When Only an Expletive Will Do

What did you say?!?Remember in the movie A League of Their Own when Tom Hanks said, “There’s no crying in baseball?” Well, turns out there’s no cursing in Christian publishing.

Nope, you just don’t do it. Now there are plenty of folks out there debating whether this should be so, but that’s not what I want to talk about today. I’m fine with no cursing. I kind of like it.

However. Sometimes, when writing my rough around the edges West Virginia characters, they get an itch to cuss. It’s just natural among many of the men in rural Appalachia. Ladies, not so much, and things like the “f” word are relative newcomers, but so many of those other curse words are just a mode of expression.

So how do I get around it? Thus far I’ve come up with a handful of euphemisms, but I’m hoping you can help me with some more suggestions.

I’ve used “woods colt” to describe an illegitimate child (I really like that one). But, of course, the word that replaces (bas____) might also be used as a pejorative and not a descriptive word.

I’ve also cut my cussers off mid-stream as in, “He’s a real son of . . .” and there’s always the option of just saying, “He cursed.” But somehow a character saying, “Oh piddle,” doesn’t have the same effect as, “Sh__.”

And while I don’t say those words myself (preferring piddle, poop, pooh, fiddlesticks, etc.), Clint Simmons and his boys surely do. And much worse.

So what do you think? How can I let my characters speak freely without breaking the no cursing rule?

28 thoughts on “When Only an Expletive Will Do

  1. I love you more and more, every day!!
    Oh THANK YOU for saying what just about every else knows, that people DO cuss and “oh my” is NOT enough!
    I have one line where The Hawt Guy is furious with himself, so I wrote “he cursed at himself…”. Simple.
    But in a scene where two brothers are fighting, I just let them call each other “stupid” and “idiotic” and had fun with it.
    For the MC’s original culture, I decided not to ask my Dine’ friends what swear words to use, because they did have them, and still do. But I didn’t think we needed that in the nice glossary. 🙂

  2. steve21745

    Tough question, but, I would opt for a narrative comment as opposed to writing as dialog of the character. The narrative comment might simply be, “He cussed like a sailor.”, or “He swore and blasphemed ’till a fly wouldn’t-a lit on him.” or “The words from his angry, twisted mouth weren’t fit for no lady, child or person of faith to hear. Matter of fact the words from his mouth weren’t fit fer no one to hear. (Bless his heart.) But, he HAD said them – as he was often to do.”

  3. No cut and dried answer for you. I take it case by case (or curse by curse) and either find a slightly less profane equivalent (one that’s period appropriate), or indicate it through narrative. Ii can get tricky and hold up the show for a bit, trying to find a work around without short-changing the character’s verisimilitude. Funny, because I just asked my Scottish language source a couple days ago for a mild Scots curse appropriate to the 18th century that wouldn’t be too profane. I might have stumped him! Haven’t heard back yet. 🙂

  4. I think there are two main contexts for cursing – and their relative separateness can allow them to be handled differently.

    First is cursing as vernacular – ‘casual’ cursing that replaces most adverbs with an all-purpose seven-letter adverb beginning with “f”. This is not too hard to deal with – introduce the main flow of the vernacular early, without introducing a need for bad language, and then gradually switch back to normal English. (Keeping characters in vernacular through an entire book is wearing.)

    For example, if you’re writing about gangsters from East LA, you can introduce dialog with something innocuous…”Yo, homie, you see that cholo’s jumper? He was makin’ the sucker dance, man!” Translated, this asks whether the speaker’s friend had seen a colleague’s lowrider which had been fitted with robust hydraulics that allow it to ‘jump’. Proper use of the hydraulic controls can make the vehicle actually dance. Quite a sight.

    Point being, this dialog would ordinarily not use bad language, it introduces the patois, and we all know that gangstas swear. Now we can move on, without vernacular swearing.

    Another trick was used by Herman Wouk in his 1950s novel, “The Caine Mutiny”. When a ship towing a gunnery target was inadvertently steamed in a circle, so as to cut its own towline, two veteran sailors were described as observing. I’m quoting from memory, but it’s close – “They exchanged a flow of profanity which, translated, meant, ‘This is extremely unusual.'”

    Wouk could only get by with mild profanity by the censorship and taste standards of the time – and this was the method he typically used. Another writer who was able to handle ‘swearing situations’ under the censorship guidelines of the 50s was Robert Ruark – “Something of Value” is perhaps the most intense book I’ve ever read (about the Mau Mau terrorism in Kenya), but I can’t recall a single swear word.

    The other context is action, and that’s more difficult, because most people will swear to convey urgency, or shock. Narrative rather than dialogue can substitute, but with very streamlined references to cursing.

