A great debate has been raging on one of the list serves in which I participate. It stems from the use of the “f” word in a new novel.
There are those in my predominantly LDS group who believe that this – and all other swear words – is unnecessary and promotes “bad language” among kid readers. There are those who believe that the word was used gratuitously by the author for shock value and attention. And there are still others who believe that the use was true to the characterization and is, therefore, acceptable. Having not read the particular book in question, I can’t speak to the characterization issue or to any assumed manipulation by the author.
Interestingly, another group with which I am newly associated was having a discussion on story endings. One of the writers insisted that she wouldn’t read a book that was dystopic, or had a pessimistic ending. “I guess I just have a more optimistic outlook on how life should be.” Wow – okay, I don’t want to sound negative, because this person is certainly entitled to her view, and she is a successful writer, so her view is working for her.
So how are these two things related? Everyone is looking for those “absolute truths” in writing; something that tells them you must do something one way, or you never do something this way, or whatever. The fact is that for every absolute truth about writing, there are dozens of books and articles that have been successfully published in contradiction to that truth. Take for example the absolute that a self-published book will not be successful in the commercial market. Let me suggest to you The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn,
which began its very successful, long run as a self-published book. The absolute that you can’t write a good book using passive verbs is busted by M.T. Anderson’s Thirsty,
one of the creepiest vampire books ever (not to mention funny, and filled with passive language on purpose).
When writers begin throwing down rules about never swearing or only having happy endings (not that the writer mentioned above said it was a rule – just her own guideline for her own writing!), they leave out a crucial element: the story itself. Every choice a writers makes, from swearing to “happily ever after” endings, should be predicated on the needs of the story. If an element doesn’t serve the story by furthering the plot or exemplifying characterization or helping develop a theme, then what the heck is it doing there? I don’t enjoy reading gratuitous violence or sex if it is clear to me that the writer included it because he or she thought it would jolt the reader, but when I believe the writer has made either of these integral to the story, I can read just about anything.
Lengthy passages of exposition are another thing that can go either way. I can’t stand books that have paragraph after paragraph of talking about talking, or talking about doing, rather than showing the dialog and action. However, if it is important to the story that the narrative be handled this way, I’ll go along with it. For example, if a character needs to explain something because it’s too painful or revealing (or whatever emotion) to actually discuss with someone, that’s a believable use of exposition. But when the writer simply uses the character to convey something the writer thinks is important that you know about him or her, that causes me to put a book down and never go back (see Common Mistakes [https://kwjwrites.wordpress.com/2007/10/18/common-mistakescommon-mistakes/] for great examples).
Trying to mandate absolutes in any kind of writing is like trying to tell the waves where to break on the shore: some will end up where you suggested, some won’t, but few will do either because of your insistence.
The best advice is to make sure that everything works for the story, not against it. If a character swears it should be because that’s true to the character and the circumstances. If the ending is happy (and not all my books have happy endings), it’s because that is the believable outcome of the choices made by the characters throughout the plot. Ultimately, it’s the integrity of the characters and the story that matter – that’s why the reader picked up the book or magazine in the first place.
Go write something good!