October 07, 2008

Bad Men Cuss!

I get drawn into this argument all the time, particularly when I tell someone the language or graphic images in their book is too rough for me and I don’t want to handle it. They say it is impossible to have realism in a book without it.

I disagree.

I do agree that bad men use bad language, and sex scenes can get pretty steamy if we wanted to listen and if we wanted to watch. Most people don’t want to watch, but neither are they prudes. They want realism, but Christian publishing houses are not going to allow the words, so what is a writer to do?

I know what the words are. I don’t use them, but I know what they are, and I don’t have to have someone repeating them to me in order to get it. What I want to see is a writer who is good enough at their craft that they can show me the person angry enough to lapse into profanity. How is it manifesting itself in their body? What is the tension between them and the person it is aimed at? How are these people reacting? Show me the people and the emotions, not the words.

In the things I’ve written myself bad people do bad things and use profane language, but I show it, I don’t say it. I don’t believe it weakens the scenes as people tell me it does. I believe a good writer can show what they want to show without it.

My grandfather never said a bad word in his life. I never heard one and the entire family agrees that was the case, not one. But mother tells me of a day when she was very young that he was working on his old Model A and having a very bad day. He was hot and sweaty, and he kept dropping tools and nothing was going right. He kept getting madder and madder and the sweat ran into his eyes, stinging and blinding him as he was in an awkward and painful position trying to reach a bolt he was trying to take out. They had never seen him that mad and they were actually afraid, cowering back at the end of the porch.

It just kept getting worse, then finally with a mighty heave (he was a big man) he made a supreme effort to break the bolt loose . . . and twisted it off. Papaw stepped back from the car, sweat pouring from him, face red as a ripe tomato. He threw the wrench he was holding completely out of sight, raised his shaking fists to the sky and screamed, “GEE!”

What profane word can I put in there that will make it any stronger? Show me the person and the emotions, I don’t need you to tell me the words.


lynnrush said...

Thank you for the post, Terry. Very inspiring.

I picked up a secular book recently and began flipping through the pages. I couldn't find a page that didn't have a cuss word on it.

I'm like you, I know the words, but don't say them and I agree, it weakens the writing as well. Readers are creative, they don't need every last detail described to them, just enough to paint a picture to get their imagination flowing.

WK said...

ohh what a great post1!! I do think there are many many times especially with secular books that the stories would be just as great without the cussing. The words aren't need when the actions tell it all.

Great post and something to think about.

Do you by chance have a workshop or anything for aspiring authors?


max said...

I also had a grandfather who never said a bad word. Wonder what he would think of today. My mother tells me that the word he liked to use in anger was tarnation.

When he was REALLY angry, he'd say, "Thunder tarnation." So I used that with a grandfather character in one of my books for boys.

Max Elliot Anderson

Terry Burns said...

Thanks for the nice comments, everybody - Wendy, I do workshops at conferences and writers groups a lot but don't have an online course going at the present time.

Patricia PacJac Carroll said...

Good post Terry,
I couldn't agree more. And that is one of the reassons I read Christian fiction.

Jessica said...

Hi Terry,
I totally agree. Sometimes people compare cussing to violence but I don't think they're the same.
Great post!

Shirley Kiger Connolly said...

Terry, Your post said it all! And it couldn't have been more true to the nature of what things were really like.

I love historicals and old westerns read them with a passion. But what draws me to them the most is when other writers can accomplish their purpose minus the profanity as well as without the over use of lusty steam.

I'll bet if we all went way back in time, we would see it was just like your papa stated and nothing much more.

Thanks for the inspiration.

Shirley Connolly

Anonymous said...

Terry, I like your example of showing temper without cussing. I'm about your age and I remember the comic books that put letters and symbols to indicate swearing, e.g., !X*##*@@!! Well, that doesn't look like it, it's been so long. What mixture did they use?
I through a book in the trash recently that contained an otherwise interesting story, but I could not take their graphic swearing.
BTW, my uncle through a wrench out into the field like your gramps did, and later he searched diligently for it.
I have no blog. James Tate

Mary said...


Great blog. I agree with you whole heartedly. Showing is so much better.

I'm working at showing more in my stories and at this point it takes more brain power, which tells me I need the experience.

I would like to take some of your courses. Do you ever teach at the August Houston Writer's Conference?

Thank you for sharing.

Mary Bell-Foster

Stephen & Janet Bly said...

Terry: Great post! Good writers know how to show in fresh ways what a character feels without resorting to the repetitious boredom and annoyance of all the usual curses. It defines lazy writing versus creative writing, in my way of thinking. Certain genres, such as westerns, open up a greater challenge for the language of the villain--but as you so rightly stated, it can be done and sometimes to greater effect when the writer's imagination gets riled in the process.
On the trail,

Terry Burns said...

Thanks, Steve - and Mary I was just at the Houston Conference this past August - don't know when or if I will be back.

brendalottakamaggiebrendan said...

Great Post, Terry! We are so bombarded by bad language on TV programs and even lyrics in some songs. You can't live in this world today and not know those words. It takes a desire to commuicate through actions of our characters to convey how they feel. Ever notice that cuss words are normally associated when someone is mad or upset? That shows a lack of being unable to verablly express how a person feels...

Janice Olson said...

Great and timely blog, Terry,
I never saw any use for curse words in books either. My husband cussed once, and after his mother washed out his mouth with Life Boy soap that ended his career in cussing. But I like what he says about those that do cuss, “They lack the intellectual capacity to hold an intelligent conversation.”
We as writer should have no excuse. If we can’t get the point across without the use of four letter words, we need to go back to the drawing board and figure out how it's done.

Lucie said...

Awesome! What a great post! As a new writer I have asked myself this question time and again! Thank you for sharing your insight.

Molly Noble Bull said...

Dear Terry,
I agree with you. My grandfather was a ranch manager, and my father worked for him as a cowboy on the ranch. And my father said that grandaddy cursed sometimes around the men but never in front of a lady.
Bad guys curse in my novels. But I never tell what was said. I write something like "He walked away, mumbling a curse under his breath."

Molly Noble Bull said...

Dear Terry,
I agree with you. My grandfather was a ranch manager, and my father worked for him as a cowboy on the ranch. And my father said that grandaddy cursed sometimes around the men but never in front of a lady.
Bad guys curse in my novels. But I never tell what was said. I write something like "He walked away, mumbling a curse under his breath."