I’ve been reading a lot of unproduced screenplays recently, and a few things have been jumping out at me. First off: a lot of writers fumble on structure. A lot of what I’ve read has shown clear signs of competence but wandered around plotless for upwards of fifty pages. Some writers can pull off plotless, but most of them are novelists.
The other thing I’ve noticed is that a lot of writers are really bad at swearing. I’ll read a script full of characters saying fuck every other sentence and it just rings untrue. I always feel a bit silly when I ding a script for “too much swearing”, so I’ve been trying to put my finger on what bothers me about it. I’m no prude, and some of my favorite scenes and movies are full of swearing, so what’s different about these scripts?
I think the key difference is that these writers are swearing by default. They probably swear a decent amount in their own lives, they’ve watched plenty of movies full of swearing, so they throw in swearing because that’s how people sound, right? The problem is that they forget to make their choice of words about the characters saying them. The swearing is about the writer, not the characters.
People who accuse writers of laziness when they use vulgarity are missing the point. Swearwords aren’t automatically lazy; it all comes down to how you use them. Some of the greatest scenes in film and TV revolve around characters who swear up a blue streak, but they work because those moments reveal something about those characters and deepen our understanding of their feelings and motivations.
Here are a few of my favorite examples:
1) Steve Martin blows up at a rental car agent in Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
Up until this point the character has been mild-mannered and relatively patient, but he’s been through such an ordeal that he finally snaps and lets loose in the way only a man on the edge would do. The way he swears also tells us something about him as a character; it’s like a dam bursting, this sudden barrage of profanity pours forth from him and he’s punctuating every fucking word of every fucking sentence with another fucking swear word.
2) Peter Capaldi (the next Doctor Who!) in pretty much every scene of In The Loop.
Malcolm Tucker swears constantly and with evident relish. He terrorizes everyone around him and uses words like knives. He isn’t content with throwing out a “fuck” here and there, he rants and raves and spins absurd metaphors and embellishes every sentence with an acidity that jumps out of the screen at you.
3) Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross.
David Mamet wrote this scene for Alec Baldwin. It isn’t in the stage play, but it’s by far the most famous moment in the movie. Baldwin is in the zone here, he’s all rhythm and rancor and cool energy. He swears for emphasis, to make a point, to hammer home his message and it flows like poetry. Say what you will about Mamet the man, but when he could write, he could write.
4) Bunk and McNulty in The Wire.
Two characters communicate entirely through the word fuck and it’s hilarious. They give every variation of the word its own meaning. A large part of this relies on the talent of the actors and their delivery, but the humor is there in the writing. The great part about this scene is that it shows us that the characters know each other so well that they can communicate with only one word.
These are all excellent examples of writers using profanity to tell us something about their characters. Swearwords are words like any others; they have a certain bite and relish to them, but if they are used poorly, they clang and fall flat just like any other.
So, what’s the takeaway? Should writers avoid profanity in their scripts? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe they really just need to hear their words read aloud. I feel like a lot of the problems with dialogue become glaringly obvious when the words are read aloud. Mainly, though, it’s a matter of deciding why a character swears and how they swear.