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How much swearing (if any) is acceptable in a detective novel?

Does swearing in a novel, even if not very much, put you off reading it? I have just had this discussion with a friend. She says that English speakers swear more than other nationalities. She also said that you completely change your market if you allow swearing in a book. Do people agree with this? 

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Replies (28)
  • Depends on who is doing the swearing. If it's the main character, then, yes, it would put me off. Unless the MC swears only rarely in times of stress. (Hey, it happens to the best of us, why not our characters?) 

     If it's a minor character, I wouldn't mind as long as you don't overdo it. But overall, I would tend to agree with your friend.

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    • Would it put me off? No. (If it's swearing for the sake of it – an expletive in every sentence – then it would likely convey a lowness of brow that I wouldn't want to read. But as long as it suits the character, no issue whatsoever.)

      Does it change the market? Absolutely. Some people think it unacceptable for a character to ever swear, even in a situation where they would. Others will put a book down because the character doesn't swear then. Which audience do you want? (You can't have both without avoiding any scenario where soimeone might swear.)

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      • I have no problem with swearing as long as it's characterful and so warranted. Swearing for the sake of it or to seem edgy seems pointless but there are definitely situations and atmospheres that would be given the right vibe with swearing. For example, can you really imagine a gangster minding their ps and qs? Would Capaldi's character in The Thick of It work without it? Swearing is a fact of life and at the end of the day I think you should see them as just words. Assess them as part of your lexicon as you would other vocabulary and decide what fits the moment best.

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        • Also I think you should write for your primary market and not worry about translations. Plus young people swear more than older people and aren't as bothered by it so that may also be relevant to character

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          • Not all young people swear more than old people. I have heard some foul mouthed geriatrics and I have personally sworn a lot more since I was about 40 than I did when I was younger. You are right it depends on character and situation but I don’t think age is the main factor.

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            • It's tricky with young people because a lot of of young people are cultured by their parents that swearing is wrong, even if they do it. So with that in mindset, I don't think those that swear do it more than adults, and not doing it in a novel, or only in a appropriate situations is best. 

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            • I recently watched a YouTube video of my cousin in a recording studio, rapping. The lyrics were very poignant and made a lot of sense, but there was a lot of swearing in it. My advice to him was that lots of swearing loses it's impact, similarly to when someone shouts a lot when they're angry, it also loses impact. But the odd swear in the right place, at the right time, when it serves a purpose can have the desired affect. In the book, it can give the character the desired...erm...character. It can also shock If you want it to. But relentless, unnecessary swearing would no doubt bore me if I were to read it.

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              • I can't compare languages, as a Yorkshireman English is my seond language. And real life differs from fiction. Some iIndividuals swear more than others. In the police where I spent almost 30 years there wasn't much at all and I worked in some very busy police stations. But if you read books like Lynda La Plante's, Above Suspicion, and others you would think that obscenities were commonplace. They're not. The more often they are used the more they lose their impact but there are only two words in the English language which are classed as obscene. Offence is a question of personal choice and no-one has the right not to be offended. However there are plenty of words to choose from. In Counting The Dead I use the 'F' word twice. Diferent characters and out of character on each occasion, so it does carry impact. 

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                • How can ya write a bloody book about Marines with swearing like shit?😎 What the F**k?

                  Seriously, there is a Marine Lieutenant in my novel, the MC. He don't say F often, but one of his friggin mates does. It goes with the territory-people who don't like swearin probably don't read books bout soldiers. Eh? Can' oath they don't.😁 

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                  • I would ask, do you need the swearing to define the character? Is swearing so intrinsic that the character is not believable without it? Having read books by Lee Childs, Michael Connelly and Andy McNab, for instance, I think they characterise without it, though I would have to dip into them again to be sure.

                    If swearing isn't essential to define your character, and using it risks putting some people off, don't use it, would be my suggestion. Also, lots of swear words don't add anything. They risk losing their impact. The reader will skip over them to the new information. 

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                    • As a writer and as a reader I have no issue with swearing. It's a fact of life so I would expect to see it reflected in fiction, but as others have said it shouldn't just be done for the sake of it, it needs to be there for a valid reason and in the right amount so it doesn't detract or lose its effect.

                      One thing to take into consideration is the genre and the audience. For example, cosy mystery is not really a genre that lends itself to swearing and not something its readers would expect, but if it's a gritty crime drama involving a gang, then swearing feels more natural.

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                      • Thank goodness. Mine has a lot of swearing 🤬

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                        • Caron, ditto, both of my books have swearing in them too. 

