Write Lightning is a blog from writer Deb Thompson.
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Tue, Jun 20 2006

Mow your own labyrinth

I know someone who has an affinity for the spiritual properties of labyrinths. She would probably love walking in this one.

posted at: 10:20 | category: /Religious and Spiritual | link to this entry

Profanity in fiction: real and invented

Boing Boing recently pointed to Wikipedia's list of fictional expletives. The list is of great interest to me because I have often written things in which I wanted to show a character expressing anger, frustration or coarseness, without using commonly-known words of profanity. I learned in my own youth that the careful application of an occasional swear word in real life can evoke a response of shock. It can also serve as a sort of bonding ritual between people when they share the same social status. A superior in rank or an authority figure will sometimes lower their voice, lean in toward a subordinate, and use a phrase containing profanity in order to prove to a subordinate that he or she is on the inside track— or to prove to the subordinate that the superior is actually just one of the gang. The sudden use of coarse language where none was present prior to that moment often signals some sort of a wish for a change in perception on the part of the person listening to the profanity. A person who swears all the time is looked at much differently than someone who uses one or two profane words in their whole lifetime.

Since profanity has a definite place in real life, it's not surprising that it should also serve a purpose in the world of fiction. The problem is that most writers would like to think of their work of fiction to be an enduring piece. The dynamic nature of language makes it difficult to serve up a fictional story that gives a sense of its setting while keeping the story relevant to readers of future generations. Certain themes exist in all cultures: loyalty, betrayal, revenge (and others) will feel familiar to almost any reader at any time. What changes are the plot details, the narrative style, the characters and the dialogue of the characters.

Imagine a wealthy, elderly, Victorian grandmother at a formal table asking, "Shall I ring Millie to bring us some of that lovely tea?" You wouldn't be at all surprised by her choice of words. But now put a dust-laden, young, male ranch hand in her place and let him utter those same words. If you can imagine him saying it at all, it's likely that you'll think that he's doing some irreverant mocking of the aforementioned grandmother. (There are, of course, other reasons why he might adopt a more formal tone, such as having been working "undercover" as a ranch hand and then suddenly revealing himself as a professor who has come to study life on the ranch. But that's a plot detail, and it would also be explained in other details within the story.)

Some of us write in the hope that young people will want to read our stories. We might not wish to fill the dialogue with language that would offend children, parents, teachers or—let's face it—editors and censors.

And then there's the whole idea of contrasts in the telling of a tale. If everyone in a story uses profanity freely, that tells you something about either the writer, the narrator, the characters or the time period in which the story is set (or the time period in which it was written). If most of the characters are frightened little children who have been kidnapped and you want to show that a scary villain is really mean, you might get away with having the villain give out one big "Be quiet, you little pups!", particularly if you're writing the story for children to read. On the other hand, if you're penning a suspense novel and you have an international terrorist holding a bank president and an FBI agent at gunpoint in your tale, you're probably going to have the terrorist character say something a lot more disgusting and socially profane.

For these and other reasons, making up profane words and phrases is probably a useful skill for almost any writer to develop. It's a great way of supplementing the less direct style I sometimes resort to—which is also fun, and which goes something like this:

"Beckham spent ten minutes making rude remarks about Farley's paternal lineage, Farley's mother's good name, and Farley's little sister's reputation in six adjacent counties of southern Kentucky."

posted at: 09:38 | category: /Writing Life | link to this entry

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Stealin' copy is as bad as horse-thievin'
and cattle rustlin'! Lightning may strike
such varmints when they least expect it!