READER QUESTION: How Do I Show My Character Is Avoiding Profanity?

Hey, screenwriters–

Today’s question comes from loyal reader Justin, a screenwriter who writes:

“Hi, Chad–

I wonder how you would indicate that a character was holding back from using foul language – if his mother was in the room or something. Is it clear enough to say, for example:

                            ARNOLD
                         (Holds back from swearing)
                   What the f—?

Or is there perhaps a more elegant way to do it?

Best regards

Justin”

Well, Justin, I’m gonna make this short and sweet: yes.  I think what you’ve written is a fine way of showing a character holding back from swearing.

On one condition.

That the character, and not the writer, is the one refusing to swear.

In other words… I sometimes get screenplays in which the writer is clearly avoiding profanity (and I’m gonna be honest– I see it a lot in the annual Writers Digest screenwriting competition).  Which is fine– I’m all for clean entertainment– as long as it’s appropriate to the style, tone, and world of the story.

In other words… I sometimes see writers ducking profanity in scenes or stories where it would otherwise be appropriate: a battle scene, a frat house, a gangster shootout, two teenagers hanging out, a couple having hot sex.  But profanity, used correctly, is not only often appropriate in certain scenes… it’s necessary to make the audience believe they’re real.  It’s a simple fact of life: people swear.  Soldiers, frat guys, gangsters, lovers in the throes of passion, teenagers out of earshot of adults… and, of course, ordinary people going through their days. 

In fact, avoiding profanity where it’s appropriate can undercut the power of your storytelling.

Take these swatches of dialogue from different characters and situations:

A BATTLE SCENE

EXT. BATTLEFIELD

The battle rages.  Bombs explode.  Gunfire crackles.  Sirens blare.  Tony struggles to pull Gregor to his feet.

                            TONY
                   You are not fucking dying today!
                   Do you hear me?!  Get the fuck up!

                            GREGOR
                   My leg… I can’t feel my fucking
                   leg…

TWO TEENAGE GUYS

INT. CAR

SHANE downs the Beam and hands the bottle to ERIC.

                            SHANE
                   What a bitch.  Don’t take that
                   shit from her.

                            ERIC
                   Easy for you to say.

                            SHANE
                   Dude.  If my mom pulled that shit with
                   me I’d crack her across the skull.
                   Wham.  Just like that.
       

A LOVE SCENE

INT. BEDROOM

Smokey looks at Shondra, splayed out acorss the bed.

                            SMOKEY
                   I’ve… uh… I’ve never really done
                   this before.

                            SHONDRA
                   What?  Fucked a hooker?

                            SMOKEY
                   Could you… not use that word?

                            SHONDRA
                   Well, it’s what I am, baby.  A
                   hooker.  We fuck.


In each of these snippets– two men struggling to survive a war, two teens venting about their parents, and a man visiting his first prostitute– profanity not only seems appropriate, it’s almost necessary to illustrate the reality of the situation.  Look at the edited versions…

A BATTLE SCENE – TAKE TWO

EXT. BATTLEFIELD

The battle rages.  Bombs explode.  Gunfire crackles.  Sirens blare.  Tony struggles to pull Gregor to his feet.

                            TONY
                   You are not fricking dying today!
                   Do you hear me?!  Get up now!

                            GREGOR
                   My leg… I can’t feel my stupid
                   leg…

The meaning of the lines themselves haven’t changed, but the softness of the language works against the urgent life-and-death stakes of the scene.  People about to be blown to pieces aren’t concerned about watching their mouths… their language is as extreme as the situation they’re trying to survive.

TWO TEENAGE GUYS – TAKE TWO

INT. CAR

SHANE, 16, downs the Beam and hands the bottle to ERIC, 14.

                            SHANE
                   What a loser.  Don’t take that
                   garbage from her.

                            ERIC
                   Easy for you to say.

                            SHANE
                   Dude.  If my mom was that mean
                   I’d crack her across the skull.
                   Wham.  Just like that.

Again– the sentiments of the lines haven’t
changed, but removing the adult language betrays what these kids are doing– trying to behave like adults: drinking, venting about relationships, and– perhaps most importantly– speaking and expressing themselves like adults.



A LOVE SCENE – TAKE TWO

INT. BEDROOM

Smokey looks at Shondra, splayed out acorss the bed.

                            SMOKEY
                   I’ve… uh… I’ve never really done
                   this before.

                            SHONDRA
                   What?  Had sex with a hooker?

                            SMOKEY
                   Could you… not use that word?

                            SHONDRA
                   Well, it’s what I am, baby.  A
                   hooker.  We have sex.

Again, the meanings of the lines remain the same, but the first draft’s profanity reflects the raw seediness of the situation.  Remove the profanity, the whole scene suddenly seems sterilized and unrealistic.

The point is: people swear.  And your job, as an artist, is to reflect the world as you see it as accurately as possible.  Which doesn’t mean you can’t see a cleaner, profanity-free world… as long as it’s an honest reflection of the world you see.  But to compromise your vision… to sanitize the world in order to avoid profanity on principle… is usually a recipe for weak writing.

Anyway, Justin– I realize this was a long-winded answer to a question you may not have asked, so thanks for bearing with me. 

But like I said, I occasionally see this… and while no producer or executive is ever looking for profanity, the obvious avoidance of it is an immediate turn-off, because it means the writer isn’t being true to his or her own vision.

So next time you’re tempted to hit the delete key over whatever four-letter word has slipped out… trust me: leave that shit in.  It will, most likely, make your writing stronger.

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4 thoughts on “READER QUESTION: How Do I Show My Character Is Avoiding Profanity?

  1. Pat

    Thank you for this article. I’ve been struggling with this very situation in the novel I’m writing. I don’t want the characters to use profanity and want to take it away, but my characters are not the kind of people who will say, "gosh darn it". This article has definitely set me free. Once again, thanks!

  2. Billie A Williams

    Excellent article. My book Death by Candlelight starts out the very first word in the very first chapter is "Bitch" there is no other word that would fit the abusive situation that begins the inciting incident in this novel.

    I still cringe when some one begins reading that book, but it is the language of the tone, theme and style of the mystery/romantic suspense novel I wrote and it fits and I’m glad my editor insisted on leaving it in.

    This article makes me feel good about that.
    Thanks
    Billie

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