Literary expletive avoidance

Show, don’t tell goes the writer’s refrain. It can apply to cursing, too, but doesn’t tend to in contemporary prose. Swearwords pepper modern novels, not least in genres like detective fiction where they lend colour and authenticity to hard-boiled dialogue. But there are times when a writer can say more by not saying them.

deirdre madden - molly fox's birthday - faber & faber book coverTake Deirdre Madden’s novel Molly Fox’s Birthday. (Or better yet, read it.) Madden has a gift for imaginative description but knows when to apply the subtler force of discretion. Here the narrator, a playwright, is chatting by phone to her friend Molly Fox, a stage actor with what we have learned is a remarkable voice, ‘clear and sweet’ and at times ‘infused with a slight ache, a breaking quality that makes it uniquely beautiful’.

Molly has just received birthday wishes from a mutual friend:

‘How did he know that today was my birthday? Did you tell him?’

‘It was in the paper.’

‘What! How old did they say I was?’


She swore when I said this, a sudden, crude outburst. It was all the more shocking because Molly almost never swears. There was the incongruity of hearing such a thing uttered in that particular voice, and I realised that she was as capable of drawing forth all the ugly power an oath might contain as she could the beauty and tenderness of other words. ‘I never heard such nonsense in my life. I’m only thirty-eight.’

I would not have remembered this scene so clearly had Madden simply written whatever swearword Molly used. By denying us that ordinary certainty she invites us to fill the blank – or blankety-blank – ourselves, and we become more engaged with the text. The omission is a seed crystal. This is Fiction 101, I know, but still: how often in a book do you see a swearword lingered on yet withheld?

It’s also an appropriate strategy because of the characters involved. Through their friendship Molly has earned the storyteller’s tact; making her ‘crude outburst’ explicit would allow a moment of weakness to materialise, for the world at large, into something unbecoming and uncharacteristic. By conscientiously keeping it vague, reminding us instead of Molly’s extraordinary voice, the narrator does her friend a kindness and the scene is the better for it.

[Cross-posted on Strong Language and Lexicon Valley]

23 Responses to Literary expletive avoidance

  1. […] [Cross-posted on Sentence first] […]

  2. marc leavitt says:

    Hi, Stan:

    There was a young lady named Molly,
    For whom swearing was always a folly,
    But misjudging her age,
    Put her into a rage,
    Then she swore like a sailor, by golly!

  3. James Brown says:

    I’m running off copies of your piece to share with my Intermediate Fiction class at CSUSB. It raises some excellent talking points.

  4. I’ve seen this expertly applied to other “crude” subjects as well; a sex scene, for instance, can usually be made the more powerful and memorable by talking around it, by looking at it sidelong, rather than straight on.

    One might think it delicacy on the author’s part, but done well, many words, phrases, and moments might be done greater justice when handled with indirect creativity.

  5. Stan Carey says:

    A much-loved stage actor, Ms Fox,
    Was blessed with a special voice box.
    But in moments’ despairing
    She puts it to swearing
    And its potency startles and shocks.

    James: I’m delighted to hear that, and hope it leads to some good discussion. You might also enjoy this passage, from the same book, on creating a character.

    Ink Caster: Very true, and it applies to films as well. Coy cutaways from imminent sex scenes are a cliché, to say nothing of Naked Gun-style metaphorical montages; done skilfully, though, indirect implication of intimacy can be more effective than explicit material.

  6. astraya says:

    If they even make a movie out of this book, how might they portray this scene?

  7. cynthiamvoss says:

    Great observation! It’s great writing advice, and something I’ll try to remember in my work.

  8. So true. They drill “show, don’t tell” into our heads in school.

    Now this is a bit unrelated — your post reminded me about my roommate’s feelings toward erotic novels. The more raunchy and expletive they are, the less of an impact they have on her. In comparison, she’ll think a short paragraph from the Game of Thrones is more hot because of the few details that are revealed. There is definitely something to be said about “leaving it to the imagination.”

    • Alon Lischinsky says:

      “More hot”?

      Am I missing one of those quirks of English usage, where the metaphorical usage ‘sexually attractive’ takes a periphrastic comparative, while the literal one ‘having a high temperature’ forms it by inflection? (I’d usually seek an empirical answer, but Ngrams is of little use, lacking any instances of ‘more hot than PRO’.)

      • Stan Carey says:

        Alon: The inflected form is more common, but both styles are available for both senses.

        • Alon Lischinsky says:


          The inflected form is more common, but both styles are available for both senses.

          I don’t recollect having encountered the periphrastic form before, but then it might well be a case of the recency illusion.

          Mind you, COCA has 97 instances of more hot, but 94 of these have more as a determiner (e.g., ‘add more hot water’, ‘take more hot showers’) rather than as part of a comparative (the same goes for the 17 instances in the BNC). Two use it to construct a coordinated comparative (‘more hot and humid’, ‘more hot and footsore’), which does not ring any ungrammaticality bells for me; the alternative would be the clunkier ‘hotter and more X’. The only use in a simple comparative construction is in the voice of an L2 speaker, which is riddled with many other nonstandard features.

          It would seem that the construction is either too infrequent to crop up in these relatively large corpora, or discouraged in the kind of genres they contain.

