[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.