Use of Profanity in Writing Thrillers

The use of profanity is a challenge for all thriller writers.

Because thrillers usually involve really bad characters, the temptation is to write dialogue for them which mirrors the way real bad guys talk. Unfortunately, real bad guys (and many real good guys) can season each sentence with a half dozen F-bombs. No reader wants to see that. But, you can’t have a hardened serial killer who just escaped from prison say, “Jeepers, those darn police are still on my tail!” You want your story to be realistic, but you don’t want to turn off your reader. What to do?

While you’ll see a wide range of styles, I can think of no successful thriller writer who bathes his dialogue in profanities. That doesn’t mean you won’t find a few F-bombs scattered throughout the book, but use of profanity will be judicious and never gratuitous.

One device which I found helpful is the profanity cut-off. When a tough guy in a stressful situation might naturally drop the F-bomb, you can cut him off:

The bullet sliced through Dak’s hand, sending the Glock spinning across the floor.


“Freeze!” said John.

Some writers substitute the word “frigging” for the F-bomb. While this can work if it’s not overdone, personally I’ve found it unrealistic to read a hardened killer say, “frigging.” Sometimes it’s better to use, “Shit!” as a more acceptable expletive. (Interestingly, I had a Hollywood producer tell me once that a studio conducted a survey finding women reacted more strongly against he word, “shit,”  than other profane words, and scripts were routinely scrubbed to reduce the use of the word.)

Speaking of the female point of view, best-selling author Catherine Coulter has observed that women who write thrillers tend to use heavy does of profanity because they believe they won’t be taken seriously by male readers unless they do. Catherine points out this approach is, “Dead wrong.”

In this regard, it’s interesting to look at the work of best-selling horror-thriller writing contemporaries, Dean Koontz and Stephen King. In over 60 books, I don’t believe you can find a single F-bomb in Dean’s work. Mr. King, on the other hand, is not afraid to drop one every now and then. Yet both authors have been hugely successful. My style probably tends more towards King, as I believe a few dashes of hard profanity can make a story more realistic, and therefore more frightening, i.e., this could really happen!

In my recent thriller, Dead Light, I was faced with the profanity question when writing dialogue for a tough-as-nails female police detective. She would not be the kind to say “frigging,” so I made her use of profanity part of her character. That is, in an attempt to clean up her salty language she invented a new cuss word, “shuck,” to use whenever she would normally drop the F-bomb.

Bette Midler, the bad-girl singer who paved the way for Madonna and Lady Gaga, said it best: Profanity should be a spice, not the main dish.

1 Comment

  1. DPReader on April 26, 2013 at 9:35 pm

    Never realized this conundrum, but of course! Great insight on how to walk that fine line. More Pace Points.

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