Writing Tip Tuesday: How Do Mormons Swear?

Having recently seen several manuscripts where ‘swearing without swearing’ was not handled well (you can’t make up fake swear words unless you’re in a whole new world, like James Dashner’s Maze Runner), today’s Writing Tip Tuesday comes compliments of Day to Day with Valor Publishing. (Re-posted with permission from Valor Publishing.)

Are you writing for the LDS market? Mormons do swear differently from other people. If you want to write literature for Mormons, you have to tone it down. You will not get swear words past an LDS censor. And unless you’re a cartoon character, or writing an e-mail, you won’t get away with $%&#(@#*%&@!

But now you’ve got a problem. You’re writing a tense scene where Marco, the assassin from New York, has flown into town ready to do the job he’s been hired to do. Along with him he brings Fredo, his loyal sidekick. They’ve cornered their prey, a sniveling coward named Jones, and Marco brings out his gun. He puts the silencer in place, his movements slow, all the while watching the face of their hapless victim. He wants to prolong the agony as long as possible, and he knows by watching the beads of sweat roll off Jones’ face that his methods are working. He brings the gun up and prepares to shoot. As he pulls the trigger, the gun jams.

“Jeepers,” Marco says. “That’s rotten. Hey, Fredo, hand me another gun.”

“Rats. It sure is too bad your gun didn’t fire,” Fredo says, handing over another gun. “I bet you’re really disappointed.”

We sort of lost all the tension in that scene, didn’t we. Unfortunate.

Let’s try again.

As he pulls the trigger, the gun jams. Jones, eyes clenched tight, flinches, then slowly raises one eyelid. Marco flings the gun to the side, cursing under his breath.

“Give me another gun.”

Fredo removes his own firearm and hands it to Marco, taking the safety off in the transfer. Only a moment has gone by, long enough for Jones to feel relieved but not long enough for Marco to forget why he’s there.

“See you on the other side,” Marco said, pulling the trigger.

Notice how we switched it out and said “cursing under his breath.” We know he’s cursing, but we don’t know what he said. That is one way to interject a “swear word” into LDS fiction. Because Marco isn’t LDS, it doesn’t matter that he swears, as long as we don’t know what he’s saying.

You’ll find plenty of examples of how this is done as you read LDS fiction. The trick is, finding a way to keep the tension high without breaking it by sounding silly. If you can’t find a way to imply a swear word, evaluate if it really needs to be there. Use them only when the scene demands it. And, whatever you do, never use the term “yippee skippy” as an interjection. Please.

Copyright 2009. All rights reserved by Valor Publishing Group, LLC.

Author: LDS Publisher

I am an anonymous blogger who works in the LDS publishing industry. I blog about topics that help authors seeking publication and about published fiction by LDS authors.

25 thoughts on “Writing Tip Tuesday: How Do Mormons Swear?”

  1. Despite a few other editing choices in your example which I'll note at the end of this comment, like forcing one action into another action, you're spot on to suggest that the Mormon author can sneak a curse into her writing by narrating the dialogue rather than shoving it between quotes. There may be a few other possibilities that I'd like to suggest, if you'll allow me the intrustion of your comment-reading time.

    The Mormon author can sneak some swearing into a run of description with a little snippet of interior dialogue thrown in for good measure. Something like this:

    A rat scurried across Joe's face. Curse Jane! She buried him here in a catacomb beneath a hundred tons of stone and only a tiny quarter-round pipe to suck for air. He gasped for another breath on the tube. Would he ever escape this hellish tomb?

    The description acts as a bridge into the characters thoughts and once the reader has crossed the bridge into the thoughts of the character you can use the almost-swear-word-hellish-as-description technique in the interior dialogue to give the scene the feel of some cursing without actually violating the sensibilities of the LDS reader or raising the red flag your editor keeps on her desk right next to your rejection slip. The editor won't jettison the curse if it comes off as part of the description of the setting and, even more important, the reader won't send the publishing house a scathing email. It’s a win-win.

    You can also use an almost-swear-word to give the appearance of swearing by using it as an emotional response to a frustrating situation like this:

    "You're out of order, counselor." The judge ordered Steven to sit down or spend the night in county number seven on a trumped up contempt charge. What a sack of—

    "I said, sit down counselor."

    Steven forced himself into the angle of his chair without verbally objecting to the objectionable. The mob bought off the cops in this burrow. They bought off everyone in the preliminary grand jury hearings. And now they owned the trial judge. The perp was gonna walk with two murders on his rap sheet and not a word of good behavior in thirty pages of indictment. This was a dirty town. A damnable system of in-and-out, revolving-door justice and it stunk like the scum on trial.

