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Thursday, July 06, 2017

Dealing With Profanity in Christian Fiction

By Dan Walsh, @DanWalshAuthor

People swear a lot these days.

They swear when they're angry, and even when they're not. In recent years, it’s not uncommon to hear the F-word, for example, tossed around in casual conversation as almost the adjective-of-choice for everything and anything people are talking about.

The prevalence of profanity is just a sad fact of life. Well, here’s another one. There’s no swearing allowed in Christian Fiction. Period. None. Nada. I learned this rule very early on after signing with Revell, the primary publisher of my traditional fiction novels.

I was told there’s something of an “unwritten contract” between CBA publishers and Christian fiction readers. Regardless of the widespread use of profanity in secular books and movies, our readers expect to find a safe harbor when they open a Christian fiction novel, a “clean read.”

As it turned out, this wasn’t a hard rule for me to swallow. I was a pastor, had been for over twenty years. Swearing and profanity wasn’t a part of my life (even when I got angry). But as I continued to write novel after novel, I realized the unique challenge this rule presented. All my novels had bad guys who did bad things and SAID bad things (at least they would in real life situations). The challenge was: how do I create sufficient tension and conflict in the bad guy scenes so they came off as credible and realistic?

What I discovered was, it can be done. It takes more work, more thought, and more creativity (IMO), than simply letting my bad guys swear as much as they please. I have to figure out how to inject tension and emotion into the scenes themselves, as they unfold, since I can’t let the anger come out through the dialog.

To me, the challenge is similar to the early scenes in the hit movie, Jaws. I watched a show where Steven Spielberg explained that his plan was to have the big monster shark show up almost at the beginning of the movie, but they couldn’t get the prop to work. So, he had to figure out how to create the tension and fear he needed during the first 2/3 of the film without the shark. To his delight and surprise, NOT having the shark actually shown in those scenes worked out better. People were totally terrified anyway (I can hear the tense, scary music in my head right now).

I still write this way (no swearing) in my indie novels, even though “technically” I no longer have CBA publishers and editors looking over my shoulder. Here’s an example from my latest book, Unintended Consequences. Keep in mind as you read, the whole book is not like this scene. This is a moment where my hero and his friend, Joe, are trying to rescue some French people who’ve been captured by Nazis, and are now being tortured. They are sneaking through the basement of a Nazi headquarters.

Jack was so glad they hadn’t hurt Renee, but he didn’t have the heart to tell her what they had done to her brother, Philippe. He was locked in the room next to hers. Clearly, he had been severely beaten. Bruises all over his face, his lips split. One eye swollen shut. Jack knew he was still alive. He had moved slightly when the little metal door slid over, but he didn’t even look up.
“You ready to do this?” Joe said, his pistol held at the ready.
“Let’s end this,” Jack said, referring to the horror going on through the open door.
The sound of a whip striking someone’s back. A shrieking scream. A man shouted some vicious-sounding French things with a German accent. Another crack of the whip. Another scream.
Joe walked through the doorway first, his pistol leveled in front of him. Jack was right behind. “Hey Fritz,” Joe yelled.
There were two Germans in the room, an officer seated in the corner like an observer and a massive soldier with rolled up sleeves, holding a whip. The Frenchman was facing the wall tied to a post, his back a bleeding mess. The Germans turned to look at the intruders.
“Englanders!” The officer screamed as he stood.
“No, Americans,” Jack yelled and shot the man between the eyes as he reached for his sidearm.
The big German was unarmed except for the whip, which he raised toward Jack and Joe. His face filled with hatred.
“Here you go,” Joe said and shot the man twice in the knees. The man screamed in pain and dropped the weapon as he fell to the ground grabbing his legs.
“How many bullets I got in this thing?” Joe asked Jack.
“Five bullets a clip.”
“Okay Fritz, here’s two more.” Joe shot him in both shoulders. The bullets sent the man flying backwards against the wall. “How’s that feel?” Joe walked right up to him. “Hurts, doesn’t it? You shouldn’t hurt people, Fritz. Don’t you know the golden rule? I only wish I had more time so you could feel some more of the pain you dish out on others. But we gotta go.” He raised the gun and shot the German between the eyes.
And see? Plenty of tension and conflict, but no swearing. Let’s get a discussion going. Share with us how you have handled this issue in your novels.


