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What Is Invective and How Can It Help Your Storytelling?

I have a soft spot for British humor. I believe this stems from my first viewing of Monty Python and the Holy Grail in high school. One of the first scenes after the knights receive their commission from God involves King Arthur and his knights trying to get into a French-controlled castle where they believe the Grail is being held. They attempt to talk their way in, but are met with strong verbal rebuffs from the sentry. Insults are hurled from the top of the gate, and the Knights of the Round Table make a hasty retreat after their egos have been sufficiently bruised.

The Frenchman’s barrage of creative insults is an example of what is known as invective.

anthony selonke vi Photo by Geoff George (Creative Commons

Examples of Invective in Literature

Invective is abrasive language designed to offend or hurt, but it can also be indicative of a desire to assign blame. It can be as mild as calling someone a chicken for being afraid to do something, or it can be as convoluted as calling someone’s father a hamster, and tacking on that their mother smells like elderberries.

Invective has use in literature, plays, and film. Shakespeare was fond of it, and Jonathan Swift made great use of invective in Gulliver’s Travels, when the Brobdingnagian king tells Gulliver that Englishmen sound like “…the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth.”

Several well-known writers and comedians made use of invective in quips and sound bites. Oscar Wilde gave us a classic backhanded compliment with the wry observation, “He has no enemies, but is intensely disliked by his friends.” Groucho Marx is credited with the zinger, “I’ve had a perfectly lovely evening, but this wasn’t it.”

Invective Aids Characterization

Invective can be used to establish characterization, both when it is spoken by a character, and when it is used to describe a character. When a character is fond of using invective, they can be seen as intensely critical or snobbish, or they may possess an exceedingly dry and sarcastic sense of humor. When someone uses invective to describe another character, that informs the relationship between those two characters, and how they play into the greater story.

It’s equally likely that a hero will use that language against a villain as it is to be the reverse, or maybe both characters are heroes; they just don’t get along very well.

Do you use invective in your writing?

PRACTICE

Take a character from a work in progress, and either use invective to describe him or her, or write invective for him or her to spew about another character.

Write for fifteen minutes and post your practice in the comments. Leave notes for your fellow writers!

About Liz Bureman

Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.

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  • Young_Cougar

    “I’m going to kill him,” Suzuki muttered, pushing past them, and opened the back yard’s door.
    “What’s gotten into here?” Torori asked just as Suzuki slammed the door behind her.
    Katne smiled warily and re-opened the door. “She’s just frustrated.”
    “It’s about the last trial,” Hanka supplied. “Apparently Uncle’s lawyer has been as sweet as a blue-berry apple pie, minus the sweet and an extra three pounds of sour.”
    “Oh,” Torori frowned.

    – A very good strategy. I’ve used something like this before but no one really understood what I was saying.

    • Chloee

      I love it.

      • Young_Cougar

        Thank you.

    • http://www.storiesworthsharing.net/ Mirel

      Like this dialog. But shouldn’t there be a with or a plus after the and? (minus the sweet and with an extra 3 lbs….)

      • Young_Cougar

        Mirel – I think your right. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. :)

  • Chloee

    I slam the door with anger. My face red and my body shaking my hands grip the table as I try to calm myself. I hear a knock. “Go away now.” I yell. A little brown haired girl peeked in anyway. “What’s wrong Luke?” My little sister Rocky ask. I brush my shaggy brown hair out of my eyes and look at her bright blue eyes. “CJ’ temper is what’s wrong.” I say. Rocky nodded. “Tell me it.” ” She’s so hot headed.” I say. “She thinks everyone is out get her.” “She makes me so…” “Mad? Angry? Sad? “Rocky said. For only being ten she knew a lot about me. “Yeah. She makes me all that.” “Have you told her how it makes you feel.” “No she blames it all on other people. She’s like a wolf hungry for meat and will stop at nothing”

    • Young_Cougar

      “She’s like a wolf hungry for meat and will not stop at nothing.” I just grinned a big happy, sloppy wide grin here. I loved it! But I think your putting to much direct action. Like there’s too many “I” and “me” words. I get that the POV is first-person but maybe you can change a few things. For example. “I hear a knock” can be turned into “Someone tentatively knocks on my bedroom door.” Sorry for the criticism. And I love the language and the expression and everything. :)

      • Chloee

        Thanks. I’m glad you liked it I will work on it.

    • http://www.storiesworthsharing.net/ Mirel

      Sounds like a very wise ten-year-old!
      Good basis, you get a lot across in this bit. I also like the wolf hungry for meat line.
      However, you’ve got mixed tenses (shifts from present to past e.g. …I yell, …peeked in, I say, Rocky nodded etc. ), and a few odd phrases. I slam the door with anger? My body shaking my hands? Maybe something along the lines of: Furious, I slam the door behind me. My face red and my body shaking, I reach out to grip the table in an effort to calm myself.

  • ruth

    I enjoy a creatively-expressed explosion of emotion (as you mention Shakespeare is a genius at this) but I dislike the use of common profanity used frequently by writers both of story and screenplay. It’s not that I haven’t heard these words before, but I think as writers we can do better, find different words and phrases to adequately express every emotion to entertain, amuse, encourage the reader to think. Common profanity turns me cold.
    Sometimes the actions of our characters speak louder than words and the explosive words are unnecessary. What is your opinion, Liz? (Really enjoy your blogs!)

    • Young_Cougar

      I’m going to jump in here and type in my own opinion. I think a writer should be skilled enough to let the reader understand the situation and the character after the right introduction, description, and through the character’s actions. I dislike cliches and I think they tend to cheapen down the work’s value. I also think that sometimes it’s ok to use “common profanity” and that writer’s shouldn’t cat it off as writing tool.

