Peeve of the Day

Today’s peeve, gentlebeings and fellow wordsmiths, is that pair of weasel words, “somehow” and “something.”

We’ve all used them, at least in our first drafts.  Our hero is engaged in breakneck pursuit of the villain, and his energy is flagging while the villain has wings on his heels (possibly literally, if we’re writing fantasy) . . . but somehow, our hero finds within himself a last reserve of speed and collars the miscreant.  Or possibly our hero is fast overtaking the bad guy, but somehow the bad guy pulls ahead by just enough to swing aboard a passing garbage truck and make his escape.

Later in the same epic, our hero is about to enter his home through the front door after a hard day’s work . . . but something prompts him to go around back and enter through the kitchen door instead, thus allowing him to get the drop on the waiting villain.

This is lazy writing.  It implies causation (thus taking the curse of random coincidence off the turn of events), but it does so without bothering to be specific about anything.  The alert reader — and it never pays to assume your reader is anything but alert — will notice that an actual cause or agent is missing, and will lose a certain amount of faith in the writer because of the omission.

Most of the time, you can jettison the “somehow” and no one will miss it.  The hero puts on a burst of speed and catches the bad guy, or the bad guy pulls ahead and makes his getaway — state it with confidence and your reader will believe you.

As for that stealthy entrance through the kitchen door . . . ditching the “something” isn’t enough to help you there.  For that one, you also need to come up with a reason.  If your hero goes round to the back based on the promptings of his intuition, you had better have established already that he’s an intuitive sort and that his intuition works in his favor more often than not.  Otherwise, you’d better have him noticing that the doormat is no longer lined up squarely with the edges of the front step, or that his cat is not dozing on her favored late-afternoon spot on the living-room window-sill, or that the burnt-out match stub he normally shuts between the door and the doorjamb when he leaves in the morning isn’t there any more (depending upon whether your hero is obsessively tidy, or a cat person, or professionally paranoid.)

The two general rules that apply here:  one, don’t dither; and two, specificity is your friend.

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