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Let's talk about butts, because butts are safe, but really this question is for other parts of the anatomy as well.

There are 100s of words for butt. They seem to fall into one of a few categories. There are the cowardly words like "gluteus maximus", and there are vulgar words like ass. You can also try to avoid the whole thing by saying something like "he moves his hands below his waist". This, to me at least, when I read it also sounds cowardly. When I read it from other authors my mind always goes "Just say the word we are all adults here!"

My book deals with many heavy ideas like torture and rape. The characters curse all the time, and the characters can throw the word "ass" around all the time, but any time it is part of the narration it immediately sounds bad, and I get bad feedback from my test readers.

What is the best approach to not sound vulgar, and at the same time not undermine the maturity of the writing? I am asking specifically about narration, not about character speech.

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Every person has a style in which he or she talks. If your characters read like people who would use words such as ass than it would be weird if they talked about their posterior. But if your narrator would normally use words such posterior it would be weird to use ass.

You can switch between the words as often as you like, or as often as is necessary to be more precise, as long as it doesn't conflict with the voice of the character currently speaking.

Most of the books I can think of at the top of my head would use a more "cowardly" approach for their narrator and a more direct approach for the characters who are for example part of the story as it unfolds. You may talk differently in any situation compared to when you have had time to reflect on it and think about how you want to communicate something.

Basically my tip is: don't worry about vulgar versus cowardly - worry about the voice of the person who is uttering the word. Think about the current situation and use what would be normal for them.

Or not normal, depending on what kind of emotion you want to convey. Someone who is always choosing every word carefully and suddenly throwing around expletives might convey a lot of stress for example.

You should also think about how different the characters are. Gluteus Maximus and posterior on the same page from different people might feel okay to the reader, but there is a huge difference between a medical term like Gluteus Maximus and ass.

Last, but not least, think about your audience. For example: do you want to write a book that heavily uses explicit words like ass? Then write those words and don't back down. Eliminate the cowardly words. Are you writing for a broader audience? It might be good to occasionally switch between different types.

  • I am sorry if it was not clear, i slightly updated the question. I am very specifically asking about narration. Which as a side not is interesting because in my case it is in first person so it is a character, but still feels weird when he is saying it to the creader and not other characters – Andrey Jan 4 '18 at 15:39
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    @Andrey The narrator is still a character in that it is a fictional person that is talking. Maybe this character is only ever talking to the reader, maybe he is talking to the reader and to other characters - it doesn't really matter. When narrating this character is still the same character and should act consistently. The character shouldn't switch between ass and posterior all the time, just because they are talking to the reader or other characters as long as there is not a compelling reason, such as telling a story from their past. – Sec SE - clear Monica's name Jan 4 '18 at 15:44
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We've discussed use of vulgar language in fiction on this forum a number of times, e.g. Swearing - Censor, allude, or include? and Swearing in a book, within a context. Too offensive?

To summarize my opinion briefly: Some number of people are offended by vulgar language and won't read a book that has too much of it -- what constitutes "too much" varying from person to person. Very few people will throw a book away because it doesn't contain enough vulgar language. I've never heard anyone say, "That could have been a good book, but it just didn't have enough swear words in it." So you'll lose readers by adding swear words, while it's very unlikely that you'll gain any. It's a risk with little reward.

That said, sure, if you make your language too mild, it can be unbelievable or sound childish. Like I said on one of those other questions, if you have a story about vicious, murdering drug dealers, and at one point the gang leader gets angry at one of his henchman, and he yells, "You silly person! Why are you so mean to me?" ... that doesn't sound very believable. In real life he'd probably be yelling a string of swear words. But still, if you had him say, "You worthless moron! I'll kill you for this!" that doesn't sound particularly unbelievable. Yeah, in real life there'd probably be an F-word or two in there, but as written it sounds plausible.

If people are reading a book about rape and torture, perhaps they are the sort of people who have a higher "tolerance" for vulgarity than most. But not necessarily. Agatha Christie mysteries and "Murder She Wrote" are all about murder, surely the most horrible evil thing a person can do, and yet the audience for these stories tends to be pretty refined. I would be quite surprised to hear a character on "Murder She Wrote" use profanity, and I suspect most of the audience would be offended by it.

So in a nutshell, my advice is: Use a minimum of vulgar or explicit language. Don't go overboard. In a novel intended for adults, I wouldn't write, "Bob went poo-poo." But I would say, "Bob went to the bathroom" rather than "Bob took a s--t".

  • My readers don't find it offencive. They find it cringy. And again only if the narrator says it. – Andrey Jan 5 '18 at 19:20
  • I was thinking of "offensive" in the sense of someone saying, "eww, this is gross", rather than moral outrage. But either way, the end result is that they won't want to read your book. – Jay Jan 8 '18 at 3:25
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I recommend the Power Thesaurus, which is pretty comprehensive and crowd-voted (like this site). An example here is for vagina.

I would say pick median word, or a word that is clear without being pejorative or clinical.

You may also use less vague indirect terms: A penis can be referred to as an erection, for example, or a shaft.

Another indirection is in the common marriage vow, they use the words "cleave only unto him", "cleaving" refers to the separation of vaginal labia [lips] by a penis; so the vow uses a verb that applies to sexual intercourse without referring to the organs involved.

If that fails for you, then without research of my own, I am told by my sister that modern romance novels get pretty explicit in the sex department.

Although my characters frequently have sex, I don't write explicit sex scenes. I turn the camera away before genitalia appear. However, if I felt an explicit scene was necessary, say if a main character was raped, date-raped or being sexually harassed or coerced at work, THEN I would probably look online or in a used bookstore for examples of what is acceptable in the modern romance department.

  • I remember reading some book where the narrator was somewhere on the autism scale. He would spend pages describing the most mundane things. Then when it came to sex, it was a paragraph because the author was too scared t give it that level of narration. I hated that. In contrast i think the nudity and masterbation in Shape of Water, was an amazing inclusion in the movie, that made the silent protagonist relatable – Andrey Jan 4 '18 at 17:46
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    @Andrey I have no objection, other than my personal experience and observation that while sex is very enjoyable, speaking as a writer I think it is rather monotone repetition in both action and feelings. I suppose if I was describing a "first" type of sex (first ever, first vaginal, first oral, first with a new partner, etc), the moment of consummation or completion could have much emotional impact. There could be some character revealing moment of abandon during the sex act. But most descriptions do nothing dramatically useful, and to me read like porn written to entertain the author alone. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Jan 4 '18 at 18:12

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