Following last week’s post on limiting your use of curse words in fiction to get the most power out of them, here are a few examples of how to get around them.
In The Cardturner by Louis Sachar (the guy who wrote Holes, which you should read), the narrator, who is a seventeen-year-old boy, doesn’t include any strong language, but at one point explains:
I should tell you that so far, when I’ve recounted my conversations with Cliff, I’ve left out certain descriptive words. It’s not that we’re especially vulgar or crude. It’s just that those kinds of words seem worse in print than when we would just say them in an offhand way. I think I’ve been able to omit those words and still give you a fairly accurate account of what was said between us.
However, if I were to repeat what Cliff said when I asked him if he wanted to play bridge, I’d have to leave out every other word. Let’s just say he wasn’t overjoyed with the idea.
Still, he was my best friend, and when he realized I was serious (adverb deleted), and that it was important to me (adverb deleted), he agreed to play (adverb deleted).
This character gives us several similar asides throughout the book, so this totally works. It’s funny, and when he uses his little parenthetical deletions later on, we know why.
Podkayne of Mars, by Robert. A. Heinlein (the guy who wrote The Moon is a Harsh Mistress; you should read that, too) is another first person narrative – this time a teenage girl keeping a diary. The book is full of her personal editing style (you may remember I used it as an example of a strong voice), so it makes perfect sense when you get to this point:
“He certainly does mean it!” Clark said shrilly. “You illegal obscenity! I delete all over your censored!” And I knew he was really worked up, because Clark is contemptuous of vulgar idioms; he says they denote an inferior mind.
It cracks me up.
But what if your book has a much more serious tone?
The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton (the same girl who wrote…a bunch of stuff that wasn’t good as The Outsiders), is narrated by a fourteen-year-old wrong-side-of-the-tracks boy who’s wanted in connection with a murder. He’s surrounded by people who swear like sailors, but only includes language (mild language at that) in the tensest moments. The rest of the time he does this:
I fought to get loose, and almost did for a second; then they tightened up on me and the one on my chest slugged me a couple times. So I lay still, swearing at them between gasps.
“They’re running!” I heard a voice yell joyfully. “Look at the dirty ——- run!”
This can work in third-person narratives as well.
There’s one part in The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien (who also wrote…wait, you don’t know who Tolkien is? What’s wrong with you???), where tragedy actually transcends words, as Treebeard comes upon a field of his fallen friends, and says:
“There is no curse in Elvish, Entish, or the tongues of Men bad enough for this treachery.”
Granted, we can’t copy this, or risk turning it into a cliché, but it demonstrates a certain genius we should all try to learn from. I’m sure Tolkien was capable of crafting a fantasy-world cuss word that would sound perfectly abhorrent, but his choice here was much more powerful. He has turned a moment, which by last week’s argument would have required a curse word, and raised the level of emotion above the curse.
This is the kind of art we should be striving for. Not necessarily to avoid certain words – but to avoid depending on them. Reach for something deeper. Reach for a kind of hurt so gut-wrenching that an f-bomb seems, not inappropriate, but inadequate.