We live in the world of the thin-skinned. Regardless of what you write, you are bound to offend someone, perhaps many someones. Although most people consider themselves open-minded and/or progressive, it is seldom the truth—simply another mask worn at the appropriate time.
When Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was first published by Scholastic Books, droves of people were appalled a well-respected publisher of children’s books could promote such offensive material for youthful readers—sorcery and witchcraft, by God!
“Our children should not be subjected to this kind of material disguised as entertainment,” someone said.
That was 1997 and much has changed: the envelope has been pushed, and in many cases, set on fire.
Often, visual entertainment leads the way, the “keeper” of the envelope. What had been kept off major TV networks is now commonplace (sex, violence, and drugs, oh my), and in many cases are present solely for shock value with little purpose to plot or characterization. Books have followed a similar path.
For me, as a writer, everything needs to have a purpose within the greater context of story, whether to expand characterization, plot, foreshadowing, or theme; otherwise, it’s just fluff.
Some rejoice censorship is all but lost, others have cut their cable ties rather than sit through what they consider indecent or trivial programming.
I am not a prude or a puritan, but have little use for what passes as entertainment in today’s society: the foul-mouthed and profane just for its own sake, the half-dressed actors (or less as in the case of shows like Spartacus, Game of Thrones, and Orange is the New Black) whose writers exemplify the ultimate envelope pushers. As I said, these things make me neither queasy nor angry, but prompts a head shaking because most of it has no bearing on the plot and characters; instead, appealing to the mass voyeurism so prevalent in today’s world.
I recently finished Stephen King’s book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, and was surprised by how many swear words he used. He wrote the book in 2001—a few short years after Harry Potter appeared—and I wonder if he used his influence to push the envelope a little further into what had been considered off limits. I’m sure I will never get the chance to ask him . . . just curious.
How does this all relate to your writing?
I encourage you to be honest when writing, and by that I mean if the plot or characterization warrants the use of profanity, use it; be aware that overuse will water down the impact, which is the purpose in the first place, right?
As to scenes where people have a sexual encounter, I like to lead up with enticing sensual and sexy language, but close the door before the actual act. Why? Because no matter how well you describe the anatomy and the characters panting, the readers—most who have had sex, after all—can imagine (or remember) better than your portrayal.
Do not worry—or even consider—how you may offend others, whether intentionally or accidently, because as the detective would comment, “that shows motive.” You do not want to telegraph your motives; like theme, what you say should be an underlying sense and not a head-thumping lecture. But it must pertain to the characterization and/or plot— otherwise swearing, overt violence, or implicit sex acts are added only for shock value and will make the writing trite and predictable.
There are instances when we should be offended and even prompted to action: the abuse of a child or animal (anyone for that matter), flagrant inconsiderate behavior toward a loved one, and any number of others. After all, our conscience exists for a reason, a moral compass of right and wrong.
As an artist, there are times when you must write what’s in your mind and your heart—as long as it translates to characterization or plot—and just say, Fuck it, and the offended be damned.
See you on the next page,
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