Label Cloud

Monday, July 14, 2008

F-Bombs Away!

I was recently reading an article about the Emmy nominations this year that briefly and superficially explored the divide between the network shows and the premium cable shows. It posed the question of whether or not the premium cable networks, which are unhampered by FCC (Federal Communications Commission) regulations on obscenity broadcast standards, have an advantage over the networks.

I think the most obvious distinction between network shows and premium cable shows, and the one that impacts me the most as a writer, is that premium cable shows are allowed to curse.

'What about tits and ass?', you might ask. Sure, it's nice that a director has the freedom to do a full frontal on their premium cable television series, but sex and physical intimacy, as with violence, can often be more effective in the implication. Not so with cursing. And if you need an example, I need only refer you to the most recent installment of the Die Hard film series, Live Free or Die Hard, in which the most famous line (among other butchered dialogue) was edited to fade out: Yippee-ki-yay, mother---

David Shore, creator and producer of the Fox Television show House said about cursing, "If I could have one change, it would be to have 'fuck' be one of them. But we manage to do all right anyway." (I think it's interesting to note that the publication that originally printed that quote edited the word "fuck" to "f---." I've changed it back.)

It's happened often that I've been preparing to submit my short fiction to a publication only to discover that they have an obscenity restriction on curse words and my story does not. That leaves me with a quandary: do I change my story to fit the publication or do I maintain the integrity of the story and submit elsewhere?

Being challenged not to curse in a story can lead you to greater creativity. In Joss Whedon's Sci-Fi television series Firefly the characters often curse in what seems to be a future amalgamation language heavily influenced by Chinese, and often use the word "gorram" as what seems to be a bastardization of "God damn." (Unless there are some Whedonites out there who can correct me.)

No matter what the rules of your intended forum of publication, you may find yourself asking the question as you write - how much cursing is too much cursing, and what is appropriate? Ultimately, this really is a personal choice, but you should consider some factors:

1. How big of an impact do you want your curse words to have? There's a reason why on television and radio "fuck" is known as "the F-bomb." It's because it slips past censors so rarely that when it does come through it explodes like a bomb. The less you use the curse words, the greater impact they'll have.

2. How do your characters actually speak? This is something that you should really take time to think about, because though cursing maybe more intense and common in certain cultural subsets, it still may not be as prevalent as film and television shows would have you believe. If you can, watch some documentaries, go to the neighborhoods, LISTEN LISTEN LISTEN.

3. How will it affect your audience? When the HBO series Deadwood first aired, it garnered a lot of attention for the amount of cursing in the program, and there's no question it turned off some potential viewers. What do you want your readers to talk about - the creative cursing, or the great story and characters?

4. Can you say it another way? When I want to soften the impact of a character's curse, I often omit the direct quote and instead refer to it in narrative summary: Lillian threw her hands up in the air and shouted an oath towards the sky.

The most important thing to remember is that cursing should not be an abused element in your story. It should be organic and should not draw attention to itself (unless you intend it) and should be used as any other writing tool in your kit - with thoughtfulness and precision.


stu said...

I find myself falling foul of this occasionally, particularly since, curiously enough, British publications seem to have less of a problem with it on the whole. As for the TV, there's the fun idea that at 9pm you can magically switch from almost zero swear words to as many as you like, along with increased violence and nudity. Apparently, all the kids are in bed by then. They're not, of course, they're hanging out on street corners swearing and fighting.

Sven said...

I find the secret to proper cursing is to use the words like you use a woman; with abandon and in public if possible...

...but never in front of your mother.

Run Your Car On Water said...

Premium cable shows which serves obscenity are like a rotten apple in the basket.