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Submissions Insanity # 5 - Swearing in Screenplays: The ****ing Rules


My mother says I have the “gob of a sewer.” This means that whilst I may have the kind of uber-English accent that wouldn’t sound out of place in Jane Austen’s drawing room (dahlink), the actual words I use? More like a streetwise alley cat. Who’s also a drug dealer and on the run from a po-leece shoot out. YOU’LL NEVER TAKE ME ALIVE, MOFOS!!!

So, needless to say, I am not a prude. If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know I have absolutely zero issue with swearing. Except to say, Writers:


Why? Well chew on some of these reasons:

1) It marks you out as a ****ing amateur.

Seriously. Think of it this way: If you have 25 instances of the “F” word in your 60-minute TV pilot screenplay, there probably isn’t a channel before OR after the watershed worldwide except porno that will broadcast this.

Generally speaking, a British TV drama post 9PM will have 2 or 3 instances of the “F” word A SEASON. That’s right, homies. Out of 10-12, that’s just a QUARTER. It may be even less in a US drama, especially given they typically have 22-24 episodes.

Occasionally a TV drama comes along like DEADWOOD, or the more recent Aussie WENTWORTH PRISON, in which hard case Frankie (a female) says the “F” word “a lot” – but generally speaking it’s only her who says it as a matter of course (other characters may use the F word, but usually in anger). Most importantly, use of swearing like this will generally be 2-3 times per episode maximum. What’s the lesson there? Well, a) Frankie is a hard case and b) there’s a reason WENTWORTH PRISON is typically called “gritty”, “hard hitting” and all those other adjectives … and why it’s only post 10PM on most schedules.

Similarly, if your feature screenplay has 20 instances of the “C” word, you better hope it’s justified, or at least FUNNY, because if you’re lucky enough to get it produced, you’ll be arguing a LOT with various film censors. So know why you’re doing it and what for. Remember, lots of producers want a 15 certificate *no matter what* these days for their adult movies (with Horrors only going for the 18s, usually for instances of torture/sadism); plus swearing in family movies may be that more acceptable nowadays, but NEVER in a threatening manner.

2) F*** Realism!

Lots of writers tell me they use swearing in their screenplays for realism’s sake. People swear a lot, they argue – so the characters should swear a lot in the script.

Yeah. People also go to the loo, pick their noses and fart. We don’t stick those in for the sake of supposed “realism”. Also, movies and TV are REPRESENTATIONS of reality, NOT reality. So DO NOT PASS GO and go straight to script jail!

3) It changes the ****ing tone.

Like it or not, a reader will have certain expectations of your characters and their worldview from the language they use. TRUE FACT.

So, this means that if your characters are effing and blinding a LOT? That reader will have – perhaps wrong – expectations of what those characters are like and thus what they will do in the course of the story.

This is a massive problem. I have literally lost count of the number of screenplays I’ve read, where I’ve expected the characters to be gang members or undercover agents or tragic figures or whatever … only for that element of the story to be a BLIND ALLEY.

This means the goal posts change throughout the course of the telling, which is NEVER a good thing for your screenplay (unless you’re Tarantino and Rodriguez doing FROM DUSK TIL DAWN, yeah yeah bluds).

4) It ain’t big & it ain’t ****ing clever.

Lots of spec writers tell me that they want their characters to be controversial, which is why they use so much swearing in their submissions.

NEWSFLASH: you want a controversial character? They need to DO STUFF that’s controversial. Characters are NOT what they SAY and all that jazz.

So, instead of some guy with a big mouth and no trousers, what’s your character going to DO that’s truly shocking or amazing? We want AWE, not obnoxiousness.

5) It takes up ****ing space!

A last point - every word in your screenplay is meant to count. C’mon. We know this.

So, including loads of Fs and Cs and whatevers? Takes up space another word that could make FAR MORE IMPACT. And you want to make an impact, right?

Then STOP swearing in your screenplays. Just about every spec screenplay has waaaay too much swearing in. Yours will actually be DIFFERENT from the rest if it DOESN’T **rely** on swearing for impact!

It really is as simple as that.

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