we don’t understand the rules that go into and govern the use of swears … Again, we’ll end up producing something as jarringly clunky and obvious as “How do you do, fellow kids?”

We need to understand the rules—though soft they may be—of the culture and setting we’re writing in. We need to know how our characters speak, swear, and express themselves, so that their dialogue feels natural, even when they’re cursing, upset, shocked, joyful, and so on and so forth.

So yes, we can have swears in our work, and I would argue that to some degree we should, albeit with appropriate regards to our aim and our setting. However, improper use will push readers away and jar them from their comfort zone which could otherwise be enjoying a work.

So don’t just open a text document and randomly drop curses into it the way one might sprinkle salt over an entire, multi-course meal. Pick and choose where you’re going to season things. Know what you’re seasoning and why it needs it. Don’t discount it, but at the same time, use it where it needs to be used and works within the universe you’re playing in.

One properly used curse is worth ten-dozen poorly applied ones. And for the reader, that’ll make all the difference.

Good luck. Now get writing.

As always, a special thanks to our Patreon Supporters, whose support keeps Being a Better Writer coming and Unusual Things ad-free:

Frenetic, Pajo, Anonymous Potato, Taylor, Jack of a Few Trades, Alamis, Seirsan, Miller, Brown, Lightwind, Boomer, 22ndTemplar, Piiec, and Wisehart!

If you’d like to be a supporter as well, then check out the Patreon Page (and get access to some bonus exclusive content) or if you’re particular to a one-time donation, why not purchase a book? Or do both!

Thoughts? Comments? Post them below!

3 thoughts on “Being a Better Writer: The Empty Swear

  1. Great post! Definitely food for thought – I don’t think I’d ever internalised that swearing has rules to it just like grammar and whatnot, though I have noticed when it’s used wrong.

    As a Kiwi, we’ve got some pretty interesting differences in how we swear between regions – notably North and South Islands (for a bit of background, the North Island is generally regarded as the snobby city-people area, and the South Island as the country-bumpkin rural place. The lines are a bit more blurred than they used to be, with migration between regions, social media, and all that, but that’s still how it’s generally viewed). A while back, our wonderful, absolutely brilliant writers from somewhere up in the North Island – specifically the city-people kingdom of said North Island, Auckland – decided to make a mystery/drama (more emphasis on the drama) about a rural community down in the South Island. Everybody swore like Aucklanders. It was hilarious just how badly they swore, every single character dropping an f-bomb at least once per episode, in ways you NEVER hear a farmer speak. I’m not saying they don’t drop the occasional f-word, but it was like the whole cast was taken straight from the suburbs of Auckland and dumped in this little town.

    That wasn’t the only problem with the show, but it was something that stuck out to me. Now I know why, heh.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s