Dealing With Profanity in Christian Fiction by Dan Walsh (Click to Tweet)

What does leaving profanity out have in common with the blockbuster movie Jaws?~ 
Dan Walsh (Click to Tweet)

Unintended Consequences:
Jack and Rachel leave Culpepper for their long-awaited honeymoon trip, a driving tour through New England. On day three, they stop at a little bayside town in Cape Cod to visit Jack’s grandmother. After he gets called away to handle an emergency, Rachel stays and listens as Jack’s grandmother shares a remarkable story about how she and Jack’s grandfather met in the early days of World War 2. It’s a story filled with danger, decades-old family secrets, daring rescues and romance. Jack is named after his grandfather, and this story set the course and direction for Jack’s life to the present day. After hearing it, Rachel is amazed that anyone survived.

Dan Walsh is the bestselling author of 17 novels including The Unfinished Gift, The Discovery and When Night Comes. He has won 3 Carol Awards (finalist 6 times), 3 Selah Awards and 3 of his books have been finalists for RT Review’s Inspirational Book of the Year. A member of American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW) and Word Weavers International, Dan writes fulltime in the Daytona Beach area. He and his wife Cindi have been married 40 years. You can find out more about his books or follow him on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads or Pinterest from his website at


  1. Good job, Dan. Sometimes, though, even the good (normally soft spoken) folk yearn to say something they oughtn't, and dealing with that is a tad more tricky because you don't have the flash of action to cover it (and yours is very well done there). I've found that I can have them bring it up in their thoughts and acknowledge that they'd better zip those lips. In one, a character bemoaned the fact that profanity had been bred right out of her.

  2. That's a good way to handle it, Normandie. Thanks for tip.

  3. Dan, thanks for sharing this. I totally agree with what you have written and enjoyed the short excerpt you shared. I have read the first two books in the series and am looking forward to reading #3. One thing that disturbs me is certain words that were simply substitutes for vulgar words when I was growing up have now become totally acceptable to many church people. I also am bothered when I enter a book giveaway on a Christian blog, win the book, and discover when I start reading it that it has language in it. I just started reading one last night that I won a while back and within the first five pages had come across curse words. That is one problem I see with Indie publishing. When you buy books published by Christian publishers, you can feel fairly confident that it will be clean. However, not every author who goes Indie continues to abide by those same rules as you have done. I commend you for your stand on the matter. Sorry this got so lengthy.

  4. Edward, you're right about the shift with indie Christian fiction. I've read some discussions on this on a Christian Indie board. Some authors are experimenting with allowing some of their bad guys to swear here and there. Obviously, there are no editors to stop them. The question is, will readers revolt? Most of the thinking seems to be, they're trying to reach the unchurched more than believers, and the little bit of swearing in their books will seem tame to them (compared to what they usually read). There's also the idea that many Christians also read secular books (hoping to find authors who don't have "too much" swearing, etc.). And that these Christians won't mind a little swearing if it shows up here and there.

    As for me, it's a moot point. I'm not comfortable with it, either way.

  5. Dan, this was so good! And I totally agree. No bad words for me in my novels. One way I've handled it is to say something like this about my bad guy: Curse words flowed out of his mouth, darkening the atmosphere of the room.

    Onward in the Light,
    Elva Cobb Martin
    Pres. ACFW-SC Chapter

  6. Elva, that's a good one. There are lots of things like that you can say to help folks "see the shark." As long as the tension and conflict happening in the scene match up, people can fill in the blanks themselves if they want.

  7. I always answer this by citing some of the best movies made back in Hollywood's Golden Age. For instance, Humphrey Bogart movies. "Casablanca" is on almost every critic's list of best movies. But we all know the Humphrey Bogart character in that movie--or any other Bogart movie ("The Big Sleep," "The Maltese Falcon") would probably swear a blue streak. Would the movie rate any higher on the critics' list with the profanity added? I don't think so. Swearing isn't necessary for good writers. Keep in mind, too, that readers take note of authors AND publishers who slip up on this. They write letters. They tell the Christian bookstore owner (the few that are left) that they're disappointed in his or her store for carrying books with profanity. It's a good "rule" and I'm glad we have it.


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