22

I'm writing a story that I'd like younger readers to pick up. I and they know and understand that some situations are far better expressed with one f-word than a thousand milder ones. I'm keeping my narrative clean, but when I write the dialogue, I don't know what to do.

Should I:

  1. describe, as in:

    Tommy slammed the door on Charlie's fingers. Charlie exploded with profanity that pierced their mother's ears downstairs.

  2. or should I use made-up terms, such as frak from Battlestar Galactica:

    Tommy slammed the door on Charlie's fingers. "FRAK" Charlie exploded. The eruption pierced their mother's ears downstairs.

  3. also, I could use a milder word like crap, shoot, and the likes.

  4. replace with a place holder, as in:

    Tommy slammed the door on Charlie's fingers. "< EXPLETIVE >" Charlie exploded. The eruption pierced their mother's ears downstairs.

Note I've read answers like this one ("you have to eat before you [defecate]".) But that waters down the expression a lot for what I want.

  • 3
    Write it, and keep looking around for additional ways to communicate it. "He yelled an expletive, and his mother said, "Grounded. no F-bombs under my roof." Keep at it. That's the nature of the game. – DPT Mar 15 at 1:24
  • 3
    What about simply writing the expletive out? Why isn't that an option? I've certainly (albeit rarely) seen it in writing, but honestly more often in non-US writing. American seem to overly concerned about expletives... – Polygnome Mar 15 at 9:14
  • 6
    @Polygnome OP states target audience includes younger readers. Expletives that are acceptable in works for adults are very much less acceptable in children's literature. – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Mar 15 at 12:09
  • 3
    The tag you want does exist. In fact, I recently revamped all the age-related tags (which were confusing and had some wrong definitions). I'm not sure why they were hard to find since I included pointers in the related tags to the others. I added middle-grade to your post as it's for readers ages 8-12. Hover your mouse over that tag to see the alternatives. See this post for details: writing.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/1787/… – Cyn says make Monica whole Mar 15 at 16:53
  • 3
    I didn't occur to me to search middle-grade to tag my question. I think if there is a tag that starts with you- it would show up to people as the type in the tag field while they're looking for young..., or youth.... – iamtowrite Mar 15 at 18:48
39

Each usage has its place.

#1 is most commonly used in such situations. Even if you're not writing for children, you don't necessarily want every bit of cursing. Sometimes telling that the character used a strong word is enough, or even more effective, than actually spelling out what exactly he said.

#2 has place when you're writing for adults, who would know what you're hiding, but you still wish to keep a cleaner tongue. This solution only makes sense in speculative fiction - not in a story set in our here-and-now.

#3 might be in character for the person doing the cursing. Some people automatically resort to the milder words - that's how they've been raised, that's their natural vocabulary. If that is the case for the particular character, feel free to use it. Make sure it matches the rest of the characterisation though.

#4 if you use that, you are throwing the reader out of the immersion in your story. You are presenting the reader with a meta element - an in-story word has been visibly blacked-out outside. Terry Pratchett used this for comedic effect, with a hardened criminal who was literally saying '--ing' all the time. This is a tool you'd want to apply very carefully though, while being aware that you are throwing the reader out of the story - only do it if this is the deliberate effect you're seeking.

  • 3
    deliberate effect, +1. OP should watch A Christmas Story. – Mazura Mar 15 at 3:15
  • 3
    #4 not neccesarily out of immersion, but certainly comedic effect. I worked with a bloke who had been told to tone it down, and he actually spoke like that: "I've 'king had it with these 'king snakes on this 'king plane" for example. – Chris H Mar 15 at 9:54
  • 6
    Also with #1, if you allow the reader to insert their own curse words into the situation (mental ninja stuff going on here), the word they come up with in their brain is going to be a bad word to their way of thinking. A child reading it will have a different word in mind than would an adult, but neither would be wrong. This type of thing was used in the movie Seven, where they didn't explicitly show you what had happened, but rather left it up to the viewers imagination. IMHO, the effect was far broader because the mind can come up with things they could never show on the screen. – Pᴀᴜʟsᴛᴇʀ2 Mar 15 at 13:21
  • 3
    #4 reminds me of when hard-core rappers perform on network TV shows, and they bleep out all the curse words. It happens every few seconds in some songs, and is incredibly jarring. So unless it's infrequent, I agree with this assessment of #4. – Barmar Mar 15 at 21:11
  • #4 is great if you're transcribing the Nixon tapes. Otherwise it's a bit iffy. – Kevin Mar 16 at 19:55
6

Maybe you can use a spoonerism?

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spoonerism

However, I am not sure if there's any unintended effect it may have (it could make the excerpt unintentionally funny).

For example:

Instead of saying "F**k this!", your character could say: "Tuck fhis!".

Check this example as a reference:

Similarly to the above example, "Buck Fama" is a popular slogan in the (often contentious) rivalry between Louisiana State University and the University of Alabama (commonly shortened to Bama). This slogan can be heard very often from LSU fans.

  • 5
    "Tuck fhis" doesn't seem pronouncable. Wouldn't "Thuck fis" be better? Also, doesn't work if Charlie's only yelling one word. – David Richerby Mar 15 at 19:03
2

Going with your first idea, develop some character interactions, then once they're established you can elide the actual profanity.

