You have a hero – or a heroine, but let’s keep it simple – a hero who lives in a serious man’s world. Maybe he has a healthy temper. Maybe he’s had a bad day. Whatever, it’s easy to picture him using, shall we say, colorful language.
So. You’re a writer. Do you write the swear words?
When I was a kid, the offensiveness gradient for the set of “bad” words was very different. We substituted ‘darn’ for ‘damn’; nowadays, ‘damn’ barely makes it onto the list of swear words. My grown children wouldn’t blink an eye at the F-bomb, and in some moods I don’t, either.
In my world of romance, where swearing is concerned, some authors use it, some don’t. I’m amused at the moment by one of the series I’m addicted to, Maya Banks’ KGI series. Her heroes swear. But the wife of one of those heroes is on his case to clean up his language. Hmm. Even heroes can learn, yes? This is a minor but realistic plot twist.
In the second book in my upcoming trilogy, there is a very tense scene, bordering on violence. I wrote it with a lot of profanity. The words worked. They belonged. This is the kind of language both Alan and Pat (my hero and heroine) might well use in the sort of confrontational situation I put them in. I thought the words were necessary to convey the hostility of the moment. It’s how they would speak, at that moment in their relationship. And because they are who they are, I scattered a few of these words through the rest of the manuscript, mainly in internal dialogue, to convey frustration, dismay, disbelief.
Then my husband read Pat’s story. Thank heaven for husbands; they can be very useful to have around! He pointed out to me that however realistic the dialogue might be, it’s not what my readers would expect.
I was breaking faith with my readers. And that’s not a good idea.
But this left me with a challenge I wasn’t sure I was up to. Could I convey the tension and violent feelings in the scene, without either character swearing? One way or another, I had to try.
In the meantime, I was given hope from an unexpected source. Have you read anything by Harlan Coben? I recently read Missing You (Dutton/Penguin 2014). Now, this is a first-rate thriller. It has a heroine who’s an NYPD cop, an old murder, assorted killers, and a bad guy who will keep you awake at night. But about two-thirds of the way through, I realized what it doesn’t have. It doesn’t have profanity.
OMG. (Does that count?)
This phenomenal mystery/suspense writer doesn’t use bad language! And believe me, he gets his point across. In spades. When things are bad in his books, they are very bad. But I’d be willing to bet that you will read this book and not notice that the characters don’t swear.
So it can be done. I went back into Pat’s story and excised the language. Added more action and visceral responses (gut clenching, muscles liquefying, that kind of thing). I like the result. It really is possible to create the tension without the language. It’s a challenge, but it’s possible.
To write is to experiment, and I’m pleased with my most recent experiment in writing. But isn’t that what we writers try to do? We convey the essence of a situation, yes, but in a way that’s congruent with personal style and readers’ expectations. I love Pat’s book; I think it’s my strongest work so far. I hope you’ll agree. Only, darn, it’s not ready for me to show it to you yet …