Wednesday, December 16, 2009

What are they thinking?


Obscenity, vulgarity, and bad taste — do we really need it in our literature?

There is an astonishing amount of good literature available on the Internet, and a lot of it is free. I like to browse websites and blogs for some of the best of it. Recently, I found a well written story. The suspense and plotting was just about perfect, and I was anticipating a great ending—which came in the last line. I was not pleased, however, with some of the language in the story. Many of the sentences were augmented with four letter words, such as in ‘what the ****.’ I could have lived with one or two, but this occurred in almost every short paragraph. When I suggested that this did not add to the story, most of the other readers disagreed. Words like honest, descriptive, and true to life, popped up in their responses. My question to you is this: Are our readers intelligent enough they can get by without giving them a detailed description of all of our character’s body functions? If you are expecting a moral lesson in any of this, you are going to be disappointed. Morals, or the lack of them, is not the issue I am addressing here. It is simply a matter of looking at ‘honesty’ in a different way. Many blacksmiths, sailors, and construction workers have an ‘honest’ way of expressing themselves, and the rest of us know to move back a few feet when they become unspooled. From having read tens of thousands of books and stories, I have come to believe that the very mention of some human condition can convey all of the emotional flags we need to raise in a particular dramatic situation. As any editor can tell you, the correct word is what triggers human emotion or perception. The sprinkling of four letter words is the literary equivalent of using triple explanation marks at the end of a sentence — and you don’t want me to do that!!! Now do you!!!


r2 said...

I agree, Joe. I'm no prude, but I think some authors go way too far to be "gritty". Not all strata of society drops the f-bomb as much as some authors seem to think.

The Belle in Blue said...

I faced this exact dilemma with my second book, DIFFERENT ROADS. The heroine was abused as a child by her alcoholic father, and she grows up to be a hellion who doesn't take flak from anyone. Her dialogue needed to reflect that, but since I don't use profanity myself, I struggled with how to present her realistically. In the beginning of the book, she tempers her language a bit because her mild-mannered boyfriend asks her to, but after she goes off to college and meets her future husband--a "poor little rich boy" who is as damaged as she is--their dialogue is peppered with profanity, especially when they're fighting, which is often.

However, I limited the use of the f-word to the bare minimum (probably not more than once or twice within any one scene and certainly not in every scene) because I agree that it is so grossly overused in many books and films. And later in the story when they've matured, their language reflects their character growth. Still, I've heard from readers that the profanity bothered them. I've had to defend my decision many times, but I really feel that my "hellion" heroine would have been laughable if she used watered-down euphemisms when she was mad.

Now, as for your mention of body functions and other crudities, I don't think we EVER need to read about them. Just as writers are supposed to leave out inanities in their characters' speech so as not to drag down the dialogue, they should also leave out things no one wants a mental image of!

Great topic, Joe!

Anonymous said...

Anything that is overdone loses its punch.


J.M.Cornwell said...

I agree. I don't care for some of the more graphic, honest, bodily fluid and bumps and grinds that pass for seduction and sex. Maybe I'm getting old or am channeling my grandmother (probably not), but it seems to me that less is more. Words should evoke the feelings and images without detailing every single solitary last one. Publishing has replaced the real honesty of a situation or story with graphic blow-by-blows that add nothing to the story. The appeal of a good stripper isn't in getting naked, but how she does it and how much style she uses when she does it. Give me style and seduction and subtlety. I'll add the details.

Peg said...

Agreed! I'm no prude neither am I a Pollyanna. I know what goes on in the world and around me. And in my **years I think I've probably heard almost everything. But I do like to "fill in the blanks" myself. I don't need the graphic details nor the profanity. Ii have a very active imagination. :)

And that's the way I'm trying to write my own books. I hope to tell my stories in such a way that my readers will be able to "see" and "hear" what is happening without the necessity of my spelling it out. If they don't then I've failed in my job as storyteller in scene and setting somehow.

On the other hand, if readers NEED to have it all spelled out then they won't be buying my books anyway. LOL