Wednesday, February 29, 2012


By Chad Morris

Swearing, sex, and violence gets attention—just like this title did. I’ll go over a few tips and opinions in a moment, but first. . .

When I had to do a little last-minute substitute coaching for my son’s basketball team, I gave my three-year-old my phone. I needed something to keep him occupied so he wouldn’t end up fishing for dirty old candy under the bleachers again. When he gave it back at the end of the game, one of my apps displayed everything in Polish. And because I don’t speak Polish I have no idea how to change it back. Three-year-old, you win again.

I’m currently about a third of the way through the ARC of The Beyonders: Seeds of Rebellion by Brandon Mull. It’s the sequel to the NYTimes bestseller. I must admit, Brandon has won me over again. What I’m particularly impressed with so far are his side characters. When you meet the torivor and Aram, you’ll know what I mean. I’ve been both really busy and sick, and yet I find time to sneak in more reading than I should—always a good sign. It comes out March 13th. So far, I highly recommend it.

I’ve been think about writing about this subject for a while now. Should your books include swearing, sexual references, or gratuitous violence? I think that’s a personal decision, but one that should be made deliberately.

Here are a few questions that may help:

Who is your audience?
If you are writing middle grade or younger, I would definitely take the cleaner, higher road. That is actually one of the reasons I like middle grade and younger YA—it’s pretty clean. (That’s also why one of my favorite comedians is Brian Reagan.) If your book contains swear words when your audience is too young, it feels inconsistent.

Why include it?
I think this is one of the most important questions. Maybe it is an important part of the story, even an essential part. I think before condemning such things we should ask ourselves what message it conveys. For example, a book can have violence in it and actually convey the message that such actions are wrong and lead to destroying lives, or perhaps only necessary under extreme circumstances. It could also glorify them. Which message do you want to send? Think hard about your reasons. I also think it’s important to evaluate whether it conveys the message you hoped it conveyed. Ask your beta-readers about it.   
I will add the caveat that because sex, violence, and swearing get attention, sometimes authors may be tempted to throw them in there for that simple reason. I would argue that is never good. When that is your reason, I think the reader can tell and it feels forced (Sort of like a Michael Bay movie.). I have heard a few separate agents say that is one of their pet peeves.

Are you happy with the way it is written?
What I mean is that there is a whole gambit of ways you can write sex, violence, and swearing. You could portray violence in less graphic terms like, “the two clashed their blades against one another, until the prince stopped cold.” Or you could detail the blood and guts of it all. There is a big difference in tone and feel between the two. You can actually write vulgar words in print, or you can use phrases like, “Derek swore under his breath,” or “the sergeant let out a string of words that made Paul squirm inside. He didn’t know those words could be used as nouns, verbs, and adjectives all in the same sentence.”
As another example, I once went to a play of BYU—a university that is definitely conservative. There was a scene in which a guard attempted to rape a prisoner. The guard spoke aggressively and pushed the girl to the ground—that was pretty much it. The audience got the picture. The important element of the plot came across loud and clear, but not an elicit images. In contrast, there are many movies or plays that take the opposite approach.
You are the author of the book. It is the equivalent of being the director of the film. You not only decide what the story is, but to a great degree, what we picture and for how long. There is a big difference in directors.

Are you going to limit your audience?
If you include swearing, sex, or graphic violence, it will probably limit your potential audience. You may decide that is worth it. You may not.  

Where I stand. 
I’ve only written three books, but there is no swearing or sexual references in them. They have a decent amount of action and some violence, but I try to keep the execution of it more suspenseful than graphic. A good part of that is because I write MG and young YA. I also write for my kids, and that makes a huge difference. That's my decision and my style. What's yours? 

Make your own choices, but make them deliberately.

What do you think? 


  1. There's a time and a place for everything. I've written four books, two have no swearing or violence, one (an older end YA) has mild swearing and a bit of violence and one, has a lot of violence (it's a crime thriller). In every case, I thought hard about what was needed for each scene.

  2. Why do people have such a fucking problem with swearing?

  3. I agree, do whatever you want, but be conscious about it :)

  4. Swearing, sex, and intense violence always pull me out of POV! I'm not into censorship, so write what you want and I'll vote with my wallet :)

  5. I'm not a big fan of the f-bomb. It kind of kills it all for me. And if the book is too "hot" that's not my thing either. Violence...I guess that depends. ugh. I just don't know. Maybe all I read is trash.

  6. I don't mind violence. In fact, I kind of like it. But it has to be included because it's part of the story and moves the plot along. Swearing is very distracting to me and pulls me out of the story 99% of the time. I just think we have plenty of other words to chose from and ways to express what we're feeling. And as for the sex? I don't want to read graphic accounts. I want to read about relationships.

  7. Funny, I really like Brian Regan for the same reason, and I'm trying to write MG so sex and swearing aren't much of an issue either. What's ironic is that violence does seem to be the one area where we as a society are less sensitive.

  8. Write what you want and be prepared to live with the consequences. If you're grandma-in-law reads it, are you comfortable with it? Let that be your guide. Well, that's my guide. (Good thing my grandma-in-laws are both dead now, huh?

    PS - my daughter's BFF's sister (also 3) played with my phone at basketball and I spent all last weekend trying to get the motivational "speaker" to stop telling me how far I had walked and why I shouldn't stop!

  9. Such a timely post. I recently submitted a short story to a competition in which I used one instance of the f-bomb (first time ever in one of my stories). There's also the suggestion of sex (a married couple) though no description, and some vivid violence. I think it's some of my best work and also my most disturbing.

    I've yet to hear from the judges, but it's resonating extremely well with readers. Clearly a niche audience. I ask myself, as a writer, is this the sort of thing I want to be known for?

    As I sit in church and hear people talk about reading from only the best books and watching only the best shows and not watching this-this-and-that, I can't help but wonder, would my stories be approved by my church friends? I know not all of them would by everyone.

    You gave some great points in your post.

    Sorry for the rambling, but I constantly walk this line even though often I'm advised to stay as far from it as possible.


  10. I think a lot of people put way too much swearing and violence in MG books. They really need to remember their audience. I'm still not a fan of huge amounts in YA, but it's more tolerable there.

  11. It is so hard to say. I have a character who is just the type of person who would swear, I think it says something about the difference between him and others in the novel. Still I'm torn when I think about what I want my kids to read. Interesting post.

  12. Good topic. I haven't found the need to include profanity or sex in my stories. Although, sci-fi and fantasy tend to thrive on a liberal amount of violence.


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