The Great F-Bomb Debate

In John G’s Friday post, he gave us clips of his most recent editorial letter. One of the admonitions in it was to lose the F bombs, because “some people will object to it.”
I happen to agree with his editor. We’ve had this discussion before, but this seems a good time to focus on it a bit more, and get specific. Yes, artistic license and the First Amendment allow for its use. We’ve had decades of rants and even lawsuits defending the F bomb. Well, maybe it’s time for some arguments against it. Here are three for your consideration:
1. It might affect your market share
I think it’s more than some who object to the F bomb. I think it’s a lot. In today’s culture, there’s enough that’s offensive, from the slacker at the counter to the boor cutting you off in traffic and delivering a one finger salute.
People are pummeled enough by life. How many want to get whacked with F bombs when reading for pleasure?
So purely from a mercenary standpoint, why shrink your audience? As John’s editor said, no one ever complains that there aren’t any F bombs in a book. (I note here that I do believe there is a valid distinction to be made between this word and “milder” swearing. It’s the same distinction George Carlin made in his famous routine about the seven words you can’t say on television. You may research that one at your own risk).
2. It’s not original
When Lenny Bruce started using the F word in performance, it had shock value. When novelists and filmmakers picked up the practice, same thing. When Quentin Tarantino and the Coen Bros. tried to make an art form out of it, the tide started turning. It’s been done. No one is going to marvel at the creative use of the F word anymore.
You want to know what’s original? Finding ways not to use it. That takes more skill, just as it takes more skill for a comic to get a laugh without resorting to the word.
3. It’s not necessary
But, the protest will come, I write about reality! The F word is real. How can I write about gangs or mafia types without it?
Well, let’s see. How did one of the best TV shows of all time, which ran, what, 20 years, do it? Watch the early seasons of Law & Order. You will get a lesson in how to do gritty without F bombs. (Without, in fact, using any of those infamous seven words you can’t say on TV).
Here’s the thing: fiction is not a re-creation of reality. We have documentaries and non-fiction for that. Fiction is a stylistic rendition of reality for emotional effect. You want readers caught up in a fictive dream, and to leave them with an emotional wallop. You do this by being creative with language. If you use the F word, however, you’re liable to take a lot of readers out of the dream.
Now, maybe you’re a writer who doesn’t care, because you are, by thunder, going to write the word if you think you need it. Fine. I’m just saying we are the masters of the language, not the other way around. Are we shaping our book or is our book running us? The great film noirs and crime novels of the 40s and 50s managed to be every bit as suspenseful (and, to be frank, were usually better written) than much modern fare. Did lack of the F bomb hurt them? Do we think, Ah, that Dashiell Hammett, what a bore? Chandler, what a rube? I didn’t think so.
So what’s your take on the whole F bomb thing? And please, no comments about “censorship” here. That’s not even close to what I’m talking about. I’m a First Amendment guy. You’re free to use it if you want to.
Do you want to? 


66 thoughts on “The Great F-Bomb Debate

  1. I like to be free to use F-bombs when I want, but frankly, I don’t use them that often. As you said, it’s been done quite a few times.

    Most of the time their use is for a shock value, but overuse can diminish the shock, and the value.

    I only use them when I can’t think of anything else to say 🙂

  2. Mr. Bell, thank you for this brilliant post. It was your “Try” series of novels that inspired me to write without using profanity. I am working on my first novel, a mystery, and struggled with this very issue. One of my favorite authors, Robert B. Parker, usually had the F word or two in most of his novels. Usually in a humorus manner. I wrote a scene in mine using it once, and since I don’t talk that way myself, it really bothered me. Then I discovered your books, read all of them, and saw that powerful, suspenseful and exciting writing could be done without resorting to profanity. Out came the F-bomb, and the scattered “damns” as well.

    George Carlin was a comic genius. The years of his routines on the Carson show stand as some of the best comic work in the business. His cable performances with all the profanity never rose to that standard.

    Thank you for being an inspiration as well as a good writing teacher.