Tommy slammed the door on Charlie's fingers. From downstairs they heard the sound of a book slamming shut and their mother's footsteps approached the bottom of the staircase. Charlie braced for a stern rebuke.

  • 5
    Honestly, after reading this, I don't think it works. Without more information added, I'd assume he's expecting his mom to give him a stern rebuke for being so careless as to hurt himself. – T.E.D. Mar 15 at 20:45
  • 1
    I have to agree with @T.E.D. It's not obvious to me that the rebuke would be for swearing. It might have been for horseplay indoors, for hurting each other, for being in the house when they had chores outside, for being in a room they weren't supposed to be in, for slamming the door, for making noise when grandma's sleeping, etc. – Cyn says make Monica whole Mar 15 at 22:20
  • 1
    @Cyn - ...bleeding on the new carpet. – T.E.D. Mar 16 at 4:36
2

I'm also writing middle grade fiction and dealing with the same issue. I have decided to go with your option #3: use a milder alternative. Though in a different way from how you've laid it out. As such, this is a slight frame challenge in that I'm not directly answering "how to use a swear word indirectly" but talking about how I'm approaching the same problem.

For this age range (approximately 8-12), it's common for books to be read out loud, especially at the younger end of this. Sometimes the child reads it out loud. This is the prime age for the fabulous Read to a Dog program or a child might read a section out loud in class or to a parent. Sometimes adults (parents, teachers, etc) read to kids. If you have word placeholders that can't really be pronounced in full, it gets confusing.

Words like frak and fork work on television and they've invaded the culture (I'm partial to frak myself), but they're linked with specific TV shows (Battlestar Galactica and The Good Place) which will date them badly in a few years, even if the words are still understandable in context. They also can sound a lot like the original, which is problematic when read out loud.

Also, children on the younger end of middle grade are learning about swear words and still getting the hang of them. They are more about shock value than meaning. If you use a placeholder (including standard downgrades like shoot or heck as well as made-up words) that basically only means the profane word, then that's the reference they're getting out of it. You might want that but, as an adult, what you're getting from it is different from what an 8 year old is getting from it. Ask your daughter and her friends what they think.

I decided to use words that are not profanity and are things that age group use and understand, but are not very nice. Basically mean words that hurt. Something that even an 8 year old will feel in the gut.

I'm still working out the full range, but so far, I've got words (both nouns and adjectives) such as:

  • Loser
  • Moron
  • Stupid

I also use sarcasm, mocking, and put downs like "if you're in charge, we're doomed." This isn't the same as swearing because it's more thought-out and less explosive, but it sets up a character as nasty and the reader can easily imagine her/him as the type of person who would swear in other circumstances. Not all people who swear are mean of course, so this only helps in some cases.

  • 3
    I remember my Grade 4 teacher reading us a children's novel in class (a chapter a day). At one point, I (being a voracious reader), asked to borrow the book to read at recess. That's when I realized that one of the characters (a grumpy old man) was swearing all the time. The "swear words" were written as punctuation (e.g. @$*&!) and my teacher had just been leaving them out when she read aloud. When the book said, "I hate you $@^&! kids! Get the #^(@# off my lawn!", she would just read, "I hate you kids! Get off my lawn!". – GentlePurpleRain Mar 15 at 19:31
  • @GentlePurpleRain - using punctuation was always a good traditional solution. For spoken language, words like rassen frassen also were traditional. – Jennifer Mar 16 at 12:43
2

Some suggestions: Tommy slammed the door on Charlie's fingers. Charlie exploded with:

  • some very colorful/ripe language.
  • language that would make a sailor blush.
  • language that made/would make his mother blush.

You could also use some an euphemism (especially if your character is foreign/has a unique personality). Also has the added bonus of making an iconic catchphrase like:

  • OH, by Toutatis! (Asterix and Obelix)
  • Billions of bilious blue blistering barnacles! (Captain Haddock, Tintin)
  • Ten thousand thundering typhoons! (Captain Haddock, Tintin)

More curses from Captain Haddock: http://www.tintinologist.org/guides/lists/curses.html
101 Cuss word alternatives: https://wehavekids.com/parenting/101-Great-Cuss-Word-Alternatives

By indirect reference:
(after swearing, by another character)

  • "Such language!"
  • "You should be ashamed of your language!"
  • "Is this how your mother taught you to speak?"

Use Grawlixes like in comics: &#$%#@!*&

And, my personal favorite (never fails to crack people up):
replace "you fucking idiot" with "you uneducated potato"

  • Hi Katik! Welcome to Writing.SE! Please take a look at our tour page, if you haven't already. The options you describe here are exactly those OP presented in the question. Do you have any further recommendations regarding the use of each? – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Mar 16 at 13:20
  • @Galastel No, I wanted to add some examples of each, that I find myself coming back to when I want to use euphemism. Also, I wanted to recommend creating an iconic phrase, that is both not swearing and serves to make the character more memorable, like Captain Haddock's "Billions of bilious blue blistering barnacles!" – Kartik Soneji Mar 16 at 13:22

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.