To F*CK, or Not

I just came from seeing Black Watch, a play about the famed Scottish regiment put on by the National Theatre of Scotland.  The play is about the deployment of the regiment to the so-called Triangle of Death during the early years of the endless war in Iraq.  It’s about why young men join armies, about the history of the Black Watch regiment, and about what it’s like to serve in a war where the opponent’s main weapons are suicide bombers and IED’s.  Much of it was thought-provoking, and it was certainly well-acted.

My caveat was with the dialogue, which lacked shades of color, both in volume–almost all was shouted–and in content.  The dialogue was probably meant to mimic barracks dialogue,  but most sentences were so heavily laden with “fuck” and “cunt” that the tone of the piece became monochromatic.

I was wondering on the way home about writing dialogue.  My own view is that authentic recorded speech may not  get  you to the heart of your characters.  To show the inner mind of a teenage boy who is choosing between being a miner or a soldier (a choice the play presents) requires more subtle language than “fucking cunt fucking came to the fucking bar”.  That may be what the boy says, but it doesn’t show us what he thinks.

Black Watch on duty in Iraq

What do you think? Do you convey emotion with literally recorded speech? Can you convey authentic character with imagined speech?

  • I agree with you. ‘Authentic’ is not always best or appropriate. They should use enough to convey what they want to say and leave the rest out, But that requires skill.

  • Edwardskatherin

    I also agree. I grow weary of the speech of ‘today’, the over the top use of profanity, however, if correctly placed in a situation/scene, it can add to the tension. Still, overuse as you suggest is tiresome and after my initial shock I tend to get slightly p**sed off b/c I go to the theatre, read books, watch movies, etc. to ‘get away’ from the mundane.

  • Sandi

    Dialogue or speech does not have to contain every imaginable cuss word to be
    classified as “authentic.” A character’s emotions can be expressed via actions, thoughts,
    decisions, interactions with others, etc. as well as by what isn’t said, done, or enacted. So
    yes, I believe you can convey an authentic character with imagined speech – a speech or dialogue
    that is in keeping with that person’s character (when they aren’t cussing) via dialect,
    background, etc.

    Personally, some cussing is okay – it’s part of a person or character – but excessive use
    of profanity doesn’t “work for me.” It doesn’t solve anything. Perpetually cussing only
    relays the speaker’s utter frustration and/or anxiety while exhibiting no attempt to seek a
    solution or resolution.

  • Chris Holzworth

    That’s a tough call. On the one hand, as a reader, I feel a certain sense of detachment when characters seem overly articulate–especially those that are rarely so, such as a troubled youth or youth in turmoil. Really, when you get right down to it, there is no one side of this argument you can definitively fall on. I can easily see an argument made for the efficacy of chopped up, inarticulate, crude language lending itself to the tone, voice, vibe, feel, whatever of a character–including how they think. Now, if everyone in a work is walking around peppering their language with so-called foul language ad nauseam, well. That’s another story.

    This may be a weak example, but I look at films by Kevin Smith, which are rife with so-called “bad words,” and I feel as though the decision to use such language lends itself to the strength of his dialogue and the believability of his characters in the real world.

    Also, I can’t help but wonder: Is part of the issue American culture’s stigmatization of the word “cunt”? From what I understand–based on media and books and no first-hand experience–that word has far less negative, “we-don’t-say-this” weight in Europe than it does ’round here. Not that that necessarily excuses anything.

    Perhaps (not having seen the play in question) this has less to do with choosing to drop f-bombs and more to do with the absence of dialogue diversity? I mean, I like to explore the versatility of “fuck” as much as the next guy, but the frequency of its use vacillates depending on social context.

  • Pascale

    I feel it shows a desperate lack of talent … A bit like when clowns make children laugh with farts or words like “poo”. It makes me cringe.
    Translating reality through fiction takes far more effort and talent. It is a rare skill whereas any idiot can put a microphone somewhere and play it back !

  • I have always been of the opinion that over-use of profanity indicates a lack of imagination on the part of the author, and/or education on the part of the speaker. In my neck of the woods, there is an abundance of young men who work on oil rigs, and sadly, profanity rules. I imagine it runs rampant in war situations as well. I agree that it takes skill to convey emotions without over-using profanity.

  • fdx

    it can be crude and irritating, but there are times when the inauthenticity of not using the f words etc makes something unbelievable. the film ‘the commitments’ based in dublin is an explosion of f words but also of imaginative witty and authentic dialogue. if you had removed the expletives it would have been a strange sanitised version of dublin that would probably have been rejected by dubliners. as it stands, its probably the one film about ireland and dubliners that is truly embraced.

