My mother would not have got beyond the first few pages, because of the swearing
Does swearing in the first 10 pages of a book turn people off?
Yes. It is guaranteed to lose you some readers. Foul language tends to offend and etiquette rules are no different in fiction. Writing a hard-hitting start will be too much for some.
Swearing will be just right for others though. Readers respect context.
So when Jamaican author Marlon James takes us to Kingston in A Brief History Of Seven Killings we are not surprised that bad language shouts out at us from the start. The book is about 70s, guns, gangsters, ghetto intimidation and violence. The characters are not required to remember their “please” and “thank yous”. Politeness is pushed to one side in the plot.
Judges of the Man Booker Prize 2015 seemed to think so too. Michael Wood, the chair of judges, told the Guardian that: “My mother would not have got beyond the first few pages, because of the swearing.” He added: “Another reaction to people who say they don’t want to read this kind of thing is ‘it is very good for them to read it’.”
It is good to read A Brief History of Seven Killings. It is ambitious and original. It throws wide the writing range and offers the reader a different experience to that in mainstream titles.
“It won because it kept surprising the judges,” explained Wood. “There is an excitement right from the beginning of this book,” he added. “A lot of it is very, very funny, a lot of it very human.”
You can include swearing in the first 10 pages if it complements the scene otherwise it is gratuitous. Profanities won’t put the reader off but dull storytelling will.
Follow Marlon James’ lead and generate an excitement right from the start. Keep surprising the reader and you can swear as much as you like.