Thursday, August 26, 2010

Colorful Language in Fiction- Showing or Telling?

Imagine this scenario with me for a moment.....

You are reading.

The book is great.

Riveting- you can't put it down!

When all of a sudden...


A burst of completely inappropriate language (swearing) bursts in the scene and you feel as if you have just been slapped across the face with a wet dish rag.  You reel back and squint hard at the page. Surely you just read that wrong. Your glasses were fogged up or your eyes were tired from reading for three hours.

But no.

You did indeed read language and suddenly your high opinion of this book and its author has dropped lower than can possibly ever be recovered.

There is a debate floating around cyber space about swearing in fiction. Some say it doesn't bother them, it gives them a glimpse of the real character. It is reality that people swear, so why not let it be in fiction?

Then there are those that don't cotton to the swearing. It grates upon them like finger nails on a chalk board, they find it offensive and completely uncalled for. I myself am a member of this group. The one thing that will make me put a book down faster than anything else (aside from offensive sex scenes) is swearing. I don't even like the slang that so many authors put in books. I simply view it as a politically correct way of saying the real thing.

So... does our fiction need swearing to be realistic? How do we refute the argument that "swearing is a normal part of everyday life, it is expected"?

First of all- in Christian fiction we are called to be separate from the world. We are in it, we should not be of it, as Jesus instructed us in His Word. We are called to a higher standard and in that standard, we have a responsibility to show our reader the love of Christ. Not preach at them, but show them that we do not answer to the evil the world swims in.

Second- does swearing show or tell? That is an huge argument right now. Our characters are bad, we need to show them through their language.

Um... I beg to differ.

If you have a villain, or a person who is just not a great person all around, you are not going to win any points with your reader by making them swear. Actually, you are cutting corners and telling when you swear in fiction. You are telling  the reader by their use of poor language that they are not a godly person  in your story.

Your villain or unsaved character in your story, will come across stronger in your story if you show there actions. How do they handle a situation? How do they act in their lives, around those that annoy them? And it doesn't take long for a reader to catch onto that person's character and you did it without salting their eyes with bad language.

So what about those occasions when you have to have your character swear. Yes we have all read in fiction, something to the effect of  "an expletive burst from his lips" "a blue word burned the tip of her tongue, begging for release."

Isn't that telling, you ask? Yes it is. And really those statements aren't really necessary a great deal of the time. I mean, really if you are showing  your character's well... character, why tell them anything else? But in those moments of the need for colorful language, a statement such as those above works just fine. Your reader gets the point without being offended.

So, what is your opinion on language in fiction? Do you mind the slang in fiction, or do you even hate that? Do you feel it is necessary to swear in fiction to get your point across?


Mia said...

If I'm reading a book, and there's a few mild curse words, I probably won't put the book down. But I do prefer when books have no swearing. In my own stories, if I think a character would curse in a scene, I go for the simple, 'he/she cursed' method. It's telling, yes. But I think some amounts of telling are OK. Showing is important, but telling has its place in fiction, too.

Krista Phillips said...

Since I read mostly all Christian fiction, I don't usually see swearing in a book and would be shocked if I did.

IN one of my books, the character is a very new Christian and came from inner city Chicago. I knew it was very realistic for her to still slip and swear.

What I did is turned it into a conflict point for her. She struggles with wanting to say the words. Several times the words run through her head and she has to hold herself back from saying them. A few times she murmured them under her breath then got mad at herself for it. I used the reality, minus the actual words, to really make her realistic and take you deeper into her character. Could I leave it out? Yeah, but I do think it would take away. Can it be overdone? OH YEAH. I try to keep it minimal and impactful the few times I use that method.

Julia M. Reffner said...

I haven't really seen swearing in Christian books I have read, but I have seen the "he swore under his breath". I don't mind that, but for the most part I think there are ways to "show" the person is angry without using cliche phrases like this.

Bluerose said...

Cursing is like nails on a chalkboard for me!
I've tried to do a little more research on the non-Christian books I read before I even waste my time. The book I started reading yesterday was on a "clean" list at another site. There's been several cuss words. I wasn't expecting it, so it kind of shocked me.
As far as the implying cussing without using the usually doesn't bother me. I still don't necessarily like it, especially when the person is suppose to be a Christian. Sometimes the book will read that a cuss word slipped. I don't cuss, so you won't hear a cuss word "slip" out of my mouth. But I guess we all have different kinds of battles. :)

Casey said...

Hi Mia, it is great to have you back again! I agree with you, telling in that case of saying he swore/cursed is telling, but not all of your manuscript needs to be shown. If you do, it will be 1,000 pages long and the reader will be overwhelmed. I will have a post in a few weeks about that very thing.