  3. If that is what you want to write, then I think you should write it.

    For all your examples of great shows that didn’t use it, I can give counter-examples. Like the Sopranos, The Godfather, The Wire The Departed, Ken Follet’s novels, STIEG LARSSON’S BOOKS (pretty sure those were sold to a wide audience I mean, they sold millions of books).

    In fact, in a time like this, when those Larsson books are the biggest selling books, your whole argument is inane. You need to re-think this whole post. People obviously don’t care if you use the f-word. Also, your arguments just suck, taking examples from so long ago when it was way more transgressive to use the f-bomb.

    True, it doesn’t mean you’re being more creative if you use the F-bomb, but it also doesn’t make you anymore creative if you don’t use it. It’s about the story.

    The world needs G rated stuff, and the world needs R rated stuff. Choose what you want to do, but be strong about it.

  4. Reading is something I do for leisure, which means I want to enjoy it. I don’t enjoy profanity. Which, consequently, is why I tend to read far less contemporary fiction than historical b/c contemporary writers seem to rely on profanity far more.

    As stated, writers are free to choose to use that language. But as a reader, if I’m given the choice between a book that uses profanity and one that doesn’t, I’ll take the one that doesn’t.

    Do I perhaps miss some good reads b/c I didn’t overlook the profanity? Probably. But with so many choices, I don’t lose sleep over it.

  5. I’ll simply cast my vote without adding to your very cogent arguments: The F-bomb–I don’t like to write it, I don’t like to read it (and typically skip over passages that overuse the word).
    I love your statement that “Fiction is a stylistic rendition of reality for emotional effect.” Wish I’d said that–and I probably will in the future.
    Thanks for your insight.

  6. Dave, thanks so much for the kind word. I really am gratified to know the Try books had that effect for you. I’ve gotten a lot of emails along the very same lines. Keep writing.

  7. Good post, Jim, as always. The f-word appears in every book I’ve written. It’s rare, but it’s there. I believe that I must stay true to my characters. I also believe that it is part of the modern society human lexicon and if the reaction of a character calls for it, and it fits that character, and if it flows out naturally from that character’s dialog, I’ll use it.

  8. Taylor:

    If that is what you want to write, then I think you should write it.

    Yes, I said the same thing. Just do it with eyes wide open. If one wants to bank on being in the same league as Larsson, the option is open. But I wonder, was it the F bomb that made those books so wildly popular?

    I did not argue that the F bomb kills all books or shows. That’s obviously not true. I’m just saying great writing can be done with out. And it’s a risk/reward thing.

  9. Joe, I know what you’re saying about being “true” to a character. But there are a number of ways to be true. I have never found a character having to say any single word. In fact, I have often written the word that springs to mind, then on revision find alternatives–for the better, IMO.

    I wonder, too: do you think any of your books would have been irreparably damaged without the word? Especially if such usage is “rare”?

  10. I write without profanity as much as possible. Any time one gets into the story, I think about it very carefully, considering the impact. They’re important words that show powerful emotions. But if they get used too much, they become ordinary words that don’t have any meaning. One of the most memorable scenes in MASH was when the Koreans were going to execute this pregnant woman. Hawkeye was angry at the injustice and spent a lot of time trying to fight the system. When the Koreans were going to take the woman away, he vented by calling them a word that had never been used on the series before. That added a exclamation mark to how angry this character was and left me thinking. That’s the kind of impact I want when I use profanity.

    I like your description of Law and Order as a way to show gritty without the profanity. One time I was told that I could not write a novel about the military with using lots of profanity. ‘Scuse me? I was in the military, and I know I can get a military flavor without using a single word of profanity.

  11. Linda, great comment. I like what you said about the military and profanity. I have a friend who is a former Marine, who writes political thrillers, and he doesn’t use profanity. If the Marines can do it, anyone can!

  12. I think context is king here. There are whole genres of fiction that are built around no foul language, as there are about murder mysteries without violence–something of an oximoron on its face.

    On the far side of that are the very edgy super-reality stories in which profanity is nearly a character unto itself. Reader beware.

    For me, Jim, your first point is by far the most compelling: Don’t needlessly rob yourself of readers. Thriller readers are far more tolerant of bad language, I think, than are mystery readers, but like every other word in a book, those foul ones need to be managed by the author.

