Posted in Film, Writing

Should You Use Profanity in Your Fiction?

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Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!

The Wolf of Wall Street Review

“FILTH!” an old man shouted halfway through my theatrical viewing of The Wolf of Wall Street back in 2013. He stood up, yanked his wife’s arm so she would follow him, and stormed out of the theater, yelling not just at the screen, but at the audience, too. “THIS MOVIE IS TOTAL FILTH!”

The Wolf of Wall Street is filth, wall-to-wall of it. It was also one of the best films of its year. I saw five films during Christmas week in 2013, and this is the one that floored me, that got me drunk on pure cinema. I sat up and marveled at the screen throughout much of the three hour running time, and that kind of experience is so rare these days. The film isn’t perfect, to be sure— despite the months spent editing the reported four-hour cut down to three, it rambles here and there and could be more focused — but there’s so much to love that I can’t imagine anyone robbing themselves of the opportunity of seeing it. Here is one of our best actors and filmmakers at the top of their game, and despite what that old man might have thought, I found this movie to be adrenaline-fueled bliss.

Unlike the overpraised American Hustle, which is most of the time a convoluted Scorsese imitation, The Wolf of Wall Street shows a filmmaker in total command of his craft. Quentin Tarantino has suggested he might retire soon, because he doesn’t want to grow so old that he loses touch and caps off his career with a stinker. I hope Scorsese gives him reason to keep going, because here’s a director who keeps getting better, who remains fresh and revitalized in his storytelling. The Wolf of Wall Street feels like the work of a hungry young filmmaker, not an old pro who’s now in his seventies and has entered the last major stage of his career.

Leonardo DiCaprio gives a career-best performance in this film as Jordan Belfort, a stock trader who grew his fortune in a short amount of time and almost immediately turned to drugs, hookers, excess in all aspects of his life. DiCaprio is impressive in movie after movie, but he’s never been so wild and uninhibited on screen like he is in this. And no matter how crazy he gets, how angry his tirades are, he always lets the humanity of this broken character shine through.

The supporting cast is superb, particularly Jonah Hill and newcomer Margot Robbie. Hill was solid in Moneyball, but he’s in a whole other league here, playing with intense relish a foul, bucktoothed sleazebag. Robbie gives one of the most stunning breakthrough performances as DiCaprio’s pampered second wife. She has a number of explosive scenes going toe-to-toe with DiCaprio where she totally holds her own.

The movie is filled to the brim with memorable scenes, some of them sad, most of them very funny. A sequence where DiCaprio and Hill overdose on Quaaludes is probably my favorite; it’s a chunk of the film that goes on and on and on and actually gets funnier the longer Scorsese lets it play out. DiCaprio’s physicality in this scene also offers his most hilarious minutes on film ever. An early scene with Matthew McConaughey, where he discusses strategies to stay relaxed in the workplace, had me laughing out loud, and the big, fiery monologues DiCaprio gives to his employees are endlessly fascinating. Are parts of the film loud, over-the-top, sometimes off-putting? Of course. With full-frontal nudity, a copious amount of drug use, and 506 f-words (!), The Wolf of Wall Street is never subtle. But this is ambitious, exciting film-making, the kind we’re lucky to see two or three times a year. It’s also great entertainment.

Watching Like a Writer

Watching a movie like The Wolf of Wall Street, and a few other Martin Scorsese films to be sure, namely Casino and Goodfellas, I do start to wonder how much profanity is necessary to make for an effective film. It’s not that I’m against the f-word. If the profanity serves a purpose, so be it. But when there’s ten, twenty f-words in every scene for three hours, no matter how much I love the movie, I do start to wonder how much is too much.

When it comes to my writing, I’ve been extremely limited in my use of profanity. A big reason why is that I write mostly middle grade and young adult fiction. There’s no profanity allowed in middle grade, for obvious reasons, but there is some gray area in the YA fiction realm. I read The Hate U Give last year, for example, and was stunned to see so much profanity. That book was the biggest YA bestseller for the year, so it’s like my profanity is a major turn-off to younger readers if it feels authentic and earned.

But even if you write strictly adult novels, you should probably do one pass through your book just looking for curse words, and each time you see one, ask yourself if that word is the only way to get an idea across. Could a different word be put there? How would the sentence or dialogue change? Does one character use lots of curse words? Does this trait stay consistent?

Exercise!

Look at your current WIP and search for any uses of profanity. How does the profanity help the story? Are there any places where a different word might be more effective?

2 thoughts on “Should You Use Profanity in Your Fiction?

  1. My feeling about profanity is that it should only be used sparingly (and only for emphasis, like when a character is hurt, shocked or scared) or only by certain characters.

    Outside of that, profanity IMO is just pointless and in some ways, stupid and unrealistic. It’s never made sense to me to have everyone on the planet in a story being profane and dropping F and S bombs casually in every day conversation. Not everyone swears like that, and the ones who do tend to come from a certain background. It’s okay to have, say, a person who grew up in a rough neighborhood talking this way but then to have everyone from a suburban housewife to a high class lawyer is ridiculous.

    Excessive profanity is especially stupid because the whole point of profanity is emphasis. If all the characters use swear words every two seconds, profanity loses impact. It’s not as dramatic if a character goes, “Fuck!” if his arm is blown off if all the other characters were using the F-word left and right in casual conversation before then.

    1. Totally agreed! It can be effective sparingly, but when it’s all over the place in a work of fiction, I usually don’t understand why.

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