Expletives, aka. profanity, can spice up dialogue; however, like all spices, you have to put in the right amount. Treated properly, profanity brings out a character or situation. Poured in, they only make the reader roll their eyes and groan.
This topic comes about after I was sitting at an eatery and these teenage girls sat down behind me. The one was loudly dropping the f-bomb every sentence she said, no doubt to impress her friends, add emphasis to her statements and just because she is a teenage. Of course, being the writer that I am, I started to think about characters and dialogue — about the possibilities of using similar speech patterns for characters.
Along with this thought, I began to think of characters who also might be more prone to using expletives, because let’s be honest, some age groups, sexes, professions, etc., will be more prone say expletives than others. I recall one woman, who I had interviewed, tell me about getting her manuscript critiqued and the one thing commented on was the lack of expletives: You see some of her characters were men and they were police officers. To make, her dialogue more accurate for her characters, she had to add some spice. Expletives have to feel natural from the character — though they can also be humorous if a character who would not normally say one is put in a situation where they say one, to their embarrassment or horror.
Often times, particularly among young writers, expletives are used in their writing for shock value. ‘Hey! Look at me, I’m writing adult fiction!’ When this is done, it comes out unnaturally and as if the writer is trying too much. These writers will pour expletives into their dialogue without rhyme or reason — placing them just because they can. This mentality can destroy characterization; after all, a respected elder is not bound to let out several expletives, let alone a string of them, especially if they are set up as the type who would not.
In my own writing, I do not use many expletives, just here and there, often to emphasis the pain or anger of a character, or to emphasis the gravity of a situation a character finds themselves in. The main reason for my lack of expletives is that my novel is a fantasy novel, which can make certain curses really stick out like a swore thumb. Some cuss words also just don’t fit my world; after all, I can’t have a character use the word “hell” since hell does not exist in my created world.
This brings up another good point before you start spicing up you writing with expletives: Know your audiences! If you are writing young adult fiction, you are not going to want to put f-bombs in your manuscript or other such curse words. Certain genres also don’t use much profanity, though some also make their own, e.g. frak.
Writers should not be afraid to use profanity; however, they most realize placement is key and not to over do it. Nobody wants to eat a cake with too much spice, just like no one wants to read a book with every line of dialogue having expletives.