What The Fudge?

In high school, my AP English teacher gave us the freedom to choose which book to read individually for our final paper. She tried to push Catcher in the Rye by adding “you’ll like it; there’s swearing in it.” (Despite what you may believe, based on the name of this blog, I did not choose Catcher. I had already read it, so I chose Lord of the Flies.) I remember she specifically added the “swearing” bit because when I had read it I didn’t even notice those words were there. I was too wrapped up in the ball of emotion that was Holden Caulfield and the journey through New York City to pay attention to things like that. If he swore at all, then it was as natural and as necessary as any other word.

We often talk about sex in YA, violence in video games, and other things that might not be “appropriate” for our nation’s youth. While the question of gratuitous language does come up, it’s discussed – on the whole – far less. I should mention that when I talk about “colorful” language in books, I’m not just talking about YA. If anything, teens use curse words way more than adults because, like drinking, adults learn when to hold back, when it’s appropriate, and when to indulge.

I bring this up because I was recently reading a manuscript – one that I was excited to begin – and I could not get over how many F-bombs were on the first page. Obviously this narrator was mad. But I didn’t know who he was, why I should care, if the person he was angry with really was a “bitch,” as he claimed, or even where he was. It felt like I was being bombarded with emotion that I wasn’t ready to take on as a reader. The narrator went on to drop this language into conversation, and every time it felt forced and unnatural. Eventually I had to give up on the story because it was so distracting to read.

Certain things are translated differently when they are on the page, which is why, as novelists, you need to be more conscious of the image you project. Writers like Quentin Tarantino and David Mamet don’t have to worry about that as much. (If you’re familiar with their work, you can probably guess why I chose them as examples.) They aren’t writing for the page. In the flash of a single image, their world, setting, and even character can be immediately established. As a result, their characters can say whatever the fuck they want.

Novelists don’t have that luxury. Yes, their characters can say whatever they want, but when they can say it matters a little bit more in books than it does in movies. It takes longer to introduce your character and establish a connection to your reader – especially if you’re writing in 3rd person. First-person narration might makes things easier since you’re establishing your main character’s voice right from the beginning. Even still, the reader needs to understand his or her POV before they’re forced into it. 

Now, lest you think I’m just being prudish about “the devil’s words,” I’ll admit that not all swear words are bad and no one needs to be sheltered from them. Sometimes they need to be added, not taken away. If your character finds himself in some seriously fucked up shit, then he better call it like he sees it. Even the mildest person in the world will let out a quiet “motherfucker!” when they stub their toe. It’s natural and sometimes a curse is the only word that can sum up events.

Whether you’re writing YA or adult fiction, treat swear words the same way you would any other word. Sometimes they need to get edited out, and sometimes they fit so perfectly that the reader barely notices them. If you’re ever in doubt about whether you’re being excessive or not excessive enough, just ask yourself two questions: Is this something my character would say? and Does this type of language fit the situation? Like with most things, there are exceptions to rules and ways to bend them, but in most situations, answering these two questions will suffice.

I’m of the mindset that almost everything can be appropriate for all ages if done properly. Why hold anything back if it will resonate with your audience and enrich your story? But make smart choices. Swear words are just words the same way sex and violence are just actions. They each have a slightly heavier weight than their counterparts, sure, but ultimately it’s up to you whether your story needs carry it.

24 thoughts on “What The Fudge?

  1. @Suzanne – I completely agree. Not all teens swear, especially younger teens and especially when they're around adults, which is why it's important to use language that's appropriate to the type of character you're writing.


  2. For the most part, I agree 100% with what you're saying here–the language needs to be true to the character, and the reader needs a chance to embrace the story before being bombarded with a pile of language. However, I do have to point out that not all teens today are the same. In fact, it seems to me that they range in mood, language and taste more than in previous generations, so saying that one thing or another isn't done anymore is risky. My fourteen-year-old son doesn't swear, not even when he stubs his toe or is playing a game, and neither do most his friends. Obviously he's in the minority, but I think it's helpful to remember that kids don't fit under a single umbrella in language any more than they do in clothes or music.


  3. When I stub my toe, I say “Ouch.” If it's really bad, I might say “bloody hell.” Expletives come from habit and conditioning, including hearing and reading. I prefer to avoid the coarser ones and don't even notice when they're absent. They're not part of our genetic memory. Seriously.


  4. I'm glad you posted this. I'm pretty sparing with f-bombs in my YA mystery bc every word counts. Substiting a unique emphatic phrase instead of the f-bomb does more work revealing the character and is waaayyy more interesting than the vulgar cliche.


  5. When you're talking about beginnings (first page, first paragraph, first sentence), this comment is crucial:

    It felt like I was being bombarded with emotion that I wasn't ready to take on as a reader.

    And it reminded me of a similar discussion we had on Absolute Write not too long ago. It wasn't about swear words, but about a certain act happening in the very first sentence, and whether or not the author should change that so as not to “turn off” potential readers right from the start.

