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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

THE ABC'S OF HOW 'NOT' to WRITE SPECULATIVE FICTION: O is for OBSCENITY/PROFANITY

I HOPE YOU'LL BEAR WITH ME FOR REVISITING THIS TOPIC, as I and others, including Michael R. Fletcher in his post on 'Dropping the 'F' Bomb' have talked about the use of obscenity and profanity in fiction before. As I'm in the process of re-writing the ABC's here on Suzenyms (and we're at the letter 'O') I'm revising what I originally wrote in the book. Eventually, I'll gather up all the ABC's posts, flesh them out a bit more, and publish the book on Amazon. In the meantime, here is what I originally wrote, with minor changes. 

THINKING BACK ABOUT SOME OF THE STORIES On Spec has published in the past, I think it’s pretty safe to say that none of us at the magazine are prudes. The use of obscenity or profanity in a story doesn’t bother us too much, unless, of course, it’s overdone or handled awkwardly. Those particular criticisms of overdone or handled awkwardly depend on the biases of the editor, which a writer can't know.

Obscenity and profanity should be reflective of a story’s narrative style or a particular character’s speaking style. Under narrative or character justification, we could say that obscenity and profanity are acceptable unless they detract from the story’s flow. Certain words or phrases will defeat their purpose if they remind the reader that he’s reading bad words rather than vicariously experiencing the story's reality. 

Profane imagery is usually more shocking than the occasional expletive, which most of us have come to accept as part of the common language. Obscene words can add a rough and emotional edge to a character’s dialogue, but they are usually better served with a light hand. There are always exceptions to this rule – a seasoned writer may be able to pull off excessive use, but as a general guideline, obscenity and profanity should be used carefully and with purpose. They should not reflect the writer’s desire to insert provocative words or phrases just because he can.

My personal bias regarding obscenity and/or profanity? For me, overuse will paint a character in a particular way, which may or may not be what the writer intends. I associate off-colour language with certain types of people and/or professions, ie., blue-collar workers, teenagers attempting to impress each other, the military, even pirates, etc. How colourful and inventive the language is will also affect or impress me: originality will always win out, even in the face of extreme vulgarity. On the other hand, if the language is repetitive, or lacks a certain verve, I find overuse of certain words tiresome. I tend to look at those characters who mouth them as uneducated or dull, which is fine if that's what the writer intends. But I also can't help wondering if the writer can't come up with anything better in terms of dialogue.

Each to his own. As writers, we should write what we feel is true to our characters and what reflects our personal style. On the other hand, we may have better luck with selling our work if we keep certain proclivities in mind.

- Susan.

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