I’ll get this clear upfront – I saw the movie Whiplash recently and thought it was
brilliant. The story of Andrew (Miles Teller), a budding jazz drummer at a
prestigious New York music school and his sadistic mentor, Terrence Fletcher (an
amazing J. K. Simmons), was a riveting, disturbing, rollercoaster ride coming
off the rails to the beat of persistent percussion. By the final explosive
twist and amazing musical finale, I came away emotionally rung out and in awe.
My column today, however, is not about the brilliance of the
film or even to convince you to see it, but to talk about the pervasive use of
the F-bomb and a raft of other
explicatives and sexually explicit references, which almost undermined the
power of Whiplash’s story. There are so many people to whom I would like
to recommend this film, but can’t do so in good conscious.
This isn’t about me being a prude. I was able to get beyond
the language and take away from the film a poignant experience. Still, every
time J.K. Simmons’ character Terence Fletcher began another explicative laden
rant, the writer in me wanted to scream because the profanity was stealing away
the destructive power of the screed.
Anyone who ever attended an Eddie Murphy concert in the
eighties came away realizing that by the time Eddie had dropped the 800th
F-bomb, the word itself held no power
– it had become innocuous and weak. Profanity used in public at the top of the
lungs became the go-to escape for every standup comedian whose funny lines were falling on deaf ears.
Apparently the theory of the times was even a lame joke is funnier if you use
the F-bomb three times.
What I believe is profanity is lazy writing. It is
camouflage for the weak expression of thought, grist, and point. I’m not
standing on my soapbox here without experience. I was once as guilty of anyone
else of using a cacophony of explicatives in my writing.
My argument for using profanity was it was the way people talked. An F-bomb was a shorthand way of showing
somebody was upset. How could you be sure the reader got your point if you
didn’t make it clear by exploding an explicative?
Frankly, all of those arguments are bull****, er, excuse me,
invalid. Dialogue in a novel or a screenplay, no matter how natural it sounds,
has nothing in common with how we speak in real life. Everyday dialogue is
filled with broken sentences, filler words, ers,
uhhms, and inconsistencies…all made
whole via physical gestures, tone and intonation. All of which goes out the
window when writing tight, meaningful, dialogue in a screenplay or novel.
If you can’t convey emphasis or emotional upset in your
writing without resorting to profanity, you are shortchanging your reader. You
are also losing the opportunity to enrich and deepen your characters, to layer
the narrative of your writing. By not relying on easy, pervasive, profanity to
hide lame dialogue, you are forced to find better, more creative ways for your
characters to interact, making your pages come alive.
When I had the opportunity twenty years later to rewrite the
manuscript of my profanity sprinkled first published novel, Citadel Run, in preparation for
republication as an e-book – under the title Hot Pursuit – I made a conscious
effort to excise the explicatives. In
doing so, I found my skills as a writer had sharpened over the intervening
years. It was easy to dump the F-bombs,
and other emotionally blunting profane words, in favor of incisive cutting
phrases, which gave a new sparkle and ingenuity to my dialogue.
I am not maintaining there is no place for profanity in your
work. In Whiplash there is a seminal
scene where the young drummer, Andrew, is emotionally forced over the edge and
attacks his mentor. As he is dragged away, Andrew’s mental and physical state
is such that cogent thought is almost impossible. As Andrew throws the only two
words he can conjure – F*** you! F***
you! – at his nemesis, the audience feels the pain behind those words and
instinctively understands they would be screaming the exact same thing under
the circumstances. The explicatives hit like a one two punch, which would have
been even more devastating had the F-bomb
not been launched over and over throughout the film’s earlier scenes.
Bottom line: Less is more. When you are tempted to cheat
yourself and your reader by using profanity as a crutch, dig down and find the
real voice of your characters. Save those explosive words as if they were the
very last grenades in your arsenal. Use them only when they will have the
devastating effect of an atom bomb and not the wasted effort of a wildly