    One of my great writing mistakes involved the porfanity in my first published novel, NATHAN’S RUN. The protgagonist is a 12-year-old boy, and as such attracted a number of young readers. It even won an Alex Award for best adult-market fiction for a young adult audience. The Alex Award is a ticket to middle school libraries, but because of the profanity in the book (I had written it for an adult market, after all), it was a frequently banned book. Chalk it up to rookie cluelessness on my part, and disturbing inattention on the part of my editing team.

    Since then, I’ve tried to be sparing in my use of the F-bomb. Will it disappear completely from my writing? I dunno. I have difficulty keeping it out of my speech, so maybe I should start there first.

    John Gilstrap

  13. John, thanks for your honesty. And yes, as a writer and sometime dispenser of writing advice, I think #1 is key. I’m not saying that everything one does should have the market in mind as a primary consideration. You have to write from the heart, too. But the F bomb seems to have more negatives than positives in the market these days, as your editor recognizes. She is on the inside and informed about what’s going on. And in this competitive atmosphere, maybe she’s just asking, is this the right battle?

  14. “I wonder, too: do you think any of your books would have been irreparably damaged without the word?”

    No. But that applies to any word or element of the book. I look at writing fiction as the process of making a million decisions, one word at a time. Could any word or choice of any element be improved upon? Of course. I could spend time considering the market with each word or write from the heart and let the product stand on its own. Interestingly, my novels all contain the occasional use of the F-bomb and are available around the world in 25 languages. It must translate well. 🙂

  15. This is a really interesting debate. I decided when I first started work on my novel that I wouldn’t use profanity, mostly because of my grandparents’ influence. When I was growing up, they were always admonishing me to “use my words,” and although my language is hardly clean in day-to-day life, I’m not willing to translate that bad habit to the page.

    I view it almost as a challenge. An F-bomb (or any other curse word) is easy to drop into a piece of writing in order to convey a particular emotion or state of mind. But it’s far more challenging to come up with other words that convey that same level of emotion without profanity. And, if nothing else, doing so will make me a better writer.

    Thanks for the post. I think it’s an important conversation to have, and I think it’s extremely important for writers to consider the weight of their words. If you’re going to use it, great, fine, Godspeed, but do so after careful consideration.

  16. Laura, that’s a great restatement of my post. Thanks.

    And it’s not always a matter of finding a substitute word. It’s not like I think Tony Soprano should say “Fudge bucket.” There are actions that speak volumes, and there’s also narrative that can convey the information.

  17. I think overuse of the f-word is simply a sign of lazy writing. It’s as if the writer can’t be bothered to come up with a bit of gritty dialogue on his own, so he thinks, “Heck, I’ll just throw in the generic F bomb and that’ll take care of it.” I find that books that use the f-word more than once or twice for shock value are usually poorly written, overall.

  18. Kathryn, good points. I think it’s often the first word that springs to mind in certain contexts. It’s easy to just put that down and think it’s the “right” choice. But we counsel writers against cliches all the time, which is….putting in the first thing that springs to mind.

    So giving some thought to alternatives is not only more creative, IMO, it can lead to better writing overall. And more reader appreciation as a bonus.

  19. I picked up a novel by C.J. Box (I think it was Blue Heaven). Really enjoyed his storytelling and suspense. Hated his frequent use of the F word. Because of that alone I won’t be reading anymore of his novels. If he hadn’t included the F word (and I’m not talking about once or twice—it was all over the place), I would’ve read more of his novels. But unfortunately he lost a reader because of using it.

  20. When I think about this subject, it makes me think of Michael Crichton or Stephen King. Both were/are very talented writers, however the one thing that worked to their detriment was their use/overuse of F bombs. Characters sounded the same, whether a twelve-year-old boy or an eighty-year-old man. Read Prey or Cell and see what I mean.

    As for them contributing to the realism, Jim is right. They can draw the reader out of a scene much the way attributions do. It’s all about show don’t tell. Using an F-bomb is the quickest way to tell your reader your character is coarse. Leaving it out means you have to show them.

  21. Lyle, good points. King is, of course, wildly popular, and is a purveyor of the F word. I do not think he would be less popular without it, and might be even moreso. (Like he needs an extra fifty or sixty mil each time out.)

