Friday, December 19, 2014



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 sprayed machinegun.

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