Sunday, October 21, 2007

Bad Words


I'll be brief.
There. Then. Somehow.
Bad words: naughty, naughty, naughty. The first two are flabby, the last one lazy.
There: This one's actually the least offensive to me, which only tells me it's my own bad habit. Nine times out of ten, there is nothing but filler. It takes up space that might be given to more, well, useful words.
That tenth time? Remember, there is a direction, and an indeterminate one at that. If it's going to remain in your story, it'd damn well better be important. And if that direction is so important, *why* did you use such a vague one? Successfully defend your answer and you're... there.
Then: One of the flabbiest words in English. Ever since we all decided to read from left to right, causation has been indicated by sentence order. Bob started the car and (then) backed out of the driveway. Okay, who thinks we need 'then' to let us know that Bob moved the car *after* he started it. Ninety-nine instances out of one hundred, then is useless.
Don't believe me? Put your thumb over the word and see if the sentence still makes sense.
One Important Exception: 'Then' can be a good way to build rhythm, especially in a string of complicated, related actions. In that case, the word is used, not once, but a few times, each repition building the chain of action. It can also build a sense of procedure, of actions performed many times. Lee Child uses this technique to good effect.
Somehow: Laziest. Word. Ever.
All somehow tells us is that the writer couldn't be bothered to consider the action. I just read a book by an author whose work I *love*. So it ground my gears all the more that said author had all sorts of things 'somehow' happening.
Bodies were 'somehow' moved. Small children 'somehow' climbed up the sides of walls. Guys hit by cars 'somehow' found the strength to crochet afghans as Christmas gifts for the entire family. Etc, etc, et-bloody-cetera.
I'm not advocating spending a million words on a trivial action, nor on explaining an action in a way that kills narrative flow. I'm just saying, DON'T USE SOMEHOW.
Bob somehow fit the corpse in the trunk. He kept to the speed limit heading out of town.
Bob stuffed the corpse in the trunk. He kept to the speed limit heading out of town.
Now how hard was that. 'Stuffed' implies how Bob did it, and we're all happy. Easy! Of course, if it was me...
The body was heavy, and dead-limp. Bob wrestled it for ten minutes, praying no one walked past. He had to slam the trunk to get it shut. Something inside crunched.
Bob kept to the speed limit all the way out of town.
But what can I tell you? That's just me. That's also a value decision on the narrative importance of any given action and the usefulness of building tension there. I seem to've decided Bob is an amateur, and very nervous. If he was a seasoned pro at the body-disposal game, I'd treat his efforts with more workmanlike prose.
NB: These rules apply to narative voice ONLY. Dialogue has only two rules: get the point across and keep it natural. People *say* there, then, somehow and all sorts of stuff when they're talking...
In parting: Back in my wayward youth, I used to know a talented martial artist. The man was a morbidly obese chain-smoker who hated to work out. He was also a technical genius and mean as a snake. I learned what I could from him, but I didn't bum-rush the buffet with a Camel hanging from the corner of my mouth.
There are bestselling authors who have these bad habits. Like that martial artist, it's sometimes possible to be a flabby, lazy success.
But this race to the reader is hard enough *without* our bad habits...

13 comments:

liz fenwick said...

Thanks off to inspect the wip :-)

Charles Gramlich said...

Good post. I agree that "somehow" is useless. And now I better go check my manuscript to make sure I haven't used it. I do use "there" on occassion, but it's that rhythm thing you're talking about. A single additional word can so change the music of a phrase. "then" is the same way. But when I do use them it's more about word flow than about the meaning of these words.

cs harris said...

I'm now going back to finish my last read-through, hoping to god I don't trip over any theres, thens (a big failing of mine!) and somehows...

Kate S said...

She wondered if this somehow applied to her own writing. There were a number of instances, where, maybe...

But then she figured, nah, couldn't be.

Leatherdykeuk said...

Oh dear! You're absolutely right, and I use 'then' too often.

avery said...

You have such a knack for relaying important information while still making me laugh my ass off.

"Bum-rush the buffet with a Camel..."

I'm still chuckling.

Bernita said...

Must check.

Alyssa Goodnight said...

Thanks for the suggestion! I will definitely check for these!

Julie Cohen said...

Great. Thank you. So now I know I used at least "then" and "somehow" in a key scene in the book I just gave to my editor.

Off to be quietly paranoid somewhere. ;-)

hesitant scribe said...

Oh yes - great stuff. Off to look at my wip forthwith!

*And then I'll somehow remove any I find if they are there!*

Steve Malley said...

Glad this post is helping. Our readers will thank us all! :-)

Graeme K Talboys said...

To 'somehow', I'd add 'perhaps' (or variations thereof). It really bugs me when I read something like 'there were perhaps three cars involved in the crash'. I want to slap authors who use that. Don't they know? Are they too lazy to sort it out?

Miladysa said...

*gulp*

I hope I have not been using them... I think not... I pray not...