Normalization

[Note: Anna said it was fine to men­tion her and her work in this post]

I read a work a few days ago on Scri­bophile (“In Her Dreams” by Anna White) and one thing that struck me was the use of “fuck.” I’m not opposed to swear­ing, in fact I could prob­a­bly make a sailor blush, but I do think swear­ing should be used in mod­er­a­tion.

Let’s take Dead­wood as an exam­ple. The show aver­ages 1.56 instances of “fuck” per minute (per Wikipedia). If you haven’t seen the show here’s a sam­ple of its typ­i­cal dia­logue:

Al Swearen­gen: It’s not the fuck­ing hour. It’s not the fuck­ing van­tage of the chair. It’s you, that’s changed the lev­el of you suc­tion some­how. That’s the fuck­ing sum and sub­stance of it.
Dol­ly: Maybe if I get on my knees?
Al Swearen­gen: You’re the cock­suck­er. Change the fuck­ing angle.

Now Anna’s work isn’t near­ly this gra­tu­itous. And the cre­ators of Dead­wood inten­tion­al­ly gave their show the most foul lan­guage they could since with accu­rate lan­guage from the peri­od, “[the char­ac­ters] all wind up sound­ing like Yosemite Sam.” The prob­lem how­ev­er, is that when you have this much foul lan­guage in every con­ver­sa­tion it los­es the punch of hear­ing char­ac­ters swear.

The rea­son I bring up Anna’s work (which, for the record, I gen­uine­ly enjoyed) is because its use of “fuck” is great. Each use is per­fect­ly fine and sounds like things I’d actu­al­ly say, but the last one is fan­tas­tic. My feed­back sug­gest­ed remov­ing oth­er oth­er uses of the word so that the last ver­sion would stand out. Every pri­or use dilutes the impact that last “fuck” has and that impact is the high­light of her piece.

This applies to more than just lan­guage though. The rea­son Gus killing Vic­tor in Break­ing Bad was so shock­ing is because Gus hadn’t done any­thing like that since we met him over a sea­son ago. If Gus had bru­tal­ly mur­dered peo­ple from the moment we met him it’d be just anoth­er body. The rea­son, “I did it for me” stood out so much in the finale is because before that Walt always said he was doing every­thing, from the meth to the mur­ders, for the fam­i­ly.

This works in pol­i­tics too. Opencarry.org pro­motes gun own­ers open­ly car­ry­ing their firearms (as opposed to car­ry­ing con­cealed) specif­i­cal­ly because they want to nor­mal­ize firearms in every­day life. If you see a guy with a gun at the gro­cery store, guns become as mun­dane and bor­ing as see­ing some­body with a cell phone.

The more you use some­thing–any­thing–the more it’s nor­mal­ized. When writ­ing the killer scene that you want to stick with a read­er, you need to make it unique not just in terms of con­tent, but in terms of how you present it. The ver­biage, the pac­ing, the scenery, the dia­logue, and every­thing else about those scenes mat­ters.

So by all means, use “fuck” as much as you want in your work. Just remem­ber when you actu­al­ly need that “holy fuck” moment you may have blown the chance to real­ly shock your read­er.

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