    • epbure

      Thanks Ruth! I actually am with you for the most part, and really like creative insults or profanity, but I love the English language and have a crazy appreciation for obscure vocabulary and turns of phrase. I do agree with Young_Cougar that common profanity can play a role in informing your readers about the characters’ histories and situation. For example, The Departed would have been a much less realistic movie if the writers had chosen to use insults outside the traditional list of profanities. On the other hand, the more urbane insults of The Princess Bride worked very well, and f-bombs would have been wildly out of place there.

  • Michael Cairns

    Hi Liz
    Great post. Monty Python do this as well as anyone. Shakespeare was the master though. ‘I would challenge you to a battle of wits, but I see you are unarmed’ :)
    The serialised story on my website features a teenage magician and she has a great line in invective, both deliberate and just through a lack of filter. Great fun to write.
    cheers
    Mike

    • Young_Cougar

      Ohhh!! Magicians! I knew it wasn’t a catch line but it’s got me interested. Can you share the link to your website? (This is my 4th comment on this post, I feel like a stalker.)

      • Michael Cairns

        Hi, glad it grabs your interest!
        Here’s the link, hope you enjoy it.
        http://cairnswrites.com/

        I think this counts as healthy stalking :)

        • Young_Cougar

          Thanks for the link. And I’m going to assume that “A Change of Status” is the story about the magician? Healthy Stalking…that’s a nice way of putting it. Lol.

  • Luther

    “Stop the car now you damn idiot!” I exclaimed to my friend Robert, who had decided, with the other occupants of the vehicle, after some discussion, to head out to a late night
    (In this case early morning.) party.
    “I just said that I would be in trouble if I am late getting home, not that a spoiled brat like you could understand.”
    Robert slammed on the brakes and we slid to a stop on the empty and dark main street of town. John and Pete, the other passengers, were looking at me then at Bob, as they both
    knew that tempers were rising. I said “What kind of friend puts a friend out on the road to thumb back home in the middle of the night?”
    Robert said “I guess you misjudged our friendship and if you don’t get out, I will leave for the party with you still in the car.”
    I looked at him in disbelief as I slowly opened the back door on the passenger side and said, “I guess Bob Marley was right and I don’t think that you are ‘worth suffering for’, not that you are bright enough to understand anything that I just said.” I slammed the door and as the car sped off, I raised my middle finger to the rear of the fast disappearing
    car. I doubt Robert even saw the sign I flashed, but it sure comforted me on
    this dark lonely street and I needed all the comfort I could get.

    • http://www.storiesworthsharing.net/ Mirel

      Hi Luther! Explosive tempers here :-)

      The first line would probably be clearer rearranged: …
      Robert, who had decided after some discussion with the other occupants…
      Also, dialog generally sounds more natural when you use contractions, just the way people generally do when they talk. For example: “I just said that I’d be in trouble if I’m late getting home…” Try reading what you write–and especially the dialog–out loud. It’s a good way to pick up on unnatural sounding writing and/or dialog.

      • Luther

        Thanks for the feedback.

        • Luther

          I tried one more time!

  • Brianna Worlds

    Oh my god I love Monty Python and the Holy Grail XD Simply genius, it is!

  • james

    Gabe now had $5000 less in his bank account, but his confidence was higher than ever. He just finished a course on how to pick-up girls and he couldn’t wait to try it out at Club Ellui that night. He’s been the awkward turtle, the nice guy, the quiet guy, the who-is-he guy, but not tonight.

    Tiesto was playing in the background. The bass made his heart thump. His breath smelled of Gin and Tonic, and his hair smelled of cheap perfume and cigarettes. After scanning around in the dim lights, he found her!
    “Hey Jessica, I really like your shoes. Where did you get them? Though they do look like shoes my grandma has!” Compliment followed by a negative remark, just like his instructor had taught him.
    Jessica rolled her eyes. “Gabe, compliment, negging, then pivoting, right? Good luck with that Gabe. Bye”
    “Uhhh…. bye…..” Gabe said appalled and discouraged.

  • Charles

    “Excuse me! Could you ask the manager to come over here. I have a problem and don’t tell me that he is busy. I see him sitting on his ass at the bar!”
    “Yes Sir! I’ll go get him right away!”
    The irate man toyed with the blob of mashed potatoes on his plate as he muttered to the woman sitting across from him. She didn’t say a word or show any emotion as she listened quietly to him with a faint smile on her lips. The manager walked hurridly to the table squarely in the line of the angry customers verbal attack.
    “Look at my plate! Look at this! What the hell is a hair doing in these mashed potatoes? The steak wasn’t cooked right to begin with but I was so starved that I didn’t want to wait for another one. And now this! What a way to finish an unpleasant meal to begin with!”
    The manager looked at the tiny black hair laying in the grease from the steak next to the blob of potatoes.
    “Oh, I am so sorry!”
    “You should be! It’s disgusting!”
    “There will be no charge of course. What can I say? We try so hard to get everything right! But, sometimes,somebody slips up. I am so sorry.”
    The man at the table next to them smiled as he listened to the screaming tirade of the disgruntled customer. And then he had to cover his face as he held back the beginning of a laugh when he saw two of the most expensive deserts being brought to the table.
    “That guy is a hell of an actor,” he thought. He can really follow a script.”
    One month earlier he had been at another fine dining restaurant and watched the same man get just as mad when he found a hair in his food. The words were almost identical and it also got him two free deserts. It was just a scam to get two free meals.

  • Karina

    Otherwise known as ‘smack talk’.

  • https://twitter.com/WritersRead Jenny Orelle

    Liz,

    I’m embarrassed that after reading hundreds of writing guide books I had heard about invective. Shakespeare and Swift turned it into poetry.

    No invective here: just a thank your for inspiration. I’ll think about it for my memoir though. Oh I have notes… ☺

    Jenny.