Back in the year 2000 the band Linkin Park released their debut album – Hybrid Theory. Among other things, I remember all the hoopla that was made over the fact that there were no curse words on the album. In the sea of profanity that was flooding the airwaves at that time, Hybrid Theory had come through, smashing its competition with its mix of rock and rap and unique sound, and it had done it with zero curse words.
It was a big deal. It was the kind of thing that people noticed and, at the time, pointed out. I recall Mike Shinoda – one half of the group’s vocal component – making the statement (and this is paraphrased from my memory) that they had intentionally not used curse words on the album. They wanted to dig deeper than that, and show the emotions and feelings that live behind the curse words rather than generically spilling them all over each song.
It was a ballsy statement to make, and one I’ve always really respected Mike, and the rest of the band for. They have since, over the years, let this concept slide, but the point and question remains the same: What’s behind the curse words?
As a fiction writer, I find this to be a very important question to keep in mind.
The general rule is to use curse words sparingly. But why? Some will say that it’s to better reach a general reading audience. Others will point out that a character who uses a lot of curse words can come off as unintelligent or even un-relatable. But I think the bigger reason to stay away from the four letter words is exactly what Mike Shinoda said all those years ago – you have to dig deeper and show what’s behind the curse words.
As a writer, it’s my job to introduce the reader to new people. I take them through and help them shake hands and get to know each person who is involved in the story they’ve embarked upon. I set up relationships, conflicts, narration, and dialogue to weave them in and out of each character’s life and personality. They get to see how each character reacts, how they cope, how they rise up and how they fall apart. It’s the life-thread of storytelling.
Curse words, although they can express emotion, can muddle the experience of getting inside a character’s head, heart, and soul. They’re like a tarp covering up what’s really there. What’s happening to support the flood of curses that are constantly coming from this character’s mouth? Often times we are never told. They’re just there, sprinkled over every dialogue, and eventually we begin to ignore them or even skip over them. They become ineffective. Like an awful din you have no control over, you eventually tune it out, and it becomes nothing.
As a writer, that’s the exact opposite of what I want. I want everything my characters say to have an effect. I want it all to have meaning to the story and to the reader. So where does that leave the curse words? I think they do have a place. I don’t believe they’re necessary, but I think they can serve a purpose.
Think of curse words as impact words. By the time my character screams that word with his fist clenched and his heart pounding, my reader is going to know exactly why, and it will ADD something to the moment. It will emphasize what’s happening. It will convey the anger and frustration that’s happening inside my character’s mind. It will support the seriousness of what’s going on, not just be another string of four letter words that the reader has been seeing twenty times per page for the last eighty pages. It will mean something.
And meaning something is the point.
Anger or frustration don’t always have to be the reason either. Maybe I’ve got a character who accidentally lets his tongue slip in front of inspecting parents or a teacher? Not only will I be able to create the “oops” factor for the character, but the reader will feel it too, and if I can get my reader to feel, then I’m on the right path.
Get creative with the curse words. Be strategic with them. Place them where they’ll create impact. Give them meaning and purpose – let them be a part of showing, not just telling.