Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Cursing in YA

Kids love cursing. We want kids to read our books. Ergo, we should make our stories chock full of the seven dirty words. Right?

Well, that's up to you. Fantasy/sci-fi/dystopian novels generally have no cursing. It seems in scary, futuristic societies, people watch their language. And middle grade novels don't have any curse words because those readers are too young. Cursing seems to be an issue in contemporary YA. We want our books to feel real, and let's face it: real kids curse. But does that mean we need to use curse words in our books? 

The more serious your novel is, the more likely it is you will involve cursing. If you've written an issue-driven book about drugs, abuse, or violence, then chances are you will use dirty language to emphasize the scariness of a character, or the harsh reality of this world. But for regular, contemporary YA, I don't think cursing is needed unless it has a point. To this day, controversy surrounds teaching Catcher in the Rye in schools because Holden curses. Yet his cursing is viewed as a symbol of rebellion against the phony, upper-class society he inhabits.

Personally, I rarely curse, so I don't feel comfortable writing characters who drop f-bombs left and right. And when I read a YA book or watch a teen movie, I'm taken out of the story when the characters begin swearing excessively. Filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and David Mamet LOVE swear words, but it's natural to their adult characters: mobsters, hitmen, gangsters, shady businessmen, angry power-crazed men. Some YA characters will curse more than others since it's part of their characters, like if they were lower-class or poor. But for a suburban teen, is it necessary?

To garner a PG-13 rating, a movie can only contain one f-word; any more, and it's instantly rated R. PG-rated films can only have maybe 1-3 s-words. G-rated films can't have anything filthy. When PG-13 movies cash in their f-bomb, they usually have a strong reason, i.e. the protagonist may be in a climactic fight. In She's All That, Laney Boggs shouts the infamous "Am I a bet? Am I a f--king bet?!" The f-word gives that line more power, makes it more jarring. For the most part, curse words are used sparingly, and that doesn't make audiences enjoy these movies any less. Luckily, books don't have that kind of censorship, but I think there should still be some responsibility on the author and editor's part not to take advantage and load up on swearing. Yes, kids swear, but that doesn't mean they won't enjoy a book with clean language. You don't need f--k and s--t to have your characters sound like real kids; you need them to have conflicting emotions and complexity.

I'll leave you with what my dad always said about swearing: The English language has hundreds of thousands of words. Why do you have to continually use the same 4 or 5?

What are your thoughts on cursing in YA? Do you have it in your story?


  1. I picked up a not-so-curse word I like a lot: frack/fracking. Comes from watching and enjoying Battlestar Galactica. But I honestly hadn't noticed that there aren't as many curse words in fantasy/sci fi. Just realized that in Firefly, they curse in a jumble of "westernized Chinese".

    You do make a good point though. Curse words do add an extra punch when used properly ...preferably sparingly.

  2. I'm like you in that I rarely curse, so I don't use it. In fact, I get really distracted and turned off by books that use a ton of curse words. Great post, Phil! Also, I have an award for you. :) You can find it here:

  3. I'm not a fan of cursing. Like you, it tends to bring me out of the story. But that could be because I don't curse or am around cursing so it's kinda shocking. I think you can say what you want to say without it. Sometimes better.

  4. I'm not a fan of cursing, either. It pulls me out of the story and makes me wonder if the author just threw it in there just because. You know what I mean? I wish there were more YA books with cleaner language. I don't use curse words in my own books just because I want my own kids to be able to enjoy my stories without seeing swear words in there.

  5. I don't do the whole cursing thing either. I don't think it's necessary to include those words to heighten emotion or stress the importance of a situation. If you've done a good job building a scene, the meaning of the words will be implied.

  6. Cursing seems like a cheap ploy to heighten the drama or emotion in a story. A good writer should be able to convey emotion and drama without the cursing-crutch. Tossing curse words into a story seems like the easy way out to me. I know that some argue that in the "real world" we hear cursing. Well you know what, I read to escape the real world or brighten my own world. I may have to hear cursing in the "real world," but I don't have to seek it out in a book.

  7. I write adult fiction, and for the most part I try to make the curse words that I use relevant. I don't go radically overboard while using them, but they do get used when either situation or the character calls for it.

    I can and do write short stories w/o using George Carlin's Seven Words You Can't Say On Television and while they aren't really my cup of tea, I managed to get two of them published.

    It's definitely a challenge writing a story without using curse words if you're used to using them in your writing to begin with. But isn't challenging yourself with your writing one the basic principle of improvement?

  8. I have a few "hells" and "damns" in my contemporary YA novel, but h*ck, they're sailors! There had to be some swearing. That being said, I'm not a fan of swearing - in real life or in YA.

    Great post!

  9. @Angela - BSG was very smart with creating frak. It let the characters curse on TV without being obscene.

    @J - Thanks for the award!

    @Ruth - I agree that you can be more creative not using those words.

    @Chantele - Right! I do some think some authors put cursing in there just to sound cool. But I think kids who do read YA don't find it as cool as the author thinks.

    @ER - True. Trust your scene to be strong enough.

    @Jill - I like the heightened reality of books, too. They may be contemporary, but they don't have to be like real life.

    @G - Totally. It's all about challenging yourself. And if your characters are the type to curse, then don't stop them.

    @Susan - Hey, they use hell and damn on the simpsons, so I say they're ok. Especially if your characters have been at sea for months. I would curse too!

  10. I'm not a big fan of a lot of cursing in YA, but if it's used sparingly and in the right context I'm okay with it. I had to look back at my YA novel and I used the sh.. word once and damn a few times.

    I will admit, I had to peek at the list of seven dirty words. Most are words I wouldn't use myself or in my writing, and the two that may sneak in would only do so if it fit the character's response and even then only once or twice in the entire novel.

  11. I'm writing a contemporary YA and made the decision to remove all the curse words I had except for a few that were needed for a certain impact. Yes, kids curse, but I had to ask myself: Are you doing this for shock or for necessity? I'd rather put effort into dialogue that is smart and original and not populated with f*** every other word.

  12. Hey Phil...thanks for checking back on my blog. /hugs. I'm also a gay blogger/writer (in case it wasn't apparent on my blog). But for the record...I still don't think Mr. Clooney is gay >,<. Have a great weekend.

  13. I don't write YA and I rarely read it, but I do tend to agree that it is realistic to have teens use the occasional swear word, when appropriate. Having said that, I do swear myself, and I even do it from time to time in front of my 16 year old son, but I've never heard him swear. Ever. He's too smart for that.