Screenwriting : Writing western - question / observation by John Iannucci

Writing western - question / observation

My current project is a western. Taking a long time but interesting because there as not as many instruments to employee to get message across as say a modern drama.
That being said dialogue becomes even more important.
In trying to research - I’ve been watching a lot of westerns/ researching times/ and reading scripts.
He’s my question / observation. In modern westerns - many of them employe cuss words to make the characters seem harder - more shocking. They include a number of F bombs! (See deadwood and you’ll think you’re reading something out of penthouse magazine.
Many of these words though are twentieth century born. I.e. the F-bomb. (Originally a acronym for - For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge.)
My question is it seems those in power want these in, but they are not true to the story.

Interestingly recent award winners like Coen brothers True Grit and Hostiles don’t use a single one.

To write true to the setting or for effect?

Paul Zeidman

When is the story set? I'd also add to write the story for you, not "those in power"

Tony S.

I just covered a Western set in 1882. Not one f@#k in it. In fact not one cuss word at all - and there were some mean characters.

The writer did a pretty good job in maintaining the speech of that day but did lapse here and there with contemporary colloquialisms.

John Iannucci

Set in 1888

Paul Zeidman

Best advice I can offer is write true to the setting. It'll feel more authentic.

Tony S.

BTW, "Hostiles" was terrific - a fave from last year. I wonder if they submitted for Oscar consideration. It's a crime if they did and got snubbed.

Beth Fox Heisinger

John, watch Godless on Netflix. The seven-episode mini-series is quite the character study. It may be too slow for some, but, wow, it's amazing. Very few f-bombs here and there. And I agree with Paul, for authenticity, write true to the setting and your characters—which is writing for effect. Setting and effect are not mutually exclusive. Including foul language or not including foul language or something in-between can be a deliberate choice for style or, perhaps, for rating, sure, but it may also depend on the specific context of your setting and characters. Is it authentic to both or not? ;)

Tony S.

Too bad we can't (the ludicrous, politically correct") "F-Bomb" here. Maybe a Lounge where it's allowed, RB?

John Iannucci

Saw ZGodless and enjoyed it - my reference being every time I see a period piece with even one twentieth century item - i shake. (There are a number of Trace Atkins westerns on Netflix) couldn’t help notice in two the lock on the barn doors was a modern lock. They are low budget features though)
So even one F-bomb in a western makes me cringe. But it seems to be the way for effect!

Thank you all for the advice.

RIchard Kenyon

John, sorry I'm late to the dance here but I saw your post and wanted to throw in my two cents. I wonder if it matters what words are spoken but that the intention or objective of the character is clear. What do they want or what are they fighting for. If their intention is specific then does it matter what language or dialect they use?

Steven Harris Anzelowitz

Start with John Ford with the "DUKE" and go from there would be my suggestion.

Tony S.

It depends on whether you hear Yanni or Laurel.

Kelly Krause

Pardon my French, but... By the mid- to late 19th century, many forms of f*** were being used much like they still are today (e.g. "he f-ed me over"; "go f yourself"; "you f-ing bitch"; "I don't give a f" etc.). Sh** was also used in eerily modern ways. Both words were considered commonplace by philologists of the day... I think what we have to keep in mind is that these words and other curses/swears would not have been put in print in the 19th century - certainly, they were censored in newspapers, legal docs and the like at the very least - which can give the appearance that they weren't in use. Social class also needs to be taken into account; swearing was far more common among the working classes and would have been censored or used minimally in "polite society". Consider your characters and their backgrounds when writing your dialogue. I'd also like to quickly add that there were of course other swears and colloquialisms/expressions from the period that have since fallen out of use (e.g. "tarnation"; "blazes" etc.)... I'd advise you to be mindful of your audience when using these archaic phrases... Some will be gimmees of course, but others could fly right over audiences' heads. If not, dad-blame it, I'll hang up my fiddle, and you can sass me, knock me into a cocked hat, and give me jesse. ; ) Happy writing! : )

Patrick King

Read Mark Twain. The dialogue in DEADWOOD is precisely the gold-rush camp talk he describes. The less said in a Western, the better.

John Iannucci

Funny cause I try to do a lot of research when I write especially period or location pieces. Everything I’ve read _ including a couple of articles by noted linguists state that the f word was not introduced into dialogue until the turn of the century. It came from the acronym For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge. The word evolved from a number of court cases, but who knows these days. Even my sister with a master inhistory and her friend with a degree in the subject claim it came into being later.

Wish I had the link that used deadwood as a bad example of using the language of the day. Basically about this subject.

Who knows though as many things the internet has many false articles. - I think I’ll write it without. Other ways to get across meaning.

John Iannucci

Thank you to everybody

Phillip "The Man Who Can'" Hardy


You may want to explore some Wild West slang if you haven't already done so. Here is a list of words at this website.

Kerry Douglas Dye

Kelly Krause said it with a lot more erudition and detail than I could, but I would like to second her regarding your misconception about the so-called F-word. That word is hundreds of years old. I'm not sure which linguists you're reading, but it's definitely no acronym (here's Snopes on the question:

Anyway, my two cents, for what it's worth: have your characters speak profanely or not, depending on your target audience and expected MPAA (or equivalent) rating. The mobsters in The Sopranos are a lot more profane than the mobsters in the PG-rated "Sister Act", and no one complains about it. It's a movie. We get it.

RIchard Kenyon

This is the definition of f**k according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Origin: Early 16th century: of Germanic origin (compare Swedish dialect focka and Dutch dialect fokkelen); possibly from an Indo-European root meaning ‘strike’, shared by Latin pugnus ‘fist’ and as a Shakespeare Nerd I can tell you that even the Bard of Stratford used profanity in his plays. He had to keep those Groundlings interested somehow! This is from Twelfth Night the character Malvolio reads a letter:

"By my life, this is my lady's hand, these be her
very C's, her U's, and her T's, and thus makes she her
great P's. It is, in contempt of question, her hand."

I love a good etymological debate! Thanks John Iannucci

John Iannucci

Interestingly everybod`y’s right. Was around but wasn’t used except in sexual situations -

The original article I read was about Coen’s True Grit ands why the lack of cussing as we know it. Basically they said it was for realism.

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