Darn It to Heck: On Writing Profanity

Note: The following contains profanity. Duh.

I love profanity. Not saying it so much as reading it and, more importantly, hearing it. True, to some, dirty words are just placeholder syllables, the sign of a weak vocabulary. But to others, the ones who know how to use words as tools, it can be pure poetry, as angelic a sound as your more family-friendly portions of the English language.

Golly!

One of the first things I do when starting a new screenplay is determine the level of profanity it needs. This helps me figure out the target audience – is this for kids? adults only? something in between? – which, in turn, helps me get a feel for tone and character.

The way someone speaks is as important a character trait than what he or she has to say. I prefer language that has a very specific rhythm, so much that I tend to type every “um,” “well,” “like,” and other placeholder word people subconsciously dump into their sentences. I also try (although I don’t always succeed) to give each character his or her own rhythms, built on unique slang, tics, and, if needed, profanity.

For my first feature, Inhumanwich! (which is still languishing in post-producton; I know, I know…), the script was sprinkled with a few hells and damns (plus one balls, if you bother to count that as naughty language). While we added a few on set (namely, one rather well-timed son of a bitch), they got deleted in editing, as did one goddamn, clipped down to a damn. (I never cared much for the idea that the former is less acceptable than the latter, but I felt the movie’s clean tone should abide by it anyway.) This might not make it a kids’ movie, but it’s definitely something I think kids will dig; I aimed the language levels as such.

Earlier this year, I began work on my second screenplay (not counting an abandoned project that I dropped for reasons too complicated and personal to detail here). Knife to a Gunfight is a collaboration with Shane Chaney (who provided the inspiration for my previous post), currently living in the gap between a completed first draft and an unstarted second.

Being a dark action piece, a fairly bloody neo-Western with themes of guilt and loss, the target audience for Gunfight is a pinch older than Inhumanwich!’s. When discussing profanity, Shane welcomed it but feared overuse of the harsher stuff. We settled on a rule that added an interesting challenge to the writing process: nobody says fuck until one scene near the end. The idea is to give the use of the word a power it wouldn’t have if the audience were to hear it fifty times by then. (In its place, we get plenty of shits and son of a bitches, plus what might be a record number of goddamns.)

The thought of restricting character’s speech has carried over to the script I started this week, a noir thriller titled Bad Penny. Considering it’s even darker than Gunfight in certain areas, I’m letting the characters get downright Scorsesian with their words, but with one limit: the more evil the character, the coarser the language. Our heroine and her allies lean toward the cleaner end of the profanity spectrum; the slightly immoral are granted your basic shits and such; the top villains have mouths to make a sailor blush.

It’ll be interesting – to me, at least – to see how closely I stick to this rule, and to see how deeply the rule helps inform the characters. In the world of overthinking it, this overthought plan actually helps me focus, darn it.

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