There’s a word out there many writers love to use, including myself. We like to insert it into a sentence and then sit back and smile. Then, without realizing it, we like to use it again three sentences later. Then again, then again, then again.
And then, after we’ve put the finishing touches on our work, we send it off to our beta readers to critique. Then, after waiting on pins and needles, we get their feedback and discover we’ve used and abused this most beloved word. So, we then grab a red pen and start crossing it out.
Cross, cross, cross!
With each deletion, our adoration for this word cools, colder then colder. Then, before we know it, we realize the word is nothing more than a crutch. A filler. A fluff word that acts like a catalyst for action and movement, but then turns out to be a hinderance in disguise. So, we then decide to avoid the word unless it’s absolutely necessary.
But then, and only then.
Like the word “as,” many writers tend to overuse the word “then.” Who can blame them? It’s a great word! Unfortunately, when we repeat it again and again, we risk a handful of problems:
Fluff, fluff, fluff
In a way, “then” is like “that.” At least 50% of the time, we don’t need it. It’s a fluff word we insert on instinct, not necessity. We also tend to add words around “then” to help us transition into the rest of a scene; fluff words that lead to over-explained actions, cluttered sentences, and stilted tones.
To show you what I mean, here’s an example from my action-adventure, “La Jolla.”
Cole pried himself free and then struggled on. He had to get to Finn.
But then, before he could reach his brother, the bridge heaved, like a briny belch had blown out of the waters below. Cole cried out and then his knees buckled. Cal Poly made a mad grab for him, but then missed.
Right then, Finn’s shrill voice cut through the metallic booms and wails. “Cole!”
Then the tracks collapsed.
Then the train plummeted.
Cole pried himself free and struggled on. He had to get to Finn.
The bridge heaved, like a briny belch had blown out of the waters below. Cole’s knees buckled. Cal Poly made a mad grab for him and missed.
“Cole!” Finn’s shrill voice cut through the metallic booms and wails.
The tracks collapsed.
The train plummeted.
The more we use “then,” the more our stories resemble a laundry list of actions. Mr. Character did this, then this, then this, then this…
After a while, our stories start to sound like a broken record. And we all know what happens when a reader gets bored or annoyed by a story’s repetitive rhythm…Yep! They stop reading.
Here’s another example to illustrate what I’m talking about.
And then gravity’s force lifted Cole off the ground and then smashed him into the ceiling. Purses, cameras, and then even backpacks whipped past him.
“Grab my hand!”
Cole then looked down.
Finn raised his arm and then strained to reach him. Their fingers brushed once, twice—and then Finn lunged and grabbed Cole’s wrist. Right then, as he yanked Cole down, the train plunged into the water. The impact tore Cole out of Finn’s white-knuckled grip and then catapulted him into the rear window face first.
And then, for a breathless moment, he stared through the spider-webbed cracks spreading across the glass, down into a deep, black chasm.
Gravity’s force lifted Cole off the ground and smashed him into the ceiling. Purses, cameras, and backpacks whipped past him.
“Grab my hand!”
Cole looked down.
Finn strained to reach him. Their fingers brushed once, twice—Finn lunged and grabbed his wrist. As he yanked Cole down, the train plunged into the water. The impact tore Cole out of Finn’s white-knuckled grip and catapulted him into the rear window face first. He stared through the spider-webbed cracks spreading across the glass, down into a deep, black chasm.
Then this happened, Ms. Reader. Then this. And then this–Are you following along, Ms. Reader? Am I being clear enough? Because then this happened. And then this…
Readers are smart. They do not need to be taken by the hand and guided from point A, to point B, to point C, etc. So, be brave and trust your audience’s intelligence by transitioning scenes in simpler, more creative ways than “then.”
Here’s one more example from “La Jolla” to show you what I’m talking about:
Then Cole rolled over. With the train vertical, everybody, including Finn, hung above him. Then he sat up and blinked. All around him, a symphony of sobbing pleas, splintering glass, and grinding metal deafened his ears. Then he took a deep breath and struggled to his feet. Then he reached up and unbuckled Finn. “You okay, buddy?” He lifted him down and then set him on the ground.
“Good, cause we gotta go.” Then he kneeled down and struck the damaged window with his elbow. Then again and again.
Then, out of nowhere, Cal Poly appeared. “Watch out!” She peered over the top of her seat with a five-pound dumbbell. Then Cole blinked. He thought about asking her how she’d found it, but then decided it didn’t matter. People packed the weirdest stuff. Then he took hold of Finn’s arm and shoved him back, out of the way.
And then Cal Poly dropped it.
Cole rolled over. With the train vertical, everybody, including Finn, hung above him. A symphony of sobbing pleas, splintering glass, and grinding metal deafened his ears. He struggled to his feet and unbuckled Finn. “You okay, buddy?” He lifted him down.
“Good, cause we gotta go.” He struck the damaged window with his elbow.
“Watch out!” Cal Poly peered over the top of her seat with a five-pound dumbbell. He didn’t ask her where or how she’d found it. People packed the weirdest stuff. He shoved Finn back.
She dropped it.
So, how do we prevent ourselves from overusing “then”? Well, here are a few strategies I have found helpful:
- Read your story out loud. You’ll be amazed how many repetitive words and phrases you hear when you do this.
- Ask someone to read your story to you. That way you can close your eyes and listen to it without being distracted by how it looks on screen/paper.
- Use the “Find” option and search for “then.” Remove as many as you can.
- Replace “then” with a ridiculous word like “hiccup.” See if you need to keep it. Chances are, you don’t.
So, there you go! I hope you’re able to take this editing tip and apply it to your work. Heaven knows I have to every time I sit down to write.
Don’t forget, my editing website is up and running! If you’re looking for someone to help with your story, check out Jen’s Edits and Critiques.
For more tips, visit my Jen’s Editing Tips page!
Photo credits: giphy