Writing Dialogue for Novels: Tips for Cursing and Swearing

Writing Novels That Sell with Adrienne deWolfe

I just finished reading an interesting post by a published author. This writer was lamenting the number of flaming criticisms that readers posted, objecting to the F* bomb in the author's Contemporary Romance novel.

While I heartily empathize with this author’s pain (it’s never fun to receive bad reviews from irate readers), I can’t help but wonder: why didn’t the book's editor warn – or at least remind – this author about the consequences of using explicit language in Romance novels?

In commercial fiction, an author is usually given free rein to write graphic swear words in Thrillers and Horror. Some Fantasy, Sci Fi and Mystery editors will let you get away with graphic dialogue, too. 

In Erotic Romance, explicit language – including the F* bomb – is the norm. 

But if you’re writing any other sub-category of Romance (especially Regency or Historical Romance novels), err on the side of caution. Even in an action scene, in which two male antagonists are brawling in a bar, you can’t let F* bombs spew from their mouths.

I speak from painful experience. I received an irate, hand-written letter from a woman in Louisiana. She threatened never to read any of my novels again. Apparently, she was offended because I put "s*it" in the mouth of a villain, whom I was attempting to characterize quickly as ignorant and uncouth.

(Needless to say, I've removed that dialogue from the novel's ebook version.)

Listen, folks. Writers have superior imaginations. Exercise yours. There are PLENTY of ways to show a character’s rage, fear, or amazement without resorting to foul language. 

In fiction (as in real life,) people who express themselves with swear words are demonstrating low-brow behavior. If you can’t write foul language to show low-brow behavior, you might try, “He cursed.” 

If you need more emphasis, try, “He cursed like a (sailor, muleskinner, atheist on Sunday.)" Strong verbs and tidy adjectives sometimes help: "He snarled an oath" or "He cursed vehemently."

Need something even more emphatic? Add a physical gesture: “He ranted and shook his fist,” or “He purpled and sputtered,” or “He wanted to tear off Bob’s head.”

Readers don’t need to know the exact foul wording. They’ll fill in the blanks.

Another way to handle cursing is to invent euphemistic language peculiar to your setting. In my upcoming Fantasy Fiction series, Guardians of Aeld, characters swear by taking the Mother Goddess’s name in vain. Examples: “Aeld’s blood,” "Aeld's bones," or “Mother Night!”

To show anger or embarrassment, you could also invent language that’s designed to show the true nature of a character's personality. In Guardians of Aeld, my race of Trombelly characters is supposed to be humorous, even silly. Therefore, Trombellies might curse this way: “Fuggles!” or “Gorp butt!”

In the Harry Potter movie, Goblet of Fire, one of the secondary characters expresses amazement with the phrase, “Merlin’s beard!”

In the movie, Elf, the title character holds his head in pain and sputters, "Son of a nutcracker!"

In the movie classic, The Music Man, the mayor dislikes his daughter's boyfriend. Modern viewers understand the mayor is cursing -- even though the phrase is tame to our ears -- when he mutters, "That wild kid!"

Granted, novels don’t have actors to speak euphemisms with vehemence. That means your job as the writer is to SHOW that the character is raging or terrified before the euphemistic language is inserted. The context of the scene/dialogue will go a long way toward helping the reader understand the meaning of a euphemistic curse.

Descriptions of facial expressions and hand gestures can add emphasis to the negative meaning of a tame phrase. So can descriptive taglines. Example: "That wild kid!" he sputtered, his neck turning red. 

Just be sure to combine these writer tools in moderation. Using them all at once -- or repeatedly throughout a scene -- will make your dialogue read like a farce. Remember: "Less is more" when writing curses in dialogue.