The dreaded F-word. Yes, that one. That overused, multi-functioning swear word that garners R-ratings from the Motion Picture Association.
A couple of housekeeping things here at the outset.
1- I’m not going to type the actual word in this post
2- This will not be a prudish rant based on morality. I don’t particularly like that word, never say it out loud, and if I’ve ever typed it on behalf of some character of mine, chances are I have eventually edited it out.
That said, I have recently been offended by the F-word. More specifically, its overuse in books and movies.
Case in point, I recently finished a deliciously good novel by Peter Heller called The Dog Stars. It’s a literary take on a post-apocalyptic America, similar to McCarthy’s The Road. The prose is Hemingway-esque, sparse, to the point, beautifully rendered. However, the F-word appears every couple of pages or so, typically in bunches. And it’s starting to annoy me.
Other than articles, conjunctions, names, and a few other proper nouns, NOTHING bugs me more in prose than repeated words. The more stark or uncommon the word, the greater impact it has when used…once. Repeating such words dilutes them of their power. And no words are exempt, not even the ostensibly hip and cool swear word du jour.
You see this in movies all the time. The F-word is still THE word that ostensibly carries the most punch, even with its fifty-seven different meanings. But after we hear it three or four times, we start to tune it out. The punch loses its power. It just becomes an irritation. Once it’s out there, there’s no mystery or nuance left. The only way to milk the language for more intensity is to just say the same nasty word louder. And as much as I hate to sound like my grandmother, it comes off as an abject lack of creativity and makes the characters saying it all the time sound a bit daft.
Some will argue that, “That’s just how people talk today.”
First, I would agree that, indeed they do. Then I would argue that transcribing actual language from actual everyday people is one of the worst things a write can do. If you need proof, simply take your laptop to your local Starbucks and type actual conversations, word-for-painstaking-word. Leave all the pauses and um’s and repeated words. Then put that in a story and see how well it works. That is exactly how people talk. And it has no place in literature. The trick with dialog and/or internal monologue is to make it sound natural while delivering the words in interesting and artistic ways. It’s sleight-of-hand. And it’s one of the hardest things for most writers to do well.
Again, this is not a call for syrupy sweet language in books and movies. If you insist on deploying the F-word, have your grandmother say it. Or the choir director. Or an eight year old. Or the family pet. But only have them say it once.
And like every other word or phrase in your story, it had better serve the story in some meaningful way. If it doesn’t characterize or move the story forward, it doesn’t belong, regardless of its profane impact.