Category: Dialogue

Cursing in YA Fiction

I am really torn.

I’ve been furiously editing my first novel, Will the Real Prince Charming Please Stand Up?, and I’ve passed around the second draft to a few friends to get their feedback. My sister asked if it would be okay to let my nieces (aged 9 and 11) read it, and since I ultimately wrote it with them in mind, I responded with an enthusiastic “yes!”

Miss M (my 9-year-old niece) finished the book in a single day (she was home from school because she was sick) and emailed me with the following feedback:

I read your book and it was a nice book and was very realistic. A thing I think you may want to change if you want my age group to read this is the curse words.(do we really need to read the b word and the a word not to mention the h e double hockey sticks one?)

Okay, maybe nine years old is a bit young for my novel. After all, my protagonist is a 15-year-old girl who has her first boyfriend – whom we later learn is rather abusive. Should a 9-year-old be reading about an abusive boyfriend? Well, I guess I did when I was that age; Sweet Valley High addressed that very issue early in the series. But SVH didn’t have any cursing in it, from what I can remember.

But the topic at hand is the cursing, not the content. So here is my curse-word count as it stands at the end of the second draft:

  • Hell – 5 times
  • Ass – 4 times
  • Damn – 2 times
  • Bitch – 1 time

The “F-bomb” and the “S-word” aren’t in the book at all. I used the list of unacceptable words for Prime Time TV as my guide.

Now, I’m certain I can get around “hell”. I’m also pretty sure I can eliminate “ass” and “damn”. But “bitch” is where I have a degree of difficulty because I really struggled with finding the right word for that scene. It’s kind of like when Rhett is leaving Scarlett at the end of Gone with the Wind and the movie community wanted David O. Selznick to remove “damn” from the scene. Sometimes, there really is no other word.

(And, as I tried very hard to be cognizant of my nieces as my audience, “bitch” is only used that one time.)

Okay, I suppose I can substitute another word. I guess I could use “whore”. And since the character exclaiming this epithet is a bad guy, anyway, I wouldn’t feel so bad about it. But to me, “whore” feels like a much stronger word, something laden with much more malice and venom. I mean, by definition a “whore” is a woman who is promiscuous in her sexual activities; a “bitch” is just an unpleasant woman. I’m not saying that I’d like to be called either, but I’d be less offended if someone called me a “bitch” than a “whore”.

I guess I’m just irked that a much more loaded word would pass through the censors.

Last spring, ABC News reported that foul language is popping up more and more in YA books. I don’t think it’s necessary to have a few hundred instances of cursing, but one or two epithets are certainly forgivable. I don’t want to sound like one of those authors that says, “Well, my character is 15 and all teenagers curse.” I’m definitely not saying that. But I’m of the believe that a well-considered, appropriately placed curse is not just acceptable, it’s also necessary.

I may be wrong.

So then I checked out Mary Kole’s blog, since she’s the author of Writing Irresistible KidLit, which is a great resource in terms of making sure I’m addressing issues correctly and with the right voice. (And it’s also helped me overcome areas where I get “stuck” trying to craft a believable response to something.)

And here’s what she said:

If you absolutely have to use a swear word in your manuscript, if there’s no other word it could be, then use it. You won’t get a squeamish look from me…. You might also alienate yourself from certain libraries, school administrators, booksellers and editors who work for more clean-cut imprints and don’t publish content. There will be parents who are too scared of their kids growing up, who are in denial of the words and ideas that fly around every middle and high school in every town in every country, too.


My niece is just one of about 10 people I’ve asked to read my second draft, so I’m taking her suggestions to heart and will address them in my third draft. And I may very well just decide that nine is too young for my book. I’ve written a Young Adult novel, after all. I never intended for it to be a Middle Grade book.

But I also don’t want my word choices to alienate someone that I kind of wrote this book for.


Thoughts on dialogue (or wrapping up Week 1 of NaNoWriMo)

“I write to give myself strength. I write to be the characters that I am not. I write to explore all the things I’m afraid of. ”
― Joss Whedon

There was an interview I read some time ago in which Joss Whedon talked about writing dialogue for Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He said that when he was writing the first draft of the screenplay, he struggled a bit with dialogue and would go to malls and listen to teenage girls talk. When he realized they were all talking like Heathers, he decided to take a more natural approach to writing dialogue and just write the way he would talk.

And, fast forward a couple of decades, Joss Whedon is arguably one of the dialogue masters of his time. I mean, anyone whose name has become an adjective (“Whedonesque”, anyone?) is clearly deserving of that title.

Dialogue isn’t something I struggle with when I write. I hear conversations in my head and rush to get them onto paper (or the screen) as quickly as I can. I actually get tripped up when I have to add those identifiers so you know who’s talking, but conversations themselves kind of just flow.

And yes, I write exactly the same way I talk. It doesn’t matter if I’m writing dialogue for a computer geek, a high school quarterback, or a parent. It all comes out the way I hear it in my head, which is the way I would say it.

I love writing dialogue. But it has to be good, like there has to be a point to it. I think dialogue for the sake of dialogue is kind of lame. Yeah, we all like to hear ourselves talk, but unless there’s a purpose to what’s being said, people kind of tune out. I guess that’s why I’m really not a Tarantino fan. Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction were both full of scenes that contained, in my opinion, a ton of useless dialogue that didn’t do anything to move the story forward or establish character or even break up a scene with some levity. I think words are precious and should be treated that way, not just randomly tossed about.

I’m writing a Young Adult contemporary romance, and it’s full of dialogue. I’m a little concerned that it may not read realistically to my target audience, but I figure that as long as it sounds okay in my head, it should probably work on paper, too. And if it doesn’t, well, that’s why I have Beta readers.