Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Writing sex and profanity

As a reader, I have sometimes wondered at the choices writers make in their presentation, specifically, the presentation of sex and profanity.

Please understand, I am not here advocating limits on the freedom writers have. But it is important for readers to understand that when they read, they are looking at the result of choices made by the writer.

As an example, when writing a scene containing sexual tension, I could write something like “she unbuttoned her shirt, exposing” various body parts and provide any amount of active and passive description. Or I could write what actully wrote in Unthinkable: “And three shirt buttons were open instead of just one, revealing nothing, suggesting everything.”

With regard to language, some writers seem intent on f-bombing their readers into oblivion, or at least numbness. Some use high-yield profanity as a way to express ratcheted-up tension. In some cases, the use of profanity seems rather arbitrary. Take Tom Clancy’s first books as examples. In The Hunt For Red October the language started moderate and increased steadily in foulness as the book progressed; but in (I think) The Cardinal Of The Kremlin the language at the beginning was stronger and fell off as the book went on; in (I think) The Sum Of All Fears the profanity was held at a fairly constistent, relatively low level. Realizing this, I wonder whether the author’s use of profanity is more of an ├ętude or exercise than anything else.

In both Unthinkable and Seen Sean? I chose a very PG level for language, actively bowdlerizing from what I thought was the likely language in one scene of either book (and in both cases sacrificing a small amount of irony). Why? Simple: I grew up loving mysteries from the time I was in junior high school (or earlier), reading Agatha Christie, Erle Stanley Gardner, etc. These are books that are appropriate for audiences young and old, and I wanted to fit into that tradition.

So when I read comments by an author along the lines of “this was the best way to show some character trait” or “this is the way people like this really talk,” then you, the reader, need to be aware that every single description and use of the language is the result of a choice made by the writer.

And, if you are a writer, you need to realize that some readers will be willing to put up with only lower levels of language and sexuality. In my mind, it’s a question of whether you are willing to limit the size of your audience. If that’s what you are willing to sacrifice on the altar of your creative freedom, go for it.