    For example, “The tear gas burned his eyes, and he swore horribly as he groped for the door.” seems to work, while “He used words he never thought he knew as he groped through the clouds of tear gas to find the door” comes across as a cutesy artifice.

  5. Hogwash works for me on many occasions. The old joke, Son Of A Betchu Thought I Was Gonna Cuss said quite fast works once in a while, but slips into the original phrase are too often too easy. I’ve used Toro Feces as a replacement for BS. Fonzie’s famous “Sit On It” fills in well for “Up yours.” Even the unspoken curse can be cleaned up a little. For example, holding up the first three fingers of the right hand and telling the recipient of such disdain to “read between the lines” is known as flipping the fat bird. I call it the Baby Huey of insults.

  6. I’ve wrestled with this quite a bit myself. To be honest, I’ve just gone ahead and broken the rule a couple times. When I do this, I just ask myself if the redemptive value of the work allows for me to have a character say a profanity. Sometimes, I just have to be honest with the character and the situation and write the word itself.
    However, most of the time I work around it with, “He swore” or, “She cursed.” I try to avoid euphemisms as much as possible because they can come across as cheesy. Other times, I’ll have a character almost curse and then be interrupted by another character. That usually achieves the same effect.

  7. Sharyn Kopf

    Good discussion & something I’ve wondered about. I have a scene in my novel, releasing this fall, where this became an issue. My MC, Uli, is over at her boyfriend’s apartment. She wants to talk but Cole is watching a football game & only pays attention to her during commercials. It leads to this conversation:

    “Cole, can we talk?”
    “Can it wait until the next commercial?”
    “You want to hold a serious conversation in three-minute intervals every ten or fifteen minutes?”
    “That’d be great.”
    “Cole.”
    “Uli.” Ah, sarcasm. My favorite.
    I say, “This is important.”
    “So is this.”
    “But I think we should—”
    “D–mit, Uli, can you shut up for two minutes?”
    Yes, I can. I pull away. The chili I ate earlier rolls through my stomach like rocks tumbling down the side of a mountain. Too much spice, too many beans. I glance at Cole, who snorts and leans back against the couch cushion. Maybe I shouldn’t blame the chili.
    Maybe I should leave.
    I should definitely leave.

    ***
    Try as I might, I can’t think of another way to get across the kind of person he is in interrupting her & just how abrupt & dismissive he is of her. If I wrote, “He swears at me. ‘Uli, can you shut up for two minutes?'” I feel I’ll lose the punch & the shock this scene needs. And he certainly wouldn’t say, “Darn it.”

    But if anyone has a better idea, I’d love to hear it!

    1. EXACTLY what I’m talking about. I totally agree with you, but if it’s Christian fiction the curse word just won’t fly. I wonder if the statement isn’t enough on its own. “Uli, shut up.” I mean, that’s crazy rude and downright cruel. Then skip the “Yes, I can” and go straight to “The chili I ate . . .”

      Love this scene. It tells me SO much about the characters.

      1. Sharyn Kopf

        That might work. Thanks, Sarah! I haven’t asked my editor what she thinks and she hasn’t mentioned it. But I’m sure it will come up during the editing process. 🙂

  8. One thought is if your characters are feeling such an urge to swear then maybe it’s a different story you’re writing because Christian publishing has definite criteria. You need to decide if the swearing is defining the character or adding to the character. Some characters would not be believable saying “oh fudge” and others it is part of their characterization. For instance, Yosemite Sam is a rough character but is a kid cartoon and to display his roughness he uses euphemisms, creative vernacular, and mutters. That way he meets the criteria of the form, yet still gets to swear.
    I don’t have my teens swear in my YA stories–talk about trying to create believable without compromising standards!

    1. It’s those pesky non-Christians who inevitably show up in Christian fiction! (Cause Christians NEVER swear–right??) You’re right–its’ finding the balance between standards and believability.

      1. I recommend looking up J Mark Bertrand who writes a detective series where the protagonist is not Christian yet remains secular even without swearing. Back on Murder is the first title. I think it’s a BH.

  9. Steve Alberts

    Think about just a hard stated, “Shut up Uli!” written as though he paused long enough after “shut” to have looked at her with a hard stare – i.e.
    “His, ‘Shut… up, Uli!’ was far deeper than simply not wishing to be interrupted at that moment. What I needed to say was far less important than the momentary distraction of his football game, but, what I had to say was always less important.”

      1. Sharyn Kopf

        Good point. I’ll read it again in context & see if a pause is what I’ve been looking for. Thanks, Steve!

  10. I’ve been struggling with this for a few months now. My character doesn’t typically swear, and he only wanted to use a ‘mild’ word of exclamation but my beta reader called me out on it. I like your idea of cutting them off mid sentence.

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