    I'm just going to quote part of one of my responses, because I think it applies to what you discussed here, too:

    I probably wouldn't like it right off the bat. First chapter? Fine. First page? Not so much. And it's rare to get me to make a comment like that.

    The thing is, I'd rather get to know the character in a different way first. It has nothing to do with whether I think mentioning it is inappropriate or not. For the record, I don't think it's inappropriate to have this in a book, even multiple times.

    But your opening sentences are like when you meet someone in person for the first time ever. It's an introduction between the viewpoint character and the reader. If a guy came up to me and introduced himself with a [redacted], the last thing I want to do is shake his hand.

    Most readers don't want to go there right away, even if they don't mind it later. They want to get to know the characters in a “safe” way first.

    And I think this applies to SO many things.


  6. In my historical, the MC is of a class that she wouldn't swear much. There are a few instances where damned and such appears in her interior dialogue, but she would not say such things aloud.

    But in my contemporary WIP, ass and fuckin' appear in the first few pages–only once each, though, so hopefully it isn't overwhelming. And I didn't set out with a rule that they could only appear once, I just used them where they felt natural.

    And sex and violence? More in the historical so far than in the contemp, go figure.


  7. I find it stands out more for me when a character doesn't swear. I'm like just SAY it already! I'm not talking swearing of Mamet proportions, just mumbling a few choice words here and there.


  8. And if it will throw off the character development to hear the character swear in the opening scene, just write “He swore to himself” or some variant. Problem solved.

    @Tere Kirkland: I think swearing is more necessary in paranormal because you need your characters to stand out as normal people despite the paranormal around them. … at least the human characters.


  9. @Inky – I have advised clients to add language before (not necessarily an F-bomb in every case), and I've advised them to take some out. But sometimes a situation is too dire for anything else. Modern teens also wouldn't say things like “darn” (ever) or even “crap” (sometimes). It doesn't sound natural. Using dated language makes your book less accessible, not more – something to keep in mind when sending your book to non-beta readers. Thanks for the question!


  10. I stuck with nothing worse than “crap” in my manuscript, because I'm a little old-fashioned myself with my language (even for a web-savvy 20something!), and I feel like keeping it clean makes it more accessible — for my young, Catholic beta-reader cousins, for example! 🙂

    Question: is there ever an instance where you would advise a client to ADD language in his or her work? As in, do you read a YA dialogue and think to yourself, “An F-bomb would really strengthen the emotion here” or something like that? Just wondering. Thanks!


  11. OM Goodness, I thought I was the only one who said “What the Fudge” or “Awh, Fudge.” Now if I can think of equivalents when my Spanish curse words emanate from my or my characters mouth.


  12. In my ms I debated about using a swear word that to many people isn't even considered a bad word. But it was an appropriate moment, and nothing else seemed right. I had to live with the agony of my mom calling me (yes, I'm a grown adult with kids) and telling me what a terrible person I was for putting that word in my book. Sigh


  13. Hee hee. I have a mouth like a merchant marine (says my sweet southern daddy) but I'm strangely prudish about using it in my YA. An F-bomb? Not bloody likely.

    And in paranormal YA, I don't see bad language as often as I do in realistic YA, so maybe that's part of it. I don't see it in the work of my peers, I guess, so I shy away from it in my own work. It's not as necessary to the characterization or story when there are so many fantastical elements, imo.

    Thought provoking post, actually. Thanks, and have a great weekend!


  14. So true. There is little more distracting to me than language that doesn't seem to fit the character or situation. Some authors use profanity so smoothly that I barely notice it at all, as you said, and others toss it in so haphazardly that I'm left going, “Wha… why… okay?”


  15. Excellent points! So glad to hear someone feels the same way. I think swears can be totally appropriate in YA lit when used properly. It's not like teens have never heard them before.


  16. I'm the first to admit that I swear like a Marine–more than my husband who is ACTUALLY the Marine in the family, but I completely agree that real life and the written word are two completely different things.

    While working on the first novel in my YA series I am conscious of every colorful word that I write. There aren't many. In fact, the worst it gets is a 'dammit'. Not because I'm concerned about the YA's reading it, but because dropping a 'fuck' or a 'motherfucker' hasn't been needed yet. It would be out of place.

    I am extremely glad you've written this post, because this is a topic of much discussion, not only with writers, but with the readers of YA fiction as well.

    Many parents will keep their children from reading a book with 'adult' language because they feel it's inappropriate. Though, they never seem to remember what junior high and high school was really like.

    Thanks for taking the time for sharing your insight on this.



  17. I love the part about stubbing your toe, because it's so true. When I was 16ish my dad came through into the room where I was playing a video game to tell me he could hear me muttering “fuck off, fuck off!” under my breath while I fought off baddies. I hadn't even noticed. 🙂


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