  22. James, we’re on the same page here. I have written prison and cop novels where I avoid the F word, because so much of my constituency buys my stuff at Christian bookstores — whose owners would not put up with such use. And, naturally, my publishers are Christian as well, so they have their standards.

    Right or wrong, they are the gatekeepers. I could plead my case and insist, etc., but I would lose at least 25% of my market…and for what? I just write, “He swore. ‘Now what are we supposed to do?'”, etc.

  23. Totally agree with this. It’s not neccesary. As you said, a little milder swearing here and there is fine, and it can sometimes contribute to suspense. But I can tell you, every movie or book I’ve ever seen with that much profanity, it could’ve been the same or better without it. I’d rather read, “he swore” or something milder than cringe every time I see it there on the page. It’s just not neccessary, especially if it loses you readers.

  24. Jerry, thanks for that report. You’ve built a vast readership, book after book, in the genres you mention, without using the word. In fact, I recall you saying once that you had used alternatives in a book, and that it was effective…you knew, because someone wrote a letter of complaint to the publisher about such “language.” And you hadn’t used any epithets at all. So the stylized rendition of reality obviously worked in that case!

  25. I struggled with this a lot when I started my SF series. My first book was about a Marine, and she swore. A lot. But when I edited, I found I could take most of that out, change it, have her censor herself for the sake of her less militant companions…

    Then I wrote about the boy she adopted as a teen. He’d picked up all her bad habits, and outdone her on the swearing. It’s one of his character traits. And try as I would, I couldn’t seem to edit them out while staying true to him.

    I finally found a way, though, and I think it adds a lot to the book that he spends most of it trying not even to think the most offensive words because if he uses them, his five-year-old niece will use them, and she’ll get in trouble.

    So there’s a lot of frak and frik and eff that, and the one or two times the actual f-bomb gets out, the reader knows things are serious.

  26. KD, I appreciate where you’re coming from here. Maybe there’s another distinction to be made, that is, how it is being used. Is it being fought against? Is it an issue that is addressed specifically? (as Holden Caulfield does about an F bomb graffito on a wall, and he wants to “kill” the guy who did it, because of the effect it could have on his little sister or kids like her, etc.)

    Also, euphemisms (freaking, effing) I don’t seem to mind. I don’t know how many readers do. But I was astonished to find “effing” in an early Travis McGee by John D. MacDonald. I thought it was more recent than that!

  27. Using the F-bomb was to King’s detriment? Wonder how many more gazillions of dollars he would have made without it. I’m not a fan of profanity for profanity’s sake, but with King, his use of profanity adds to the depth of his characters’ dialogs. If he were to refrain from using it at this point, it would give me pause, even I’m quite sure he’s capable of spinning a tale without it.

  28. katdish, King is one of my all time favorite writers, precisely for the reason you state, his depth of character. That’s what sets him apart, IMO. That’s why he deserves the plaudits (Harold Bloom to the contrary notwithstanding).

    As to whether the F word alone adds to character “depth,” I think we could debate about that, esp. the frequency of it. My simple point is that a writer as great as King certainly has felicity with the language, and I don’t think would have lost anything of value or any power in his prose.

  29. Thanks – a great post. I’m reminded of Elmore Leonard’s character Chili Palmer in the movie versions of Get Shorty and Be Cool. Get Shorty was rated R and had a lot of F-bombs. In Be Cool, Chili states that to get a PG-13 rating you can only say it twice – which he does – and the rest of the movie is F-bomb free. Does that diminish Travolta’s character? Not in the least. In fact, it made the movie easier to watch. Now there are those who would say Get Shorty was a better movie, but I would not agree that the use of language was what made it so.

  30. Many great points are being discussed here.

    I think the best way to determine whether to use it or not has nothing to do with anything other than the story you want to write.

    I have written and published over 40 short stories without a single swear word.

    But I have also written five stories that were littered with the F-bomb. It was needed based on the content of the story and who my characters were.

    My more popular pieces were the ones with the swearing.

    In my personal reading time I prefer to see swearing as I feel it’s realistic.

