re: Dare I Swear in a Teen Novel?

in Dialogue/Teen/Middle Grade Fiction by

Dear Editor…

I’m writing a YA novel and the question of four-letter words has come up. Usually, I avoid them. But I’ve got a scene where two kids argue at school, and it seems natural to have one tell the other to f___ off. “Get lost” just doesn’t cut it. Do you have any suggestions? What is the best policy to follow?

Sincerely,

Shelia

Dear Sheila…

If you’re considering the f-word, you must also consider a g-word: “gatekeeper.” Before YAs land in teens’ hands, they usually pass through parents, teachers, or librarians. These are the gatekeepers for young readers, and generally speaking, cussing clogs their filters. Sure, we all know teens cuss, and yes, it would be ‘real’ to write that into dialogue, but how many parents want to put the f-bomb right in their kids’ hands?

You can make a case for foul language in YA when it’s organic to the character or situation, such as warring gangstas in a dicey ‘hood. Gatekeepers might accept bad words there because they’re already letting the kids read an edgy story. But even in rough stories you can avoid four-letter words or unsatisfying substitutions by simply recasting to avoid the need to swear. Let your characters fling cutting insults or act out physically in a confrontation—throwing things, shoving, flipping the bird, etc. You can avoid “f— you”, so do. If your book doesn’t need cussing to exist, don’t endanger its existence by cussing.

Happy writing!

The Editor

6 Comments

  1. Sheila, I struggled with the same question as you but ultimately came to the same conclusion as Dear Editor. I’m sure you can come up with an alternative that gets the intent across without deploying an F-bomb. E.g.: “Get bent, you freakin’ loser!”

    Good luck with it!

  2. Maybe look at it the same way the movie industry looks at it.
    PG-13= 1 f bomb.
    Anything more than that = R.
    If your audience is late high school and you’re not looking to be in any middle school media centers than use the F bomb as much as it seems realistic for the characters.

  3. Mileage varies a lot; Erinn gets nearer to what I think than anyone. The f-bomb rule is f-bomb-ing stupid and one need not acquiesce to the gatekeepers; for one thing there are many sympathetic, anti-censorship gatekeepers and we need to support them. Once a book is for age fourteen or so, the only reason for not writing it as you like it is market intimidation; there’s no particular reason to be intimidated. (This applies to other taboos, such as seriously religious characters, sympathetic bigots, misguided or malicious figures of authority, and so forth). Your name’s on it; why write what you don’t mean to say?

    My experience with the very profanity heavy TALES OF THE MADMAN UNDERGROUND has been that it was generally well-received and that people who didn’t like the language usually didn’t like several other things as well; for those where the language was the only stumbling block, they complained but they read. There’s no point in a free press if all the writers make themselves their own jailers.

    Yours for bigger and better f-bombs,

    John Barnes

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