This post uses some swear words. This blog does not usually contain such expletives. I thank you.
I am attempting a Romantic Comedy and wonder what (and if) swearing is acceptable in this genre? My main character is very bitter about life initially, and swears a lot. How far can I push the swearing?
In general, a light smattering of cursing is more than acceptable in romantic comedies. However, you don’t want to do anything to upset the genial tone of what’s going on. So, you wouldn’t have a lot of harsh cussing like motherf***er, the dreaded ‘c’ word, or indeed even mild cursing that comes from a cynical or mean spirited point-of-view.
The opening lines of Four Weddings of a Funeral revolve around the repeated use of the work f***. It’s comic and endearing because the stuffy middle-class characters bumble around as they try to get to a wedding on time. And that’s the key to swearing in romcoms, to make it comic and endearing rather than harsh and bitter. Richard Curtis likes to use a lot of swear words in his films but he does so in a disarming fashion: “fuckity-fuck-fuck” etc.
If your main character is very bitter about life and swears a lot, I would imagine you don’t want to make her a disagreeable or loathsome personality. So for example, she could spill some coffee over her shirt and shout: “Shitting shit it!” as this is funny and generates empathy. Of course, it’s perfectly fine for her to be thought disagreeable or loathsome by the other characters in the film but it’s preferable for the audience to see beyond this characterisation so that they can identify her as a human being who’s just trying to get on with her life.
Jack Nicholson’s character in As Good as it Gets (a romcom) has a loathsome and disagreeable personality but we still root for him to get together with Helen Hunt because the writers have successfully established him as a multi-dimensional, emotional character. He swears a lot too, in my recollection. Well, maybe not a lot but he has a lot of cutting remarks to deliver.
And that’s where swearing can be used most effectively. For comedic and dramatic impact. Too many screenplays litter their dialogue with unnecessary cussing and it doesn’t do much for general characterisation or the reader’s enjoyment. It’s about getting the balance and tone right in terms of who the characters are and what kind of story they’re in. If it’s a comedy crime/action/thriller/cop movie, then you’d expect to hear a lot of swearing. But it can still be used wisely and effectively. Tarantino’s swearing plays well alongside the lively and original content of the character’s dialogue, making the expletives funny and relevant to the story.
I was channel surfing the other night and came across the opening sequence of Lethal Weapon 2, and my god, the swearing. Coming into the film ‘cold’, it was like: whoa, too much, stop it! Cussing and swearing has become so normal, throwaway and acceptable, it’s completely desensitised us to how to use the language effectively. If you want to see cursing done at its astonishing best, check out Al Pacino’s devastating speech to Jonathan Pryce during Glengarry Glen Ross. Even my mother was impressed.