Every writer
must decide whether he needs to use words that are euphemistically
described as “strong language”—”cusswords” and gutter language. These
“four-letter words” so dominate fictional and video conversations today
that these words often are the dialogue.

I guess I’ve
heard them all. And I’ve put a good bit of thought into their place, if
any, in my writing. So I’ve come to reject the most common
justifications of using these words in fiction, drama, and film.

The usual
justification is a claim of “realism.” First, it’s claimed that because
people actually talk that way, realistic fiction must accurately report
their words. Second, it’s claimed that four-letter words bring us closer
to “real life” than other words.

Neither claim can withstand examination.

The first
confuses “realism” with literalism. Fiction is not real life: it’s an
artifice creating the illusion of real life. So if the writer must
report people’s words literally, what excuses him from including all
other elements of life? Must every fictional day begin with the hero
shaving or the heroine applying eye shadow?

Thus, if
“realism” does not justify literal inclusion of other elements in
fiction, it does not justify literal inclusion of specific words.

Nor can the
claim that four-letter words are closer to “reality” withstand
questioning. Many uses of those words are, to put it mildly, figurative.
Perhaps is once was amusing to attribute bisexual reproductive
capability to inanimate objects. But if so, the idea is now so clichéd
that it’s no longer humorous.

And on
representing reality, let’s consider the so-called “f-word.” The early
English (probably Anglo-Saxon) from which it descends was a savage
language appropriate to those savage times. Then, perhaps, the word may
have accurately described physical relationships between men and women.
But many cultural changes have altered that reality.

One change
was the twelfth-century invention of romantic (courtly) love,
popularized by Eleanor of Aquitaine and Chrétien de Troyes. And in the
1590s, Edmund Spenser synthesized various love traditions into an ideal
combining the romance of courtly love with the intellectuality of
Platonic love and a dash of physicality from Ovid—all justified by
marriage, one of the seven sacraments of the church. Spenser’s synthesis
held general acceptance until about 1900, when it was eroded by
naturalistic philosophy and Freudian psychology.

The point
for “realistic” fiction is this: if the “f-word” today accurately
describes the physical relationship between a man and woman, it does so
only because the couple is immune to the cultural experience the past

So if
customary justifications cannot withstand examination, the real reasons
for using “strong language” must lie elsewhere. Conflict is basic to all
good fiction. “Strong language” helps lazy writers gain the appearance
of conflict without the hard work of creating genuine conflict, which is
always generated by a story’s narrative structure. In other words,
“strong language” substitutes for genuine creativity.

use of such language will always be chic, of course. But as screenwriter
Morrie Ryskind put it, “The chic are always wrong.”

© 2000, 2008, 2012, Donn Taylor

Taylor led an Infantry rifle platoon in the Korean War, served with
Army aviation in Vietnam, and worked with air reconnaissance in Europe
and Asia. Afterwards, he completed a PhD degree at The University of
Texas and taught English literature (especially Renaissance) at two
liberal arts colleges. His novels The Lazarus File andRhapsody in Red have received excellent reviews, and he has also authored Dust and Diamond: Poems of Earth and Beyond.
He is a frequent speaker at writers’ conferences such as Glorieta and
Blue Ridge. He and his wife live near Houston, Texas, where he continues
to write fiction, poetry, and articles on current topics.