…that is the question. A question that comes up a lot in writing forums. So, here’s one writer’s take on it.
And so we are clear, I’m talking about language banned on network TV, not any of the lesser versions like “damn” and “crap”. Cut that stuff out and your writing sounds like an episode of Leave It to Beaver and will probably be just as believable.
I am in a benefit time travel collection, Out of Time, and have another horror collection, Tales from Beyond. Both are on Amazon, which means getting reader feedback is pretty common. Reviews for both of these collections have included praise, which borders on wonder, about not using any profanity. Now that’s not to say I haven’t. My novel Sacrifice probably can’t get through a chapter without an F-bomb. But these collections did.
An author should treat cursing like a stylistic tool, right up there with metaphors, foreshadowing, and alliteration. Or the Oxford comma I just used. Like using the Oxford comma, the decision to include profanity has to be conscious, not just an assumed part of your writing.
A writer has to decide because, no matter his or her personal feelings on profanity, using it will limit the potential market. There are people who don’t want to read something with language they find embarrassing. Maybe you don’t care about them. Well, if you are writing in some genres, like horror, you have already written off the pre-K through middle grade market when you wrote that scene where the zombie ate that guy’s face off. You made the main characters Marines, and wrote off people who dislike military stories, even though that’s not really what you wrote. The list goes on and on, and every decision you make potentially narrows your target audience. Cutting out another segment for a vulgar reference to female anatomy had better be worth it.
Hollywood has already figured this out. A few choice words guarantee an R rating. No choice words gets you a G rating. An R limits you to adults and teens lying about their age. A G rating gets you little kids and reluctant parents. The G audience is limited because a teenager would rather be home scrubbing floors than have his friends see him leaving a G-rated movie. Hollywood likes the PG-13 sweet spot, rough around the edges, but nothing sharp enough to cut the skin. I think I heard that one comedic F-bomb is the PG-13 limit, and most movies don’t hit that. Rude scatological references appear to be unrestricted.
So why use language on the far left of the scale? Not because “That’s the way I talk,” unless you plan on limiting sales to the few people who can stand to listen to you. If it is in dialogue, it has to say something about the character. The TV show Dexter had Deb Morgan add an F-bomb to every sentence. That language said her character was seriously unfiltered and didn’t care if she offended anyone, or everyone. And then she acted just that way. So the language reinforced what you saw on the screen, the way a symphonic melody enhances a pastoral scene, except that the symphony doesn’t make you wince on occasion.
Or cursing could highlight a character’s state of mind. The loving, upstanding Scout Leader whispers “Shit, no…” as the cliff falls away beneath his troop. It is the one event so tragic he drops his guard and says something he’d never say in front of his Scouts. Now the profanity has impact.
Should you create your own curses? I’ll point you to the use of “fracking” in the Battlestar Galactica cable series as an F-bomb replacement. Personally, nothing took me out a scene faster than this laugh-inducer.
When you have finished your manuscript, hit the magic Search icon for each word that would earn an FCC fine. Realizing that that usage will cost you readers, however few, decide if it is worth it. Is it necessary for the story, or is it a shortcut that a better writer, your better writer, could replace and improve. Then make the call.
After all, I got through a discussion of cursing and only used “shit” once. Damn it. Make that twice.