    Notice that the interior dialogue "sack of—" leads to a possible vulgarity, without actually writing it. You may not get away with that one, but I have. The description of the rap sheet gets the reader thinking about the use of words and their subtle meanings and then the word "damnable", though technically a description, also acts as an emotional response to the situation, which, if you think about it, is precisely what a swear word is—a visceral reaction to an emotion that finds its voice in dialogue. Or if you’re an LDS author, it’s a reaction that finds its voice in interior dialogue.

    Finally, you can actually use, in dialogue, the descriptor word for the entire category of swear words and vulgarities as a sort of replacement swear word.

    "Curse you, Sarah! You killed him. Curse you forever!"

    Granted, the phrase “curse you” doesn't have the same effect on the reader as do other word choices, but your reader gets its, and if you feel comfortable using it, your readers will get comfortable reading it after a few chapters as long as you use it in conjunction with believable descriptions, settings, and interior dialogue. And besides that, its just plain old fun to swear without actually swearing. Its like washing out the readers brain with a bar of soap. Sort of.

    Now word or three about LDSP's example that I can't let go, even though I'm sure most of you will condemn me to a damnably hellish curse for my condemnations of her example. But, since this is way too long of a post, I'm going to post these three observations in another post directly below this one. See you in the next-down window…

  2. I apologize in advance and ask total and complete forgiveness before I commit the following three vulgarious profanities. But, just like you can’t have an egg without a yolk, in fiction writing, it is nearly impossible to commit any of the following without also hurting your ability to fake a swear word and do it believably. I wouldn’t bring these three points up if they didn’t impact the swearing you’re trying desperately to get across without actually swearing.

    Don't force one action onto another action unless it’s absolutely necessary to your writing. It really does damage the voice of your characters, not because it isn't grammatically correct, but because it is cliché. It really is possible for a grammatical construction to become, over time and through overuse, a cliché that has the power to destroy the voice of your character faster than any other voice-destroying technique you could choose.

    As he (Marco) pulls the trigger, the gun jams.

    True, the action is simultaneous to the resultant jamming of the gun, but the “as” construction is so over used that it has become a sort of constructional cliché. Or if you prefer another word to describe the overuse of this construction you could also call it unoriginal, worn, common, stock, ordinary, tired, routine, dull, hack, pedestrian, commonplace, stale, banal, corny (slang), run-of-the-mill, threadbare, uninspired, hackneyed, or my favorite: bromidic. You get the idea:

    Marco pulled the trigger. The gun jammed.

  3. I've also got to mention the characterization in LDSP's example.
    How many bad guys "remove their firearm" and "hand it over"? Not many, unless they've graduated from finishing school. If Fredo’s actions don't match the visceral swearing you’re trying desperately to get across in your scene without actually employing a profanity or a vulgarity, then you may have lost the chance to convince the reader that this duo is a vulgar bunch capable of going off without notice. Your almost-swear word falls short.

    Fredo pulled the safety and pushed the butt of his Colt forty-two into Marco’s face. “It’s a hair trigger.”

    Not only do you characterize the swearing, you also enhance the voice of your character. This may be a better way to prepare the reader to accept the swearing than in LDSP’s more example which tends toward voicelessness:

    Fredo removes his own firearm and hands it to Marco, taking the safety off in the transfer.

    Finally, my last point deals with telling an emotion. In a tense situation, where swearing is a visceral reaction, you likely don't want to narrate the scene like this:

    Only a moment has gone by, long enough for Jones to feel relieved but not long enough for Marco to forget why he's there.

    It’s usually better, given the emotionality of the scene, to let the reader feel Jones' relief and experience Marco's forgetfulness rather than narrating it. Some of you may call that showing rather than telling. But the phrase "show don't tell" has also become cliché, and, since there are times when you want to narrate part or all of a scene, its better not to vilify telling when it should be one of the sparingly-used techniques in your arsenal. If you haven't established the voice of the character in a tense scene like this, then you end up having to tell the emotion like LDSP does in her example. And, if you haven't selected a point of view character, again as LDSP failed to do in her example, then you end up telling the emotion. To avoid these pitfalls, select a point of view character, then get the reader into his point of view, and then you don't have to tell us that "only a moment has gone by". You don't have to tell us that Jones is relieved. And you don't have to tell us that Marco hasn't forgotten why he's there. The reader gets all of that if you have a strong voice for the pointe of view character you have selected. In this example I chose Jones as the point of view character.

