Monday, October 10, 2011

Get Real

In one of my favorite movies, Misery, based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name, James Caan plays Paul Sheldon, the famous author of a popular historical romance series. Paul decides that, if he’s ever going to be a “real” writer again, he needs to produce something else. He goes to his usual writer’s retreat, a lodge in the mountains, and completes a new novel, as yet untitled; he’s very proud of the book. The new novel depicts life as he knew it on the streets of New York when he was growing up. 
 Unfortunately, on his way down the mountain in a blinding snow storm, Paul loses control of his car. Annie Wilkes, played by Kathy Bates, is Paul’s Number One Fan (she has a copy of every novel in his Misery series) and an extremely unstable woman. She finds him trapped in his car, which is buried in a snow bank, and carries him back to her house, presumably to nurse him back to health. Paul allows her to read his new manuscript. Here’s an excerpt of their conversation.
“It’s the swearing, Paul,” Annie says.
“The profanity bothers you?” he asks.
“It has no nobility.”
          “Annie, these are slum kids. I was a slum kid. Everybody talks like that.”
“No they don’t! Do I go to the feed store and say, ‘Give me some of that f---ing pig feed’? Or at the bank, ‘Here’s one big bastard of a check’?”
          While I’m not a fan of the overuse of “four letter words” or using them when it’s inappropriate to do so, I agree with Paul. I believe that, in order for fiction to be realistic, the language in the story needs to be in sync with the characters and the situation. Street kids do use that kind of language and, if the story is to be believable, the characters in it need to use it too.
            I’d like to hear your thoughts on the subject.


  1. Amen, Patricia. Polite language is appropriate for cozies, but it won't always do for hard-boiled or noir fiction. My favorite moment in the movie is when (SPOILER ALERT) Annie finally does scream the real word she's been dancing around throughout the story.

  2. I get a lot of query manuscripts with many f-bombs. I understand the author is attempting to be hard-hitting and "real" with the language. But, I also have to be "real" with my rejection. I'm not a prude, but I know what I'm comfortable pitching to the publisher. I will give the author a chance to re-think his word choices, but if cussing is that important to his choices (and I do use the pronoun in the masculine because I encounter this with male authors)than he can choose another publishing house.

    What I'm personally comfortable with reading and what the publisher and I feel are the limits for the house are entirely two different subjects.

  3. John, I thought that was great too!

    And, Sunny, thanks for sharing your comments from the perspective of an acquisitions editor; something we all need to remember.

  4. This is a tricky issue. Yes, foul language might irritate some readers. But so will unrealistic characters. In writing mysteries, we delve into some dark places, and the inhabitants of those dark places are not uniformly polite.

    Too many f-bombs doesn't do anyone any good. But when I was researching my 84 year-old protagonist who survived a POW camp, I listened to the way old soldiers talked with one another. And they used a lot of cursing. So, in trying to make Henry Grave realistic, I gave him some comfort with speaking his mind.

    Would you want Elmore Leonard to cut and paste, and switch to 'golly' everywhere? I guess my point is that there is a fine line between creating realistic language and offending people. And we have to find that line, rather than staying on one side of it or another.

    William Doonan

  5. Well put, William. By the way, I think your main character, Henry Grave, is a perfect example of what we're discussing.
    When I read "Mediterranean Grave," considering Henry's background, if he had said, "Golly gee," instead of a few other choice words he's fond of using, the character and the book wouldn't have felt "authentic" to me. I think you did a great job of "walking that line."

  6. Language should be appropriate to the type of character and situation. Even the worse profanity offenders can (note 'can,' not 'will')tailor their language to suit the occasion or audience.

  7. I once submitted a full manuscript to a New York publishing house. The rejection came back with some comments. One was, “It isn’t gritty enough.” Some publishers want realism to the max. Most readers that I know want a good read, realistic – but within reason. They don’t care to go into the details of the characters going to the bathroom. Nor do they want too many words that make them cringe. That takes away from the enjoyment for them.

    However, I do believe you can write about characters who use foul language without giving the reader all the language. You can make a character sound pretty gritty without resorting to the f-bomb. You may have to work at it, but you can do it. Show, don’t tell. Show us how bad this character is, what his attitude is, how he deals with others – without giving us his complete vocabulary.

    The editor I mentioned in the first paragraph? Another of his comments said that my main character was not realistic because: “He talked to his computer. Nobody talks to a machine.” After I read that comment, I dismissed him. He wasn’t realistic. Do any of you not talk to, or yell at, your computer?

  8. J.R., I agree. As Sunny reminded us, we need to not only consider our readers, our story and our characters; we need to consider the guidelines of the publishers we're querying. And, always remember that "less is more."

    The editor you mentioned was definitely from another planet. I think most people talk to their computers. To be honest, mine has heard several of the expletives we're talking about!

  9. Here are a few things I've discovered. For the most part, when I'm out amongst strangers, I hear young people using profanity more than older people. I've also learned that sometimes if you reword a sentence, no profanity is needed to begin with. Granted when things go wrong for the bad guy, he's not going to say, "Shucky darn and golly." However, a little cussing can go a long way. And I have to admit there are movies I've thought about walking out on because the f-bomb was dropped so many times my ears were ringing.

    However, it's the reader's choice whether they buy a book with profanity or not. Just like changing the channel when something offends you. Basically, it's all a personal choice.

    Marja McGraw

  10. I feel the same way, Marja; it is all a personal choice. Walk out of the movie, change the channel or don't buy the book; whatever works for you.

  11. Great post Patricia. I love the Misery movie too - and the dialogue you quoted made me laugh!

  12. Thanks, Diana,
    I laughed as I typed the dialogue. That was a great scene!