Without any sort of fanfare nearly every newly minted television program broadcast in the US stepped over a line this year. Some in the viewing audience may not have noticed and most of those who did more than likely made nothing of it. The line was the line of good taste.
It isn’t mentioned much these days, the use of profanity in writing, but to me it shows either a weakness of character or a lack of writing skills. Some writers claim that the have to use it because doing so reflects real life and how people really talk. Because today’s standards are a lot more relaxed that may be the case, but is it something to celebrate?
On BBC America and a few US cooking shows Chef Gordon Ramsey turns the air blue with regularity. Because the words and phrases he uses are still considered too profane for US consumption at least a fifth of his shows are blanketed with the bleep of censorship. I have paid attention to the context of many of the encounters during those blue moments and in not one of them does the use of profanity add to the communication and in fact it often weakens the impact of what he is trying to say.
That same weakening is showing up in a number of shows I used to enjoy, but because I value the use of the English language and the word pictures it can produce that list of contemporary shows I now watch has dwindled to about three. A prime example is the show Suits. For some reason the writers of that show have determined their best use of the years of training they went through to reach that level is inserting the assorted slang terms for defecation into the dialogue at least four times an episode. The problem is that each and every incidence seems to be forced. It weakens the impact of the writing and it definitely weakens the script.
The same sort of forced writing has shown up in the use of homosexuality as a plot item. This was done in the show White Collar and in a couple others where the producers, for whatever reason, absolutely had to show one hot woman kissing another. The scenes had nothing whatsoever in moving the plot forward and appeared to be shoehorned in just for the sake of shock value. All that does is reveal either a serious weakness in writing skills, or blatant pandering to a select audience. The problem is, both of those reasons weaken the writing to the greater audience.
If you are thinking that I’m starting to show my old fogey side, good for you. Ever hear of Robert Heinlein, the grand master of modern science fiction? He wrote several juvenile science fiction novels that still have a wide readership today, decades after his death. One of them was bastardized into the worthless piece of screen trash entitled Starship Troopers. The book is light years beyond the movie in quality. Heinlein had another side to his writing skills, though and he used it to pen the history of Lazarus Long, a man who a lifeline long enough to be considered immortal. Hose titles included Time Enough for Love, Methuselah’s Children, The Cat who Walked Through Walls and a few others. In every one of these books Heinlein was able to put across very adult plotlines and concepts without once descending into the gutter with his language. So why do so many writers feel necessary to do so now? In many cases it is merely because they do not and cannot equal the writing ability of a Heinlein.
It takes work to express a concept that is easily done so with profanity, even if that expression has less of a pictorial impact when using cuss words. I am currently working on two separate fantasy series. One is what they call high fantasy with medieval technologies, dragons, elves, dwarves and such. The other series is an urban fantasy set in San Francisco with all of the assorted cultural attributes that City by the Bay holds, including homosexuality. Somehow I have managed to get most of the way through the third book without once using any of George Carlin’s seven words. Guess what, the reviews for the first two books are 5 stars.
Yes, the language used on the street today is far more casual than what was used in the past, and especially a century ago, but is that necessarily a good thing? If you are working on a manuscript try expanding your dialogue beyond the profane. It will be more difficult, I know, but it also may be well worth the effort.
If you’re writing for Harlequin, forget everything I said.