    Charlie Huston is an author who swears continuously throughout his novels. You don’t get more than three lines without another F word. In fact, he has written sentences with ten words, seven of them just the F word.

    Sorry, this post sounds more like a religious sermon than it does advice for writers in that its simply…wrong.


  31. BTW, let me commend all the comments here thus far. This could have been a flaming debate, but the arguments have been reasonable and in good taste. If Congress could get along like this comments section, maybe we’d be in better shape nationally.

  32. “Sorry, this post sounds more like a religious sermon than it does advice for writers in that its simply…wrong.”

    Absolutely. This post is just a bunch of rhetoric.

    You’re very receptive to all the examples people listed of not cussing, but you sort of brushed off all the great works that do cuss. Even in your first post you tried to just sweep aside the Coen Brothers and Tarantino.

    The only thing I’ve learned from this post is that The Kill Zone’s readership is far more conservative than I expected.

  33. It’s too bad we can’t have different versions of our books for different audiences. My wife and I have been watching reruns of Entourage lately on Spike TV. They’ve removed the nudity and the worst language in the show to make it palatable to a non-pay cable audience. Now when I watch the original versions as they were broadcast on HBO, I find them so vulgar that I don’t enjoy the show as much (not that I’m a prude; I love Diehard and it’s hard to remember how much they used the F-bomb in that movie). On HBO they are going for an edgier audience, while on regular cable, they are targeting a mass audience.

    Regarding the success of Stieg Larsson, I would submit that those books succeeded in spite of using the F-bomb, not because of it. Their popularity is a once-a-decade phenomenon that shouldn’t be used as an example of how to succeed in the writing business.

  34. Hi Jim,
    You said: “There are actions that speak volumes, and there’s also narrative that can convey the information.” I like that.:)

    Just my humble opionion, but I’d rather someone show me the emotion on the page than drop the f-bomb. Although I have to say I have quite a bit of fun finding other words once in awhile to convey an experience. Say I have a character who sleeps in late, which I do, in one of my historicals. He awakes and says any number of words but not the typical swear words. It’s fun to search these out and not to offend.

    I remember seeing the movie Julie and Julia, I think that was the name of it, about Julia Child. I liked the movie but in one part her husband let’s go with the f-bomb and I thought it ruined what could have been a good family film for all ages.

  35. This is why I concern myself about being published less every day. The great mass of readers who may determine whether one is successful or not is fine with rapes, torture, mutilations, and killings of any grisly manner, but we dare not use potentially offensive language.

    It’s not censorship; it’s idiocy.

  36. Taylor, this is a conversation, not a sermon. I offered three specific arguments, and I’ve responded specifically to what people have posted. If you look at my response to KD and what I said about The Catcher in the Rye, maybe you’ll see some nuances that might have escaped first notice.

    Nor did I “brush off” Tarantino and the Coens. This isn’t a post about their skill as filmmakers (which is huge). I merely pointed out they attempted to make the F word into a sort of “art form” in and of itself, in the context of saying, essentially, it’s all been done. Beyond that I didn’t go.

  37. Dana, what you call “idiocy” someone else might call “market reality.” That’s my main point. We can deal with it or not deal with it. As long as it’s an informed decision, so be it.

  38. Boyd, I think you’re right about Larsson. Thanks for the comment.

    Jillian, that always mystifies me. Why a film would drop in one F bomb, knowing that it would have that effect. What’s the freaking point?

    (Yes, irony intended)

  39. I’ve been mulling over the debate, and do find it fascinating that a little word has such an impact. I want to make it clear that I’m not laying down a rule, just an observation. I think it’s worth it for a writer to ponder the use of the word for the very reason it does have such impact, as the reactions have suggested.

    What’s wrong with thinking it through? Then use it if you want to. You pays your money and you takes your chances.

    Maybe in the right context, it has a desired effect. Or maybe it’s just a throwaway where the costs exceed the benefits.

    I’m not saying what to do in every instance, except think. Anybody against thinking?