    Jones flinched, then slowly opened his eyes. He was still alive. He felt his chest. No blood. No pain.

    Marco threw the gun at Fredo. "Get me your Colt."

  4. Um . . . I thought we were talking about how mormons swear, not grammar details. Besides, LDSP didnt write it, Tristi Pinkston did for Valor.

    I loved the post when I saw it on Valor. It is a topic that needs to be addressed. Thanks for re-posting it.

  5. I appreciate your points, Anonymous. Had this been a blog about any of them, I would agree with you.

    I wish to point out that this blog was written to make an entirely different point, and the example provided merely to form a foundation for that point. It was also written tongue-in-cheek, and because of that, I didn't consider it necessary to evaluate it from every possible stylistic viewpoint. Many of my blogs are written in a tongue-in-cheek fashion, which is what makes them fun, for those who choose to see it that way.

  6. IMHO, using the "curse you" technique is weak and as an editor/publisher, I strike it out.

    Also, Anon, while I totally agree with your editing points on character and dialogue, this was a post to illustrate a point about swearing and not an actual novel. We give bloggers a little more leeway and thank them for their efforts.

  7. This is a slippery slope. If you're writing characters who WOULD swear, and the reader knows approximately what the character would say, aren't you still writing swearing?

    This gets on my nerves the way "fetch," "fudge," "frick," and "frack" do. If you can't say the real word, don't go for the fake because people still know what you're saying.

    I'm not going to miss swearing in a book that has none, but I'll get seriously annoyed at a book that has fake swearing and/or allusions to swearing.

    I'm not advocating writing the real word(s). I'm not advocating writing characters who would NEVER swear.

    I'm advocating constructing the story in such a way that it can be left out completely–no fake swearing, no allusions.

  8. Don't freak out about this comment. Please.

    There's a lot of leeway in a blog, but in a blog about writing, especially when the blog is about offering advice about writing, shouldn't it hit on all cylinders? Or at least most of them?

    A well-concieved example does more than illustrate the case in point. It teaches a legion of lessons for the author who seeking answers to myriad questions. A good example is an onion, with layers of insight hidden between the lines of every phrase. A good example stays with an author for years. It guides their writing decisions over many novels. A throw away example is just that. It gets a laugh before its thrown away. Forgotten. Discarded like so many other unremarkable examples.

    Don't we all want LDSP to be the go to site for writing advice? I do. That's why I piped in. You go LDSP girl and Tristi too.

  9. Good info. I also very much enjoyed Anonymous' dissection. I only wish I knew who you were and that you would critique my writing.

  10. In defense of expecting good writing examples:

    I once heard a lecture on how dressing modestly is an important gospel principle. The speaker was dressed in modest attire. Her hair wasn't spiked or dyed in neon colors. She wore a single pair of earings and a modest pearl necklace. Her shoulders were covered. Her dress, a cotton floral print, covered her knees and beyond. She held a can of beer in one hand, a cigarette in the other, and she delivered her lecutre in front of a house of prostitution.

    Writing examples, even when portions of them are not the focus of the topic at hand, still teach writing techniques. They become a distraction, or worse, they confuse the author by misinforming her about writing techniques.

    Examples should be good ones. Always.

  11. I don't write LDS fiction as much as I am LDS. I write about an assassin much like the example. There are times where my character not saying a word just doesn't sound right. I've tried to stick to the completely "clean" writing and for this character it just didnt work it dulls the story. Often times my character swears under his breath or says "crap" his favorite word. It is just the way it works for the story.

    Not everyone who is LDS is going to write the same things and therefore there must be a wide range of understanding on what is right for that genre.

  12. Thanks for the post! Very helpful (as were all of the comments) 🙂

    I do have a question, though, about swearing in LDS fiction. Maybe it's because I now live in Australia where many members use the "milder" swear words, or maybe it's that I've seen some of those words in a few books I bought from or seen sold in Deseret. But I'm curious as what words (if any) would pass the LDS censor?

    I'm about 85% finished with my first novel and am hoping to market it to the LDS market as well, so I'd love to figure this one out.


  13. While I think the blogger at Valor had good intentions, I find the writing to be somewhat amateurish and not something that aspiring authors should use as a guide. Anon, thanks for speaking up and pointing out that writing examples should always be "hitting on all cylinders."

