Three asterisks and the truth

I read a draft script the other day that included a scene where the lead character – I’m going to call her Susan Hare because she’s one of mine and I like the name – is startled.

SUSAN: What the f***!

That isn’t me being coy. That is what the script said. An F followed by three asterisks.

Just as an aside, when I worked on Radio Times magazine I remember hearing about the very rare times they included any swearing. It was always in a quote, obviously never in an RT journalist’s writing style, and it was usually wryly amusing but it was also always the first letter followed by asterisks or some combination of other symbols. And every time, readers would complain.

It’s just that sometimes they complained the there weren’t the correct number of asterisks or whatever. If you’re bothered by swearing, you’re bothered by swearing and I can’t do anything about that. But if you’re bothered enough by it to count the asterisks, disagree with the number and then complain to the BBC, there is something I can do. I can give you that look and then forget you.

Not that I swear all that much myself. No reason, I’m just PG-rated. But I’ve often had friends suddenly stop mid-sentence and apologise to me. What for? For swearing. Invariably, I hadn’t even noticed. Not because I wasn’t listening, but because it hadn’t bothered me enough to even be aware that bother was a possibility.

Besides, I’ve used Windows. I’ve heard worse, I’ve said worse.

What has really bothered me as I’ve spent a lot of hours on trains this week, is that idea of a scriptwriter typing an F and three asterisks. I don’t know the writer so I can’t ask but I’ve circled and circled around whether it was because they expected the actor to pronounce the asterisks as asterisks – which does seem unlikely – or whether they were afraid of upsetting anyone.

To which the only possible response is oh, for fuck’s sake.

You don’t have to have swearing in anything. You do have to have it if your characters would swear. There is that famous scene from The Wire where every single line, almost every single word, is fuck. It starts off without you being aware of it because that is what these characters would say. Then there’s just so many that you are very much aware that this is a cable show rather than network TV. Then you think about how it’s playing with the boundaries of television and giving us a slice of life.

But then unfortunately you just want them to please stop now, we got the joke an hour ago.

Maybe it’s because the scene has some detective work going on that takes about three minutes, or roughly three minutes longer than any real-life detective would take. Or fictional. Sherlock Holmes would’ve figured it out in a picosecond and be even now deducing the entire causal reality of the universe. Veronica Mars would’ve seen it and already left to do something about it. Though, true, the detectives in Luther would still be there five episodes later, scratching their heads.


Those three asterisks tell me a lot. It’s like the way asterisks are used to mean multiply in computers: three asterisks makes me think of multiplied multiplications, of powers of multiplications. Of geometric progressions of multiplication.

And this is where you get to after all that adding up aka all that riding around on trains pondering. The writer of this script that said f*** does not expect to ever be a real writer. In his or her bones, he or she is playing. This writer sees the film and television world as this thing which is easy but also where producers and actors have practically religious power. You, the humble poor writer – well, we are all poor, that’s true enough – present your script to the masters and mistresses of taste and power and art and more.

You daren’t offend them, no. You daren’t risk saying fuck when you are bowing before them. And I love that in this font that word looks more like bowling. Ten-pin bowling with the gods of drama, I’d be up for that.

I think I’m right and I think you agree but there is that bit I threw in about this writer thinking writing is easy. That gave you pause. I got to that because of this abdication of whether to asterisk or not: that tells me the writer thinks these decisions are made by others. Since what your characters say is beyond fundamental to every pixel of a story, they’re wrong. Since it is beyond difficult to do well but they don’t think they have to do it, they therefore must think scriptwriting is easy.

There’s no reason you should think it’s hard unless you’re actually doing it. Then you need to think it’s hard because you need to know you’ll be putting your back into this job for a long time.

Whatever writing you do, it is an odd kind of job and there are enough people wanting to do it – wanting to be writers without necessarily actually writing, thank you – that a little industry grows up around it. So for instance there are books and courses that belabour how you must format your script right on the page. Do it wrong and you’re out, they say.

Actually, do the formatting and the layout wrong and you have failed at the utter easiest part of the job. You’ve also telegraphed that you simply don’t read scripts or you would know what they look like. If you haven’t read a script, I don’t want to read yours because you just ain’t worth the time yet.

You can always and often tell all this, you can tell a writer is amateur and won’t be worth reading yet from one glance at the page.

But you can now also tell it from three asterisks.

All that from the word “f***”.