  40. Jim – totally agree. It’s all about thinking it through. I must admit the F-bomb doesn’t really bother me in novels. I don’t even think I notice it but I probably would if it was gratuitous or inappropriate. I do find it interesting how much more acceptable swearing is here in Australia though. Not the F-word all that much but the s-word is dropped in without so much of a raised eyebrow even when my boys are present (with their wide eyes and big ears!). It must be a cultural thing but Australia is very relaxed when it comes to swearing.

  41. Clare,
    I had to laugh about the s-word. I remember my youngest coming home when she was in third grade and said, “Mom, my teacher said the s-word today.” I could feel my eyes go wide. I said, “She said s#*#?” My little one frowned at me like I was an idiot. “No mom, she said shut-up.”

  42. Fascinating. As you noted a little word and big interest. look at the number of posts!

    I have porions of my WIP that include dialog with young inner city folks (gang-bangers specifically). In my work I’ve had a lot of interaction with this population and I find it hard to imagine presenting authentic dialog that is not profane. Even thinning out the offensive language it is still very raw.

    Question is possibly lose readers who are offended versus impact on those who may find credibility lacking?

    I am not creative enough to envision a mechanism to maintain the authenticity and impact while seeming credible.

    Great post.

  43. I can attest to the potential for lost readers if the F-bomb and other offensive things are included. I’m one of those readers who doesn’t want to see it. Many of my readers don’t want to see it. But I think the story my mother tells takes the cake. She was reading a book and saw something that she found particularly offensive while sitting next to the wood stove. She opened the door and threw the book inside. Only then did she remember that it was a borrowed book.

    While I can’t say with absolute certainty that the dialog of every character can be rendered best without the use of offensive words, I’ve found that may favorite characters are those who find creative ways to express their frustration. I think that part of the reason for this is because the characters who do not resort to the F-bomb have an appearance of being in better control of the tongue. This shows intelligence in the character and give them the appearance of being a more imposing adversary.

  44. tjc, thanks for your query. Interestingly, I was watching GRAND TORINO the other day, an excellent film. There’s gangbangers in it, and more than a few F words. I was watching and listening, and kept imagining the dialogue without it, and found that it could be done, and we lose nothing of the authentic feel. Maybe that’s just me, but it worked.

    Now, for a novel totally about that world? Maybe then it cannot, or should not, be avoided. Then you’re getting into an almost non-fiction type of setting and feel. But if it’s only part of a larger canvas, I’d take up the challenge and see what I could do.

  45. unI’ve been reading the biography of James M. Cain. When POSTMAN came out it was a sensation, described as brutal and even “vulgar,” but un-put-downable. Cain’s parents wondered where their son had picked up such bad language. Upon reflection, it was shown there was not one “indecent” word in the book. The impression was there because of Cain’s other stylistic choices. That’s the power of suggestion in the hands of a good writer.

  46. Wow, 53 comments as of this posting. You stirred something in folks Jim.

    I’ve been a stand-up comic, served in the Marines, worked as a construction worker, and spent a lot of time around hard core ruffians. The word came out every other syllable for many of my mates. But very seldom from me.

    Four novels so far, and not a single F-bomb. Tried to insert one in my latest but it sounded so unnatural I cut it back out.

    In my opinion, if a person cannot state their emotional intensity without the use of vulgar profanity they are obviously lacking both the vocabulary and mental wherewithal to engage in meaningful conversation.

    In other words, effing foul effing language makes you look effing stupid! So effing eff it!

  47. Didn’t see this blog until after the weekend. Jim, you make great points in “The Great F-Bomb Debate.” I’d like to cast my vote in your direction. I would much prefer reading an author’s attempt at something creative, rather than the clichéd use of the F-word, among others.

  48. GREAT discussion. Jim’s legal mind at work here…

    I don’t write suspense or thrillers, but icky romance. 😉 Ha! So, I’m not tempted to use the word. My publisher won’t let me anyway.

    I am surprised at the number of romance novels with the F-bomb. Bridget Jones made it popular. But it’s never worked for me as a reader.

    Recently (re: yesterday) I returned two books to the book store because of the F-bomb and senseless (yes, senseless) characterization and sexual context.

    It’s a book by a v. well know, award winning author.

    I’m reading along about a nice girl with a few wounds, a lot of talent, who all of a sudden forgets… to call a friend or something like that and she’s F-bombing all over the place.

