Writing “Real Language”

This week in our screenwriting class at Pepperdine we had a discussion about the use of obscenities in writing. For some people the issue of the language they use is “What is real? “What would the character honestly say?” “What does my gut tell me to write?” Some writers believe in  creating strong, realistic dialogue by writing what you believe the character would honestly speak. This is a valid point.

I have a little different approach. To write for others to read, gives me strong pause. For some, like myself, the issue is less what language am I comfortable with and more who is my audience. The first audience that comes to mind is my kids and their kids. I know my 16-year-old granddaughter will want to read what I write. Do I want her reading profanity or knowing that came from her grandmother? Is that the example I want to set? So, instead, I think to myself, “How can I write this more cleverly? How can I give this character language that is unique and colorful and states the character’s sentiments clearly without obscenities?” There are centuries of writing, still read, that have used this technique successfully without the cussin’ and swearin’, as well as more recent best-selling books and movies, albeit some language changes  forced by editors and censors.

Let me be honest, I have been known to speak profanity and language that does me no honor. I often think of what a friend once told me. She used all sorts of foul words as part of her natural speak. One day someone told her, “Do you realize how unintelligent your language makes you sound?” She decided the impression she was conveying was not an accurate picture of who she was and changed her language (which speaks to both sides of how you use profanity in writing.)

I do reverently choose not to speak or write God’s Name or the Name of Christ (in any form) irreverently. These are Holy Words to me and, “You shall not take the Name of the Lord your God in vain,” is one of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:7). I once received an email asking me my criteria and what I charge for editing a screenplay. I wrote back that my biggest stipulation was that because of my faith I do not work on material that uses Holy Words irreverently. I received back a vitriolic email comparing me to the Taliban.

I know many individuals who do not believe there are people who don’t use dirty words or blaspheme. However, I grew up in a world where people didn’t use profanity. I know many people today who do not use profanity or sacrilegious talk and are in fact disenfranchised as an audience by it. I know others who don’t use it, but they tolerate it as a reading and viewing audience because in today’s world it is difficult to avoid it.

I often wonder whether it’s the chicken or the egg: In recent decades did our writing foul language make it more acceptable in our society today or did we start writing “real language” because it is part of our society?

Words have power and influence. Words build up or they tear down. Words hurt and words heal. By changing or evolving words, you change perceptions of how people see the world and therefore  impact their culture.  Think about the current controversy over the language in Mark Twain’s  Huckleberry Finn. There is a movement to change one word repeated throughout the book because of the change in our culture since the time the book was written. The word has become divisive in our society and many non-African American people are afraid to speak it because of what it implies. What impact might removal of that word from a book have on our society, either good or bad?

I don’t tell students what to write. In class I try to share what I believe to be true about words and about writing, however each individual has to make that choice for themselves. I just think it is worth thinking about.


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