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                        • Hi Georgina, not at all. Perhaps I've come from a life with lots of swearing in it, I'm not sure, but it flows over me in life, I have to admit. In a detective novel with lots of action and of course crime, then I would expect it as there are high stakes on both sides. Like L, as a reader I have not been put off by it. It has to fit the character, but in truth most people under pressure swear, and if like me, you've been brought up on the football terraces, it is second nature. Perhaps I'm just a bit rough around the edges, not sure, it depends on the style and premise of your book. Trust your instincts on how your characters would behave and react to situations and enjoy writing them. 

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                          • Hi Georgina. My novel was published in January and has a fair amount of swearing in it. It was absolutely essential in my opinion, in order to get a feel for my very Essex characters. It's true to life. That is exactly how they speak. There is no swearing in the narrative - only ever in the dialogue. Harry Bingham wrote a very helpful article a while back about the "fuckety scale" - how many f words is too many? Mine came out just below average.

                            I have noticed in reviews though that there is definitely a group of people who do not like any swearing at all - mostly American and I get the impression more older women. It might reduce my market but I'm not prepared to write in an unrealistic way just to please one segment of the population.

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                            • Hi Helen, 

                              I suppose that Harry's article is somewhere on the site? Do you know where I could find it?

                              Thank you,

                              Janet

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                              • Hi Helen, 

                                I suppose that Harry's article is somewhere on the site? Do you know where I could find it?

                                Thank you,

                                Janet

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                                • A search doesn't bring it up. Hmm. I remember the same. Maybe it's in one of his books rather than a post here.

                                  Basically, it's fucks per mille. Divide the number of them by your wordcount (in thousands) to get the density. He did mention some per-genre density guidelines, though i don't remember any of them.

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                                • Brilliant replies. Thank you all very much.

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                                  • You want the fuckety index? It's here: https://jerichowriters.com/words-instead-of-fuck/ 

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                                    • Thanks a f-ing million, Harry!

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                                    • I think it depends on lots of things, including your target audience and how you feel about it yourself. It wouldn't put me off a detective story, I think, as long as it wasn't too overdone! I don't have any swearing in my ms, although have found instances where it's likely the characters would, so tend to go for 'he swore' or 'she cursed' etc.

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                                      • I think there's general agreement here that it depends on (a) the genre and (b) the character -- is it in context for that character?

                                        In my novel, much of the swearing is in Cantonese, by Chinese, (followed by translation), who use it more than English speakers. Attend a football match in Hong Kong and a missed goal is greeted by 30,000 loud "F***s". Thus a cop shot in the arm exclaims, 'Diu lei lo mo!" (F*** your mother), which is as common as 'damn.' in English. 

                                        Despite what I thought was quite a lot of swearing, applying Harry's Fuckety Index gave my novel a score of only 0.23, so well within the acceptable range. 

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                                        • Very interesting too about the different cultural attitudes. A Spanish friend tells me swearing in Spanish is just like an exclamation in English. Cono is very popular in Spain and she says is the equivalent of bother! 

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                                        • It wouldn't put me off. My genre is thrillers and I don't use swearing that much in my MS. Although I've recently completed Debi Alper's self-edit course (which I would highly recommend), and now I'm using psychic distancing to get into my characters' heads, they're definitely swearing more!

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                                          • Something many people fail to consider when talking about so-called "swearing" is in many idiosyncratic dialects across the English-speaking world, such words are used liberally in the unstressed case, where the actual meaning and intent is anything but vulgar. Most of the time, these words simply fill out the rhythm and cadence of a sentence, lending emphasis to the words that precede or follow.  You might think that the overuse of these words in a casual manner would reduce the impact, and on the page, that is probably true, but in real life... No. The stressed case of swearwords works exactly the same in these dialects as in more "refined" (cough, cough, white middle-class, ahem, excuse me) versions, and such speakers use the stressed case no more or no less than other people do--and for the same reasons. 

                                            Having had a fairly unusual life journey so far, I happen to pretty fluent in at least two such profanity-integrated dialects. I would be VERY hesitant however to write such dialogue in a book in completely naturalistic fashion. My sense is that it would be very distracting on the page, hard to read, and liable to alienate all but the most understanding readers. If I were to portray such a character in a novel, I would add only as much of this "color" as I thought I could get away with--to give the realistic flavor, without actually being fully naturalistic. Honestly, the same could be said about any idiosyncratic dialect. Important to get it right, but easy to over-do.

                                            On the other hand, if I was writing for the screen, I might be more inclined to go for something closer to full effect. What people are able to understand aurally with the full human context of delivery can greatly exceed what they can process through written language alone. 

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                                            • That was fucking good, Harry. I have 8 in my novel of 80k words so that's probably okay as my book has an MC who is a Marine.

                                              What I'm more concerned about is my use of "Jesus", and "Christ,' any comments?

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                                              • Depends on your audience. I don’t give a fuck, but my in-laws would put the book down at the first sign of blasphemy... 

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