    Naw… didn’t work for me. Pulled me out of the story and frankly, I didn’t like the heroine for it.

    When I was in college in the ’80s, a group of my sorority sisters liked the F-bomb. During a mixer with a fraternity, I observed my sisters using the world around men we liked and wanted to partner with for Greekish stuff, and we sounded slutty and low class.

    I started a campaign to give up the word when we were in public as a group. It cost each woman .25 cents if she said it. The house was in full agreement.

    Society can change, the “kids” can be using it, but the F-bomb is still the F-bomb and I’m not sure the “sound” of it or the connotation can ever make it to the mainstream. IMO

    I agree with Jim, no book will ever be panned for leaving it out. But could be panned for leaving it in.


  49. Hear, hear, Jim. I fully agree. Here’s a case in point: My dad, a retired cop, spent his working years surrounded by every manner of harsh language you can think of, from both his fellow cops and the people they arrested or questioned. Now that he’s retired, he quickly loses patience with books or movies that make too free use of the F-bomb and similar language. He’s been there, done that. It isn’t that it’s too strong for him–he was immersed in it for years, and now that he no longer has to listen to it, he’d rather read writers who find creative ways to write realistically but avoid it. Too often, he has to read the authors of fifty years ago to find that. Besides–he never dragged my mother down to the station to make her listen to that kind of language when he was a cop. Why should he make her listen to it in her own living room?

    Dave Lambert

  50. James, thanks for the bold post. Its ironic that you are the “rebel” making argument against the overuse of the F-bomb.

    We all make judgements about people based on the language they use. Just beware that your characters and even you as a writer may be judged according to the language you use. That is not a sermon, simply reality.

    I rarely hear the F-bomb dropped and I’m grateful for that. I don’t want to hear it and I don’t want to read it.

    Bottom line–a character can be gritty and real without use/overuse of the F or C-bomb.

  51. Interestingly, it’s not that I necessarily disagree with the idea both that the F-bomb might lose you readers, nor that it’s not particularly necessary.

    However, I was fascinated by your comment about Gran Torino, and it brought back a conversation I once had with my mother about the movie Varsity Blues. She took issue with the profanity in it, saying she thought it gratuitous and that high school kids didn’t talk like that. I was in high school at the time, and suggested she take an afternoon in the halls and have a listen before she was so certain about that.

    I have a fascinating relationship with the f-bomb, myself. I do occasionally get a little squeamish about its overuse, but what happens when I drop a 40-lb. box on my foot at work? A rather extensive string of them comes out, very likely in combination with a few of Carlin’s Heavy Seven. For every person I know who actively avoids profanity, I could name five that use it without a great deal of discretion.

    In all, I think whether to use it really depends on whether it fits the scene and the story, much as in daily life, one remembers not to say it around Grandma, but since one learned it from Dad, doesn’t much care if he hears it.

  52. Kieren, thanks for the comment. Re: Gran Torino. There’s no question the F bomb was “real” in context. The question is, was it essential? I think I could make the case it wasn’t. Eastwood’s character does swear and, in fact, there’s a scene where he’s teaching the young kid to “swear like a man.” And you know what? I thought that was the weakest scene in the movie and could have been cut. The film was a tad too long, IMO. Still very good, though. Clint was robbed of an Oscar nomination.

  53. As I make plans to podcast my novel, I find that the “Explicit” tag that iTunes uses is something I might want to avoid. This post comes at a great time and I really appreciate the advice to be more creative than the F-bomb.

  54. The F Bomb doesn’t really bother me as I just hear it as vulgarity and move on. The GD and Lord’s Name in vain gets to me. That being said, I don’t think it’s necessary most of the time, and sometimes, it’s so overdone, you just suck its power out.

    The best use of the F bomb in my opinion is at the end of Bridget Jones’s Diary when someone who would NEVER say it, says it. Then, it has power. Otherwise, it’s just cheap dialogue most of the time. Great post Jim.

  55. Oh I thought of another great use of it. Also, interestingly enough, by Colin Firth. “The King’s Speech”

    Granted, it helps when it comes out of his mouth. LOL

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