Swearing is an incredibly divisive issue. Some people are more offended by swearing than by sex or violence. Others think they’re just words, and people shouldn’t be offended by words. Still others think that swearing, whilst it isn’t meaningless, is sometimes necessary – if your hero’s house burns down, his dog dies and his wife runs off with the gardener and his only reaction is ‘oh dear’ – well, it seems a bit unrealistic.
The point of a swear word is that it usually a short sharp word that expels air. Say a few swear words, and feel the force of it – it’s blunt, and expressive. Even when we don’t know a language, we can usually recognise a swear word because of the way it sounds. It expresses a feeling no other word can, simply because of the way it feels when it is said.
In the written word, there are tricks to get around swearing. Lines such as ‘she swore, expressively and fluently’ or ‘he used a word he would never have used in front of his mother’. They get the point across whilst avoiding the offensive word. Although taking that path means you miss the force and power of a really well chosen swear word.
Screenplays can be more tricky. It can be impossible to get away without swearing, in some situations. However, swearing can be overused, and lose it’s power. I saw a film recently where the main character said the f word twenty times in the first five minutes. After the first three, it was irritating. After five, it was boring. And by the end of it, I realised that the writer was using it so often because he lacked the skills to make his character seem dark and dangerous any other way. But the incessant swearing didn’t make the character dark or dangerous – it just made him boring.
The BBC series Spooks also uses the f word – but only once or twice a season. This means, when it’s used, that moment has incredible impact.
Do i swear? In real life, I swear like a drunken sailor on his last night’s leave in Portsmouth. In writing, I tend not to. I find it lazy, and normally pointless. But occasionally, my characters have no choice but to let slip that short sharp shock of a word.
The choice to swear or not is up to you. But do remember, these are words with more power to them – both because of what they represent, and what they sound like, so use them with skill and wisdom.