Friday, 17 June 2011

Language, Timothy!

Edge author, Dave Cousins looks at swearing in teen fiction and asks – how far should we go?

It has to be said that in fiction, as well as in real life, certain circumstances require a response a little stronger than: “You know, old chap, I’d be jolly pleased if you’d go away”. This is especially the case if the words are coming from the mouth of a teenage protagonist in the pages of an edgy teen novel. The question is – how far should writers go in the quest for authenticity?

If we are hoping to portray believable characters in real situations, authentic dialogue is essential. Often the defence for pages packed with expletives, is simply: that’s how kids speak. Quite possibly, but isn’t it part of the writer’s job to distil the essence, rather than to doggedly transcribe? I mean … um … if we actually wrote down what people actually say … when they talk, yeah? It would be like … really annoying and repetitive and stuff. Saying the same things over and over again, like. You know what I mean?

I’ve read books with lots of swearing and others where bad language is noticeable by its absence. Then there are the books when you don’t even notice, because the dialogue, whatever it contains, feels so natural. If the story, the character and the situation requires swearing, I’ll use it (and argue with my editor later). Having said that, if the speech works just as well without, I remove it, because overuse reduces the impact.

The Pig of Profanity – my writer's swear box. Chapter 15 was expensive!

The books I put down and sometimes don't finish, are the ones where it seems the author has used swearing in an attempt to appear edgy and down with the kids. I’m not offended, just disappointed, because it gets in the way of a good story. 

But what do you think?

All comments, however colourfully phrased, will be very welcome.

15 Days without a Head by Dave Cousins, is out in January 2012, published by Oxford University Press


  1. I actually wrote about this in a post on my blog back in April after a lovely discussion with an author on twitter.
    I pretty much agree. I LOVE swearing in YA but only as and when it is appropriate. An average teenagers response to something crap happening is gunna be "shit" not "oh deary me" so I'd rather hear them swear! But like you I dislike it when I can tell that the author has added it just for the sake of it.
    It has to be real, it has to fit the character, and there can't be loads of swearing otherwise you wont get to know that character... it'll be known as "the one who swears a lot!"

    I hope I haven't babbled and this comment makes sense... its getting late!

  2. I have read books (naming no names) where the swearing gets ridiculous. It starts to lose it's impact and meaning after a while and actually takes away from the story. You find yourself going 'oh for heaven's sake, he's really saying fuck again?' and stop looking at what's happening.

    I find it a bit like some comedians - whose entire act consists of swearing like they just invented it or something. It's much cleverer to be funny without needing to swear and it's the same with literature, it's cleverer to get the emotion across without needing to swear.

    Personally I think you can write without swearing (even if you have say something like 'he swore and backed away') but then it isn't always appropriate.

    We are writing about and to an audience, a large proportion of whom use swearing so often that it's become an intensifier.

    (as an aside, did you know that the original meaning of the word 'very' was 'true'? The meaning changed to an intensifier because people used it so often - much like the word 'fucking' nowadays. Although that word is one of the oldest in the English language (alongside 'arse') in a few generations it may have lost its meaning and become an intensifier too - everyone could be using 'fucking' in the same way we use 'very' ... )

    Anyway - our audience swears - much as many adults would like to stop them - so if we want to write protagonists that teens can relate to, perhaps we should be writing to them in their own language?

    Then again I don't think a teen protagonist who doesn't swear will put teens off - in fact I don't think they'll notice it. Ask a teen if Katniss Everdeen (Hunger Games) swears - I bet they can't say for sure ...

    I use swearing in my own book, but very sparingly. I think there are about three swear words in 345 pages of Angel's Fury and the strongest expletive occurs at a time when quite frankly, not having a character swear would have seemed very weird.

    I agree with you Dave - we don't need to transcribe language, we aren't holding a mirror up to life, we're using it for inspiration. We can use swearing to highlight an important moment or to make our characters relatable, but it shouldn't be our whole act.

  3. I veer towards tone and placement to make my dialogue work whether my character is a teen, a Mum or a great granny ( a character I am currently enjoying writing.) I don't think that swearing is really very necessary and it can feel like an obstacle on the page most of the time.
    Great post Dave!

  4. Very interesting post - I was going to say my lovely friend Raimy wrote a similar post awhile back, but I see she got there first :) The only time I think I really notice swearing in books is when it doesn't feel right for the character or the situation. But done well, I don't notice at all.

  5. I completely agree, Dave. Overuse does reduce the impact and in fiction aimed at teens distilling the essence of how they speak often works just as well.
    On the other hand, if the character, dialogue and situation require some swearing then I wouldn't necessarily shy away from it either, particularly if the book was aimed at older teens/YA. And again, if it's very noticeable and jarring, then it probably wasn't necessary to use in the first place.

  6. Thanks for all the comments, folks.

    If anybody is interested in continuing the discussion, there is an event at the Free Word Centre in London tomorrow night (Thursday 23).

    "Capturing the Voice" is billed as a debate about "the importance of honesty and creativity in engaging young people" The event features a panel of four writers, and is hosted by Anthony McGowan.

    Admission is free, but you do need to email first. Details can be found here:

  7. Hi Dave,
    Just catching up on your rather brilliant post. There's a smattering of swearing in Celia Frost but only when I considered it to be absolutley appropriate. What I, like the rest of us, try to achieve is the menace, anger, tension etc through creating an authentic atmosphere. You can chuck in as many expletives as you want but if the atmosphere of the scene feels fake, loads of swearing won't save it.