Bad Language?Complications Ensue
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Saturday, November 22, 2008

Q. Do you think when writing spec [feature] scripts, we should keep 'bad language' to a minimum? That way it's open to more people! Also, TV seems to be going into the dark realsm of language, what with the likes of True Blood and Dexter. More swearing etc. Personally, I think you have to use the language that fits the story. can you ever have a story about really really nasty people without the bad language? Would be unrealistic right?
I think the issue is gratuitous bad language. Where the f-bomb replaces character, you're failing.

You also need to think about who you're writing for. If you're writing for the adult audience, then you can use bad language. If you're writing for the mainstream audience, keep it down. But that applies to violence, adult situations and sex as well as the complexity and subtlety of ideas and the portrayal of characters. Think of who you're writing for. If you're doing a realistic-style gangster movie, bad language isn't going to turn anyone off. If you're doing a high-gloss gangster movie (OCEANS n), it might be a turn off.

In other words: don't try to make your script "open to more people." Try to make your script dead on for the audience you're looking for, whatever that is.

A fortiori, if you're writing a spec pilot, of course you write to the standards and practices of the type of network for which you have lovingly crafted your pilot. If that's broadcast, use broadcast standards. If it's family, use family standards.

I'm developing a pay cable series, so I can write as much coarse language as I want. Personally, I don't want very much. I like to use it for contrast. If you can have ten pages without a curse word, then a particularly transgressive character saying,
  • RICO
  • Chow hai, some people just won't fuckin' listen!
just before he shoots somebody, it has an effect it wouldn't have if every page is a stream of David Milch.

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I have a personal rule not to use cuss words in scripts, to keep me from getting (too) lazy. It's so tempting to fall back on the f-bomb instead of actually making a line of dialogue personal and hard-hitting in its own right! The payoff (for me) is that a "clean" but personal line usually packs more emotional punch than a "tougher" but more generic line.

By Blogger Sasha, at 10:22 PM  

You said it perfectly, Alex - 'when f-bomb replaces character' - it's the same for stand-up comics, often a cuss word is enough to make the audience feel they've heard a punchline when the comic has been too lazy to come up with a better joke. The best use of swearing I've seen lately is Dexter's sister (name escapes), who is embarrassed about her foul mouth.

By Blogger blogward, at 6:08 AM  

Somewhat off topic: It's been interesting to observe the cursing BSG can get away with due to some science fiction conventions. Instead of "god damn it," we get "gods damn it." Instead of "fuck," we get "frak." The latter phrases' usage is in R-rated dialogue; there's no difference in meaning. For me, it's illustrative of the absurdity of censorship, a couple of letters' marking the boundary between acceptability. (BTW, "frak" was in the original BSG, used in a campy way.)

That's not to dismiss the value of Alex's point. Seinfeld had a similar rule about his stand-up.

By Blogger David, at 7:17 AM  

Nice. I completely agree Alex, thanks! I do need to make sure that it adds to characters as opposed to taking away.

RE: sci-fi cussing - I think in Farscape, they said Frel and in the great Firefly, they cursed in Chinese. They got away with all sorts of bad language (funny too) that way! And they said gorram which made all the dialogue extra cool. "Did the primary buffer panel just fall off my gorram ship?"

Thanks for answereing my query Alex. Really value your opinion!

By Blogger Neil, at 1:42 PM  

I'll swear in scripts only when it's necessary, but, of course, it really depends on which network you imagine your pilot to be on.
I agree with David about the faux-swearing on BSG. Is even 'god damn it' frowned on? How ridiculous.

By Blogger Unknown, at 5:10 PM  

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