Catching Fireflies

finding magic along the way

Don’t Mess With the Gatekeeper

Yesterday, I was scrolling through my WordPress reader and came across a post by ZenScribbles titled “To curse or not to curse, that is the question.”  In it, she discusses her take on swearing in writing and movies.

I found that I was in complete agreement with her.  Though those who know me know that I can swear like a sailor when the situation lends itself to profanity, I do not swear or put gratuitous sex scenes in my writing.  (And it is not just because I am writing middle grade and YA fiction!) 🙂  I don’t like to read books filled with profanity and I while I don’t mind a steamy sex scene in my reading, I am completely turned off by books that rely so heavily on these things that the plot and character are lost.

I enjoy a vast array of fiction and movie genres but it seems that a lot of writers and directors lean so heavily on swearing that you can’t even follow the characters’ conversations.  The same holds true for sex.  One minute you are in the middle of a complicated plot point and the next you are rolling around in the field with a bunch of characters you just met. A good example of this would be adult fantasy.  Why is it that a writer can take a perfectly fun plot and muddy it up by throwing so many inter-species sex scenes that you feel like you need to take a shower after a few chapters?

I am certainly no prude when it comes to these things, and do get a kick out of some books and TV shows that are dripping with F-bombs.  Strikeback comes to mind. This Cinemax series came into our lives this summer when we were desperately seeking a reprieve from reruns.  Swearing is commonplace, and my husband and I joke about how one of the characters, Damien Scott, gets lucky in every episode. Gratuitous sex? Yes, maybe.  But it does not seem to detract from the plot, and has actually become kind of funny; during each episode, we try to guess who will be the lucky lady. 🙂

But I don’t think writers should try to hide a shaky plot line or weak characters behind sex and swearing.  Too much of either, especially when it is just thrown in for no reason, cheapens the story and makes for a very difficult read.

When I first contemplated starting a blog, I read a lot of books about building a platform and putting yourself out there on social media.  One writer, I believe it was Kristen Lamb, said something that stuck with me.  She said to avoid religion and politics as it could alienate a large number of readers. I think the same holds true for sex and swearing. Those who don’t mind a little of each will probably not be put off by my leaving them out of my story. But, those who are insulted by too much sex and swearing, will be quick to pick another book to read if I fill mine with those elements.

In writing for kids and teens, you have to remember that there is another group of people who you do not want to alienate – the gatekeepers.  Kids may not mind swearing and a good romp in the hay, but parents, teachers and librarians do.  Those are the folks that will buy your book and recommend it to your target readers.  Those are also the people who will keep your story out of the hands of your intended audience if they do not feel it is appropriate.  I am not saying to completely erase profanity and sex from fiction.  If there is a situation in your story that needs one or the other, then by all means, write away.  But do yourself a favor… No matter who you write for, do not throw in profanity and sex without having a really good reason to include it.

What do you think? Do you like to read/write with a lot of profanity?

10 Comments

  1. Profanity has its place in adult literature, but not in many other places. One thing that really bugs me is the Game of Thrones tv series. I’ve read the books, I know the characters are all sex-crazed lunatics. But in the show, they literally cannot go an episode without having *someone* get naked. Sometimes they go so far as to have the naked characters explain backstory to other naked characters, as the writers apparently couldn’t find any other justification for including that scene. I get that they have certain naked standards to maintain for each episode (it is HBO, after all), but sometimes it just gets contrived, and I hate contrived.

    • Hi Michelle –
      I totally agree. I am not a prude and nudity/profanity has its place in movies, TV and literature, but writers need to make sure there is a reason for it and that characters are not just lounging around in the buff to attract viewers who need that sort of thing to hold their attention. 🙂

  2. I do not write with a lot of profanity or sex, but have done a similar blog post on cursing in my writing called “To Be Profane, or Not To Be Profane… That is the F’n Question” and I have written about religion, but haven’t yet breached politics, although I tend to keep pretty neutral in my writing and don’t like to alienate readers. However, I also want to be me and be real, so I write about those things if I feel like it. Readers seem to appreciate my honesty and my cursing slips and empathize in a good way. I hate it when music/movies are laced with too much sex and profanity. I just don’t enjoy it like I used to in my entertainment choices. It must be well played and few and far between to have impact. I don’t feel it’s necessary for a good piece of art.

    • Cindy – I think you said it very well — “It must be well played and few and far between to have impact.” Also love love love the title of your post on the subject!! 🙂

  3. Good question. I’ll admit my novel has some cursing. The key word is “some.” It’s not just for the fun of it though…the characterization lends itself to the foul language. In revisions, I have cut back, however. It depends on the nature of the story. Sometimes a well-placed F-Bomb is great for emphasis.

    As for gratuitous sex scenes? I’m with you. I tend to like the highly suggestive sex scenes–you know, the ones that lend to the imagination without the unnecessary raunchiness. I think in terms of sex scenes, the opposite of the old adage “show don’t tell” is true.

  4. Good post. I agree that sex and swearing need to be limited so that we’re not overwhelmed, but they don’t need to be eradicated from our writing. They do have the power of detracting from plot and/or character, and it’s annoying. I like a well-written, steamy sex scene as much as the next person–but I don’t need it shoved in my face every 10 pages. It actually loses its appeal after a while. Besides, I think the scenes where characters are almost getting it on, when the attraction is palpable–but they don’t act on it–are more interesting than the actual sex scenes anyway.

    • Completely agree with those almost but not quite yet sex scenes. A reader’s imagination can fill in those blanks quite well! 🙂

  5. I agree. I don’t mind either, either, but when someone is swearing every other line, I get irritated. It distracts from what’s going on. All I can sit there and think is, “Really? You’re making this cheap and boring”….
    And too much sex cheapens the sex itself. Its kind of like a ‘I know how to sell my next book’ tactic. If they have enough sex in it, someone is bound to buy it, right?
    Ugh. Both get irritating. I think they should be mixed in and used only when its realistic. Great post!

    • I don’t think sex and swearing should be competely left out of our writing, but definitely should be used with restraint and only when it makes sense. I would hate to have to resort to filling a book with sex scenes just to move it off the shelves!

      • Daphne Shadows

        Exactly! Perfectly said.

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