  14. Well, no one is perfect and there are LDS members who swear that are trying to be good people. They just have a bad habit to overcome. That said, I do agree we don't need to read it to get it.

    Going along anonymous comments – Writing is subjective. I recently read a book that I thought was awful. It was predictable, the characters weren't believable, the trials were fixed and wonderful within a few pages.

    I went online to check out what others had thought of the book. So many people really liked it. They thought it reminded them of their family, they loved the message. Obviously there were people out there who that book was written for. It wasn't for me.

    I've also read books that I really liked, that has had lots of bad reviews.

    It's not so much of whether a writer is any good or not. It's whether a reader enjoys it or not. The better a writer is, the more of an audience they will gain. But the writing that one person enjoys, the other will not. But that's what is great about all the LDS authors out there. There is something for everyone to enjoy.

  15. This is good, though I have used an off-the-cuff, exaggerated example to make an editing point in one of my own posts and Anon's comments would have upset me. I'll be more careful next time.
    But, the point here is we write to draw a person into another reality. And everywhere I've lived, in all places I have been except for church (well, there IS men's b-ball) and the temple, swearing is a reality. The bus, the store, school, parking lots, roads, sports, locker rooms,offices, staff rooms, workout rooms, restaurants… I'm not talking just loud, angry expletives, but in mild descriptives, too.
    So, to not include even a reference to it in a place that openly calls for it, is that asking your reader to be drawn into a reality where swearing, loss of control, self-mastery, has been perfected by everyone? Even the non-members? Can the reader be drawn into that place, or is it such a hole, it sets the reader apart?
    I read an LDS book where the non-member teenage boy mc actually said "expletive". Talk about jarring.
    But, to have a character hit his thumb with a hammer and "curse under his breath"… understandable for us mortals.
    To say a nm character "swore and spit", easily imaginable.
    There are ways. Thanks, Tristi.

  16. "That said, I do agree we don't need to read it to get it."

    Just to clarify my own sentence – we don't need to read the actual swear word to get that someone is swearing.

  17. My goodness. I'm rather amazed at how one little blog can raise such ire.

    There's no need to refer to me as "the blogger from Valor." That was me. Hi, my name is Tristi Pinkston. I'm not incognito.

    I do appreciate your points about hitting on all cylinders. I'm not shutting down your points. However, I stand behind my blog. My teaching style is a little different from others you might encounter. That doesn't make it wrong, that makes it different. I understand that my style is not everyone's cup of tea. It's impossible to be everyone's cup of tea because we all learn differently.

    I've tried teaching in other ways, but I've found that the way I get the message across most effectively is by making it fun. And that's what I'm going to continue to do. If that's not working for you, there are several other bloggers who will provide the same information in a way that might be more along the lines of what you need.

  18. Jeepers, second Anonymous! This was a @#$% good post on how to handle swearing in LDS-market books. And, IMO, to rip apart or bluntly criticize someone else's post for reasons unrelated to the topic, and to do so on the post itself for their audience (not yours) is not cool.

    First Anon, do you have a blog where you can discuss writing tips like the ones you have here? You have a lot of great insights, although, as others have said, they're off-topic here on this post. Maybe a guest post of your own?

    I loved the example in this post and laughed out loud when the hardened criminal said, "Jeepers!" Tristi is particularly skilled at using humor like this, and I thought she made her point very well.

  19. Wow!! I thought non-LDS boards were fun. Remember we're here for one purpose only, to return to Heavenly Father. As writers how and what we write will influence that. When judged by the Redeemer we won't be able to say it was just fiction. That won't fly.

    Tons of LDS books have no swearing in them and they're fabulous reads.


  20. The trouble with Anonymous comments is that there are so many of them and they are not all the same person.

    I just deleted one Anonymous comment because it crossed my line.

    OKAY = differing opinions, constructive criticism.

    NOT OKAY = personal attacks.

    To the first Anon, I very much appreciated your comments on swearing, although personally, I don't care for the "Curse you, Sarah" approach.

    I also thought your comments on forcing action, characterization, dialog were spot on, but would have been better served as their own guest post on those topics rather than deconstructing a post by another guest. (Please feel free to e-mail guest posts. I'll even let you stay Anonymous, if you want.)

    As for one of the other Anons (which may or may not be the same person as the first Anon), "Examples should be good ones. Always." — Well, yeh. In a perfect world.

    Let's just back this topic down a bit. Take what you like and leave the rest.

  21. Tristi, I admire you for sticking to your guns! I loved the post and found it amusing and informative. You go girl!

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