Two hundred days into our trip I had decided that our travels were not producing enough drama to warrant foisting another and-then-we-did-this travel book upon the world. We were in Spain, our eleventh country, and, so far, nothing had happened: there had been no muggings, neither of us were hit by a car, and we hadn’t even caught a cold let alone an exotic illness. Oh, if only one of us had been waylaid by Ebola. Now that would have given me something to write about! Sigh. No, the story would have to be fiction, a novel. Fortunately, the seat of a bicycle is a terrific place to work out a story arc and little by little a plot started to unfold in my mind as I spent the week pedaling the mountains of northern Spain. Countless olive trees, sheep, and cattle streamed past as I sharpened story hooks, filled my plot holes, and unequivocally refused to think about my characters. If they had no face, they had no mouth. And without a mouth they couldn’t speak.
I was terrified of writing dialogue.
Two months later, in a hotel somewhere in Tuscany, I took a peek at the reviews for my friend Jennifer Lesher’s book. I had recently received my first 1-star review for One Lousy Pirate (in which the reviewer said the book was “engagingly- and well-written” . . . go figure) and remembered her joking on Facebook about getting her first. Did she get others? Yes, of course she did, it’s the Internet after all. But to my surprise, right there in the Amazon reviews was a lengthy discussion about her use of profanity in her book, Raising John. It completely took me by surprise. As a forty year-old male with an at-times mouth in need of a case of Orbitz chewing gum, I didn’t even notice it. But, to several of her readers, it made them put the book down (presumably to more easily clutch their pearls). Despite the fact that one of the characters spent a portion of the book in prison (and two others were college lovers involved in an intensely physical relationship), these readers felt the use of F-bombs and explicit sexual language was unnecessary. I, like the author, felt it was authentic.
Karl Marlantes, in his excellent book, Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War, drops as many fucks as his characters fire bullets. But the cursing takes place within the confines of wholly believable, natural dialogue said to and by teenage Marines under the pressures of war. Such as this exchange:
“Lifer,” Fredrickson retorted.
“Loyal, industrious, freedom-loving, efficient, rugged,” Bass shot back quickly.
“Lazy, ignorant fucker expecting retirement,” Fredrickson replied.
Mellas was silent, conscious of what that meant for the wounded. He swallowed. “Who’s going to decide who doesn’t get the IV fluid?”
“It’ll be me,” Fitch said grimly. “No one else.”
Sheller looked at Mellas, then down at Fitch’s hands, which were trembling.
“Fuck, Jim. You don’t get paid enough to make choices like that.”
“Yeah, and I’m too young and inexperienced.” Fitch laughed, on the edge of losing control.
When I originally selected these small excerpts I didn’t even notice the profanity. I highlighted these rapid-fire exchanges because of the pacing, the spare use of dialogue tags (despite there being three characters in the second example), and the tension of the moment. These one-liners being spat out at one another, despite their brevity, do an admirable job of revealing small pieces of the character’s makeup. Fitch is a nervous wreck — he’s going to be deciding life and death — but courageous. He’s not going to back down from doing the right thing. In the prior excerpt, you get a quick taste for what Bass and Fredrickson each think of career military men. As for the meaning of “Lifer”, the reader can decide where on that spectrum they fall, Marlantes isn’t forcing you one way or the other. This is also a great example of writing what you know. Marlantes’ time in the Marines not only gave him material to mine for plot, but also the ability to include jabs like this one that ooze authenticity.
This is the type of dialogue I aspire to write. Not necessarily short exclamations, but dialogue that tells (shows!) as much about who is speaking as it does drive the story forward. War stories are great for studying dialogue. I’ll be including excerpts from Her Privates We by Frederic Manning in a future post; we could do a lot worse than study the conversations in these two books when learning how to better our own dialogue.
But about that profanity… While Matterhorn’s audience likely knew what they were getting themselves into when they bought a book about the Vietnam war, seeing those reviews and comments for Lesher’s book makes me wonder. Matterhorn’s characters are Marines. At war. Who among us really thinks there’s no cursing going on? Who knows of a more versatile battlefield word than fuck? It doesn’t take a soldier to understand this.
I would have thought the same thing about a story partially taking place in an American prison.
I know there’s a demographic out there becoming increasingly repulsed by the crassness of American society and the ease at which people curse, both in public and in print. But I think it’s important for both reader and writer to be able to recognize when certain four-letter words are not only acceptable, but preferred. While Hemingway was able to successfully use placeholder words like obscenity, unprintable, and unnameable in his war story about the Spanish Civil War, For Whom the Bell Tolls, I actually found these polite substitutes to be, at first, distracting. It was only after several chapters that I began subconsciously reading them for the profanity that they were. Hemingway wrote in a different time and to mimic his style now would feel, at best, affected and, at worst, fraudulent.
Another memorable line from Matterhorn:
“…I’m not saying to forget that they’re assholes. I’m just saying when you call someone a name, have some compassion. Label the shit out of them, but who they are and who you are is as much about luck as anything else.”
Of course, genre also matters. There’s a difference between a war story and a mystery; between science fiction and young adult; and between erotic pulp and a thriller. Famed, best-selling author of countless love stories, Nicholas Sparks, in an article he did for Glamour magazine, tells writers how he feels about profanity: “DON’T use excessive profanity. I avoid profanity when possible, but regardless I don’t think excessive swearing dovetails with a love story — it alters and cheapens the mood, and instead of feeling authentic, it often has the opposite effect. Besides, it’s a lazy form of writing — a kind of shorthand to communicate rage, frustration or in some cases, an evil character.”
As someone at work on what I would describe as an adventure-travel love story, I think that’s pretty sage advice.
Marlantes is a Yale grad, a Rhodes Scholar, and highly decorated Vietnam veteran. He reportedly spent 35 years working on Matterhorn (though I’ve seen that number grow since first reading the book in 2010) and it was rejected for publication several times, then went on to earn a spot on the New York Times Best Seller’s list along with numerous awards. No doubt largely due to the rich, believable, profanity-laced dialogue his brave, scared, youthful characters exchange with one another.
Got any thought on the use of profanity in dialogue? Opinions about Matterhorn? Let your effing voice be heard in the space below. Thanks for reading.
Post Image by Stockicide, used under Creative Commons.