By Dan Walsh, @DanWalshAuthor
People swear a lot these days.
They swear when they’re angry, and even when they’re not. In recent years, it’s not uncommon to hear the F-word, for example, tossed around in casual conversation as almost the adjective-of-choice for everything and anything people are talking about.
The prevalence of profanity is just a sad fact of life. Well, here’s another one. There’s no swearing allowed in Christian Fiction. Period. None. Nada. I learned this rule very early on after signing with Revell, the primary publisher of my traditional fiction novels.
I was told there’s something of an “unwritten contract” between CBA publishers and Christian fiction readers. Regardless of the widespread use of profanity in secular books and movies, our readers expect to find a safe harbor when they open a Christian fiction novel, a “clean read.”
As it turned out, this wasn’t a hard rule for me to swallow. I was a pastor, had been for over twenty years. Swearing and profanity wasn’t a part of my life (even when I got angry). But as I continued to write novel after novel, I realized the unique challenge this rule presented. All my novels had bad guys who did bad things and SAID bad things (at least they would in real life situations). The challenge was: how do I create sufficient tension and conflict in the bad guy scenes so they came off as credible and realistic?
What I discovered was, it can be done. It takes more work, more thought, and more creativity (IMO), than simply letting my bad guys swear as much as they please. I have to figure out how to inject tension and emotion into the scenes themselves, as they unfold, since I can’t let the anger come out through the dialog.
To me, the challenge is similar to the early scenes in the hit movie, Jaws. I watched a show where Steven Spielberg explained that his plan was to have the big monster shark show up almost at the beginning of the movie, but they couldn’t get the prop to work. So, he had to figure out how to create the tension and fear he needed during the first 2/3 of the film without the shark. To his delight and surprise, NOT having the shark actually shown in those scenes worked out better. People were totally terrified anyway (I can hear the tense, scary music in my head right now).
I still write this way (no swearing) in my indie novels, even though “technically” I no longer have CBA publishers and editors looking over my shoulder. Here’s an example from my latest book, Unintended Consequences. Keep in mind as you read, the whole book is not like this scene. This is a moment where my hero and his friend, Joe, are trying to rescue some French people who’ve been captured by Nazis, and are now being tortured. They are sneaking through the basement of a Nazi headquarters.
Jack was so glad they hadn’t hurt Renee, but he didn’t have the heart to tell her what they had done to her brother, Philippe. He was locked in the room next to hers. Clearly, he had been severely beaten. Bruises all over his face, his lips split. One eye swollen shut. Jack knew he was still alive. He had moved slightly when the little metal door slid over, but he didn’t even look up.
“You ready to do this?” Joe said, his pistol held at the ready.
“Let’s end this,” Jack said, referring to the horror going on through the open door.
The sound of a whip striking someone’s back. A shrieking scream. A man shouted some vicious-sounding French things with a German accent. Another crack of the whip. Another scream.
Joe walked through the doorway first, his pistol leveled in front of him. Jack was right behind. “Hey Fritz,” Joe yelled.
There were two Germans in the room, an officer seated in the corner like an observer and a massive soldier with rolled up sleeves, holding a whip. The Frenchman was facing the wall tied to a post, his back a bleeding mess. The Germans turned to look at the intruders.
“Englanders!” The officer screamed as he stood.
“No, Americans,” Jack yelled and shot the man between the eyes as he reached for his sidearm.
The big German was unarmed except for the whip, which he raised toward Jack and Joe. His face filled with hatred.
“Here you go,” Joe said and shot the man twice in the knees. The man screamed in pain and dropped the weapon as he fell to the ground grabbing his legs.
“How many bullets I got in this thing?” Joe asked Jack.
“Five bullets a clip.”
“Okay Fritz, here’s two more.” Joe shot him in both shoulders. The bullets sent the man flying backwards against the wall. “How’s that feel?” Joe walked right up to him. “Hurts, doesn’t it? You shouldn’t hurt people, Fritz. Don’t you know the golden rule? I only wish I had more time so you could feel some more of the pain you dish out on others. But we gotta go.” He raised the gun and shot the German between the eyes.
And see? Plenty of tension and conflict, but no swearing. Let’s get a discussion going. Share with us how you have handled this issue in your novels.
Dealing With Profanity in Christian Fiction by Dan Walsh (Click to Tweet)
Jack and Rachel leave Culpepper for their long-awaited honeymoon trip, a driving tour through New England. On day three, they stop at a little bayside town in Cape Cod to visit Jack’s grandmother. After he gets called away to handle an emergency, Rachel stays and listens as Jack’s grandmother shares a remarkable story about how she and Jack’s grandfather met in the early days of World War 2. It’s a story filled with danger, decades-old family secrets, daring rescues and romance. Jack is named after his grandfather, and this story set the course and direction for Jack’s life to the present day. After hearing it, Rachel is amazed that anyone survived.