Here’s the first scenario:

You’re writing about a crusty old codger who swears like a sailor. You mentioned this, but you don’t actually show him doing it. And in one place, you know he’d probably use an f-bomb, but you leave it out.

What do you think reader reaction will be? Here are two I can think of, one probable, the other improbable:

  1. Well, f**k, he should have used the word f**k right there. It would be authentic. It would be the way this guy would speak. I’m throwing this book across the room and never reading anything else by this author.
  2. Reader doesn’t even notice, or if it dawns on her/him, she/he shrugs and keeps on reading.

Which do you think is more likely?

Next you’ve come up with a really hot sex scene, and you put it in, then have second thoughts and delete it, just doing what the old romantic movies did, closing the door behind the lovers and leaving it to the imagination. Reader reaction might be:

  1.  Well, s**t, I wanted a sex scene here. I want every detail. What are these two characters really doing behind that door? I’m throwing this book across the room and never reading anything else by this author.
  2. Reader thinks about what those two might be doing behind those doors for a while, then goes back to reading your book.
  3. Reader is so interested in what’s going to happen next in the story, he/she quickly turns the page and keeps reading.
  4.  Reader sighs with relief. She either doesn’t like to read sex scenes or is so bored by them that she skips over them. She thinks it’s like describing a person eating a meal, bite by bite. She continues reading happily.

Again, which do you think is more likely? If the story is compelling enough, and I hope it is, I doubt very many, if any, readers would stop reading if there was not a “bad” word or a sex scene where they might expect one.

But, even if the story is compelling, you risk losing readers if there are explicit sex scenes and “bad” language.

Which would you rather have happen? I leave it to you.

That said, there is a big market for erotica. If that’s your bag and you write it, I think that’s fine. I’ll even read it if it’s good enough. But I think writers are taking a big chance if they throw it into a book that is not marketed as erotica. Noir and hardboiled might also get a pass with very “bad” language. But, believe me, it’s not even necessary then. Not many of  the classic noir and hardboiled stories had either. And I’ve written some noir (published) that didn’t have any. So, it can be done.

Many thanks to Anne R. Allen’s blog post for getting me to think about this and expand on what she wrote: