Nov 23, 2011

Threatening Language

It's not wrong to say that someone screaming and swearing is a very intimidating thing to experience. It's loud and aggressive and scary.

I find though, that swearing can be overused in fiction, especially movies and television. Take the show Deadwood as an example. When this show was being created, it was decided that period-appropriate swearing sounded a bit silly by today's standards. That's fair enough, modern audiences need to find something they can relate to in a story to feel connected.

But in the first scene alone, the amount of repetitive swearing takes over and it feels like dialogue has been replaced with swear words. This doesn't feel intimidating or edgy, it feels lazy. 

Take another HBO series, Rome as a different example. The writers used a variety of modern swear words and slurs, but in a very measured way. The menace and intensity of the characters comes across in smooth dialogue and sharp delivery. Sticking with westerns, watch Unforgiven and see if the lack of frequent swearing makes Gene Hackman or Clint Eastwood any less intimidating.

We have a beautiful, diverse language available to us. Why rely on quick fix words to get a brief reaction when you can take the time to build real tension and fear between your characters?


  1. Hear hear! People think feeling uncomfortable about excessive swearing in books or movies is a sign of uptight morality. For me it's because the swearing is an ugly, lazy way to show aggression, when a writer can use so many other tools to get across the ideas.

  2. I feel the same. I'm not at all uncomfortable with swearing, I just prefer to see some variety and imagination in dialogue.

  3. For fantastic swearing - see Firefly. Period appropriate phrasing, and the use of a foreign language to get around censorship on American television. As a result - fantastically woven dialogue, solid impact. If only the show had gone on for even just A LITTLE longer...

  4. I was never able to get into Firefly, but it's a good example, all right. That said, relying too much on words that the majority of your audience can't understand can have its own problems.

  5. Completely agree. There is nothing worse than when writers use swear words to put up a front of "coolness". Cussing in mainstream media hasn't been revolutionary for about thirty years or so. Now, let's see some subtle use of the English language.

    I'm not saying to never use swear words, but if you look at the single time Matt Damon cursed in the Bourne Identity, it's much more powerful than the thousands of times it was done in Deadwood.

  6. HBO in particular believes that nudity and swearing makes for edgy tv, but recent show Game of Thrones actually put me off by the frequent nudity, full frontal nudity especially, and it's got Sean Bean in it. That's practically unheard of for me.

    However, shows like Sons of Anarchy and Generation Kill also have frequent swearing but it's used in a measured way. Sons of Anarchy is set in a Hell's Angel-esque motorcycle club and Generation Kill follows marines in action during invasion of Iraq in Operation Freedom. Both are fairly earthy groups, but they use it to underline moments of surprise or abject stupidity of their superiors.

    But that said, watching shows like Never Mind the Buzzcocks and even Mock the Week becomes uncomfortable at times when all they do is curse.

    It's a mixed bag really. I guess, I just want them to disassociate edgy from language. But I'll also be the first to admit that I do include cursing in my writing and in the dialogue, but only where it's appropriate for the characters, i.e. street mercs in a cyberpunk setting, marines/soldiers, getting confronted by a vampire... But not for my 1710's gentleman.

  7. Olene: Bingo. One word, whatever it is, used at the perfect moment can have a far more profound impact than a string of words.

    Bon: I absolutely include swearing when I feel its appropriate and narratively effective. I think there's some great fun to be had coming up with put-downs and insults in period settings.

  8. Yeah, Paul, for my 1710 Pirate story, I have a massive postit on my wall with swear words and terms appropriate to the British Navy at the time, like "Blast you", "Devil take you", "Damn you to the depths", which was as strong as it got for most of the time. But it's a tough balance.

  9. I LOVE this post! Absolutely true. I always use Harry Potter as an example. When Mrs. Weasley lets loose on Bellatrix. "Not my daughter you...." WOW. That's a powerful use of the word because it isn't all over the place.

  10. I think we all fall in different spots on the sensitivity spectrum. I find the presence of gratuitous sex, violence, and swearing decreases my enjoyment of a show. I find it hard to understand how those things are pluses for other folks, but I guess they have to SEE more extreme things in order to get the same feeling of horror in my guts I'd get from someone simply getting punched.

    I couldn't watch Deadwood at all. I guess I didn't give it much of a chance, but it just seemed so ... joyless.