  • I agree that the inauthenticity of not using “f” words makes characters or situations unbelievable, but the overuse seems to me to drop a wall between the writer and the subject matter. I think, too, we have a lot of middle-class writers who want to look as though they’re street smart, and imagine that if they use gangsta rap or TV street language that they will look street smart themselves. Writing like that always makes me cringe–but I don’t know how to find the balance. I tend to underuse slang and that probably isn’t authentic, either

  • Chris Holzworth

    When it comes to text-based instances of street language and dialect, I think execution matters more than balance. One of the things I’ve had beaten over my head by creative writing professors/instructors/whatever is to avoid dialects unless you have an ear for it. It’s not enough to just include it, or make an attempt. You have to be able to pull it off. Take Stephen King, for example, and Detta Walker from The Dark Tower series. The inclusion of AAVE adds to her character, gives her more texture. But King has a strong ear for dialect, and the skill to convey it textually (this is apparent in other characters, as well, even minor ones and their distinct regional drawls). But anyone unequipped to navigate the nuances of dialect who tries the same thing risks producing a character who sounds like a stereotype. I imagine this is what you mean by middle-class writers–people whose approximations of street language stem from watching The Wire or something, as opposed to having soaked it up first-hand themselves.

    Of course, effective and believable use of street language is part of what makes The Wire so good, heh. But again, that’s a television show–not a book.

  • Miranda

    ‘Cunt’ is a favourite with English football fans; ‘twat’ comes a poor second. Both are used routinely by fans to express rage and contempt, but I’ve never once heard ‘prick’ as an insult in the largely male-dominated culture of football. From which it seems safe to conclude that, while racist abuse is strongly condemned – there is nothing more frowned on in football than racism – sexist (and homophobic) insults are fine. Female genitals beneath contempt; male genitals brilliant (cunts bad, balls good). So while the use of expletives does reflect the impoverished vocabulary of the user, the choice of expletive isn’t random or meaningless.

    Is ‘cunt’ more acceptable in Europe than in the US? It depends on the culture. As I say, in some working-class, male environments, e.g. among football fans, it’s normal, but in more educated cultures where any expression of sexism and homophobia would be frowned on, no, you absolutely couldn’t use ‘cunt’ as a term of abuse, any more than you could use terms like ‘faggot’.

    On Sara’s question about scattering fucks and cunts around in dialogue – I agree, I don’t think it works, just as I don’t think archaisms like ‘for sooth’ or ‘prithee’ can work in a historical novel. You need to find a kind of third language – I’m not sure how to characterise it but like Toni Morrison somehow manages in Beloved?

  • My axiom since seeing Chris Rock and Eddie Murphy stand-up on TV: if I can’t follow the storyline/conversation because of the bleeping, there’s too much cussing. Use the level of profanity that’s appropriate (?) to the character, but give me enough words in between so I know what’s going on. Southpark can do it…

  • I like the idea of a kind of third language–which Hillary Mantel succeeded in doing in Wolf Hall–to me the great achievement of the novel was you felt that you were in 15-16th century England without, forsooth, those annoying archaisms,

  • Shirley

    I don’t think readers want to see profanity used to the same degree that some people use it today in reality.

    I was taught that you resorted to using profanity rarely to emphasize a point or if you didn’t have a good vocabulary. Sara, that’s not the case with you!

  • Skin Marking

    In order to discuss the question first you have to identify the audience the playwright intends to adresss. And having seen this play in its “natural environment” it’s clear that the audience is the very working class men whose language it uses. A secondary target for the playwright are the comfortable, thoughtful middle class – the one’s who don’t have to make the choice between living and working underground in a dangerous mine or go to fight the wars of the weatlthy oil interests – and as far as I could detect the playwright intends to alienate and upset we middle class souls. And he succeeded with me, and I am guessing with Ms. Paretsky? Anyway the shouting and the language shocked me into thinking far more deeply about the real subject, even though I left the performance exhausted and with a headache!

  • Lindysrest

    I think that we almost never convey our emotions, completely, with what we say.  I am always aware of who is listening and what they expect.  To express a character’s emotions and motivations just through their spoken speech would make a one-dimensional character. 

  • JN Welsh

    A new writer I know recently told me he included a narrator in his story because he felt the characters weren’t introspective enough and so he needed someone to analyze the characters for the readers. My opinion was that this is the readers’ job, and it was his job to give them enough story to do it. If a writer wants to include a character who would normally swear every other word, there’s a reason the character is there, and his communication skills — or lack thereof — are part of who he or she is. Maybe the writer wants to show the sadness of a place where powerless people try to use powerful words, overusing them to the extent that the words lose power too. Or maybe it reflects a world that has given up on using language expressively. Whatever the reason, you still need to tell the story. If you wanted a character who doesn’t express himself well verbally, you’re stuck with him and you need to figure out how to tell his story with more than dialog. It doesn’t sound like they did that in the play. (Disclaimer: I’m a writer and a cognitive linguist — for me, what people choose to say and how they say it  is integral to who and what they are. If you’ve changed the dialog of what you think the character really would say, then you really just changed the character.)

  • I thought this was a great question. I study language and identity, and I find people hide behind language as they do with other habits, and their true self may not be what they say. But the facade is also very telling–the motive behind the f’s, c’s and other words–assault. I think that for me, an overabundance of cursing takes away its power. I had an abusive relative curse me like Pesci’s character in Goodfellas until it lost meaning. Because of that, to me if expletives are used judiciously, they have more shocking effect. I feel character is definitely more in the imagined speech–the true person rather than the facade, and that can be used to good character points.


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