Hope the post was helpful!

Casey said...

Krista, you would be surprised at how much slang I come across in certain books. Just finished one recently with the use of "hell" in an inapropriate way, from a Christian publisher. I don't know, maybe it is just me, but I don't like the use of such slang, in the world but not of it type of thing.

And YES what you are doing is perfect! Because we won't make a complete 180 when we except Christ, it is a process and I think you will garner a great deal more respect from your audience by making it more authentic, to show that Christians are not perfect.

So glad you could stop by today! We miss you over here.

Casey said...

Julia, those phrases are very cliched, that's why I personally believe that we can move away from them all together in fiction and show through our character's actions. If a character is bad, you are naturally going to to assume that his language is colorful. "Nuff said.

Casey said...

Bluerose, I am right there with you, 100%!! I don't like when a Christian "let's a curse word slip either", but I also have to look at their character in the novel. Are they a new Christian? A weak Christian? Struggling and reverting to old habits? If I am shown later that they have changed, I am going to be okay with it, it is normal and I will inevitably see their growth.

But yes, fingernails on a chalkboard indeed!

Sandra Stiles said...

I read a lot of books to put on my shelves at school both Christian and secular. It is terrible that I have to check them for so much cursing as well as other issues. I don't think it is necessary to have it. It really pains me to hear students say, "Yes, but we talk like that anyway", or "Hey we hear it all the time". I think profanity in a book is just another way to desensitize people to it. I agree it is more telling than showing.

Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

I never see swearing in Christian fiction, but it's usually in the non-christian books I read. I swear word here and doesn't always bother me if it is sparse and it "makes sense". But otherwise, I don't care for it.

In my manuscript, my hero will curse under his breath. I'm not sure what kind of swear words were used in the Middle Ages, but I do say he cursed.

Krista Phillips said...

Now that I think about it, I do have the word "Hell" in my book once, but I kinda know I have to figure out a way to take it out.

And it's an 11-year-old boy that said it. He's her brother, and he's NOT saved, and he is from inner city CHicago as well, and the christian guy who hears it starts to admonish him and is mad that an 11 year old ist alking like that, but then realizes that He needs to pick his battles, and that the boys salvation is what's important first. I kinda included it because I think it's an important message, that sometimes we get mad at non-Christians for doing "wrong" things and lecture them about it, but really, they aren't christians. Of course they sin, and until they know our Savior that won't change.

Anyway, I left it in there at the moment because I need to find a different way to say it but still have the message, and I'll get jarred when I read over it in edits and it will remind me:-). We shall see!

Casey said...

Sandra, it is difficult to hear young people talk in such a disrepectful manner. And the excuse that they give that "everyone does, why not me?" is just an excuse, we don't need it in our fiction too. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, I do agree!

Casey said...

Sherrinda, was there even swearing in the Middle Ages? I guess they would have their own kind of slang, but I do wonder if it would be the same as even what we have today because they had such a higher moral standard.

You will come across some language even in Christian fiction, though not very often. It bothers me greatly when I do find it in our higher quality books though. Like I said, I think we need to be held to a higher standard and stop trying to make it "edgier" for the other crowds out there. It just cheapens the fiction in my opinion.

Which I am sure not everyone shares. :)

Casey said...

Krista, there is a very interesting story that Susan May Warren told us at the class I took with her in April. She was writing her latest book, Sons of Thunder and was totally into her character's head. Which this one character was not a Christian and swore, (slang). She told us she will occasionally do that, because it seems the character is really the one talking, but she always goes through and edits it back out. It went through her edits, the editors, the line edits the whole nine yards and was never edited out, it was just never caught.

I bought the book and read it. And in that one scene where the character swears, I can totally understand it. It makes sense and though it is swearing and I wish it really wasn't in there, I can see why the character said it, she gave us plenty of reasons for his actions and in that I can excuse him for that use of the language, because it was completely within character.

That being said, she has also gotten mail from readers saying they "hope she will come back to Jesus soon." :)

Mary Vee Writer said...

I'm commenting a day late...whoo it was a busy day yesterday.
I am totally with you on this particular topic...actually as I have read and heard from others, I was beginning to think I stood alone...was being an old fuddy duddy, out of touch, etc. But I guess I've never seen the need to put the swearing in a novel. I admire the writer who can communicate a person's personality without including the actual swear words. I hadn't thought that those very swear words were a means of telling instead of showing. This was a valuable post.
kudos Casey. :)

Casey said...

MARY! I just saw your comment, shame on me I didn't look sooner. :) Thanks for commenting, I enjoyed reading it. I am glad you liked the post, that is always great to hear. :)