      • Stan Carey says:

        Yes, it’s not common. If you search for “it was more hot” or similar in Google Books, you’ll find a few examples.

  9. wisewebwoman says:

    Excellent rating on Good Reads too, I’ve put it on my list for the library. Thanks Stan. I admire the skill of understatement greatly.


  10. Stan Carey says:

    James: You’re very welcome.

    David: If they wanted to imply but omit the swear in a film adaptation, they could show the listener’s reaction to what she hears (a slight wince, for example), but keep what she says unavailable to us until her subsequent comment. Or they could show the speaker but cut away once we see she’s about to swear – though this might show us too much.

    Cynthia: It is good advice, and – not coincidentally – can be hard to follow.

    Jenna: Definitely. Suggestion can be far more effective than explicit description because it gives us room to bring our own preferences and mood and memories and imagery to an event.

    WWW: It won’t be to everyone’s taste; it’s very interior, and lingers and reflects on things other writers wouldn’t bother with. But I don’t mind this, and I love when it’s done with as much skill and judgement as Madden displays. I think it will appeal to you greatly.

  11. Mise says:

    How effective: if Molly almost never swears, an occasion of swearing is an oddity to be stepped around at an analytic remove rather than baldly stated, exactly as befits her sensibilities. And, after all, she is only thirty-eight.

  12. Stuart Brown says:

    There’s an interesting contrast between the first two books of Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker series, and the subsequent volumes. The first two, deriving from radio productions, are almost entirely free of swearing; whereas the later volumes are fairly enthusiastic with it. Whilst obviously no shy violet about bad words, I always felt that he kinda let himself down a bit with this. It depends upon style, of course, but Adams was the master of British obliqueness (who else could suggest that spaceships hang in the air “precisely the same way that bricks don’t”?) and the “fucks” which pepper the later books just seem a little out of place. And yet, there’s a passage in So Long and Thanks for All the Fish which still has me giggling, precisely because of the avoidance of specific swears:

    “He pounded his steering wheel, kicked the floor, thumped his cassette player until it suddenly started playing Barry Manilow, thumped it until it stopped again, and swore and swore and swore and swore and swore.”

    The excessive repetition summons up images of a far worse, and funnier, tirade than could possibly be expressed by actual reported speech. The authorial intent may be very different to your example but, again, mentioning the fact of swearing rather than reporting it seems to be a worthwhile literary device.

    • Stan Carey says:

      That’s a great example, Stuart; I was hoping someone would produce a comparable case! It’s a long time since I read the Hitchhiker trilogy-in-five-parts, and I had completely forgotten its treatment of swearing. I don’t think I remarked on it at the time either, at least not enough to remember. You’re right about Adams: his wit sometimes hinged on a kind of gloriously unorthodox inversion that seemed, once encountered, like it could never have been phrased better. The bit about spaceships reminds me of his line about how the knack to flying lies in “learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss”. And yes, the Barry Manilow–induced swearing fit is very effective. I’ve no doubt Adams could have selected a memorable string of actual swears instead, but leaving it vague can be more fun for the reader.

      • Stuart Brown says:

        Another great literary use of swearing is in creating a bathetic dive from high-falutin’ language to crass vernacular (a brief look at my blog will show I’m not unfond of this device myself). Though the master of the bathetic (imho) is Flann O’Brien in Myles mode (and therefore free of swearing—at least in the English parts, I have no idea about the Irish sections), my favourite example comes from Rushdie in The Moor’s Last Sigh:
        “Totah’s utterance had a profound effect upon Lambajan Chandiwala also, for he – like so many of us – was a man with elephants on the brain; after the parrot spoke up, Lamba recognised the presence upon his shoulder of a kindred spirit, and opened up his heart thereafter to that intermittently oracular, but more often taciturn and (if the truth be told) irascible and fucking awful bird.”

  13. languagehat says:

    I’m going to go against the grain here and disagree. In the first place, I don’t understand this:

    Show, don’t tell goes the writer’s refrain. It can apply to cursing, too, but doesn’t tend to in contemporary prose. Swearwords pepper modern novels

    Surely providing the actual swearwords is showing, not telling? Isn’t it the very definition of “telling” to say “She swore when I said this, a sudden, crude outburst” rather than giving us what she said?

    And in the second place, I had exactly the opposite reaction to the quote. I rolled my eyes and thought “Ah, yet another delicate, well-phrased bit of tapdancing to avoid sullying the page and alienating one’s more delicate readers with a naughty word.” Such passages are a dime a dozen in books from the late unlamented days of automatic self-censorship. To my mind, it would be a much better clue as to her character to learn exactly which naughty words she comes out with when provoked beyond endurance. But then, I not only have a collection of books on bad language, I cowrote one, so I am absofuckinglutely not objective on the subject.

  14. Stan Carey says:

    Hat: I see your point about Show, don’t tell. I interpreted it differently, as showing what was important while not telling what the swearword was.

    I don’t think there was any prissiness in Madden’s decision not to quote the swear except inasmuch as it reflected the narrator’s style. Much of the book is a psychological portrait of Molly; specifying what swear she used on one occasion would not have supplied much in the way of relative insight into her character. But I guess that’s harder to see when judged out of context.

    Having recently co-launched a blog dedicated to swearing, I can safely say I’m not averse to the practice either – or, more to the point here, to its analysis.

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