An innocuous little word, isn’t it? Yet it rates five centimetres of column space in the dictionary.
It means at that time; after that; also; in that case. It can be used as added emphasis: ‘I see you’ve burnt the cakes, then, Alfred.’
These are all perfectly acceptable uses and meanings.
The problem (and you knew there was one or I wouldn’t be writing it about it) comes when it’s overused. Here’s an example.
Alfred thought he had solved the problem of the Vikings. He agreed to pay them lots of money and they undertook to stop invading his land. Then the rotters gathered a huge army and invaded anyway. Alfred was then forced to flee, and to roam Somerset disguised as a peasant, while he sought a lasting solution from a position of safety.
Then one day he came to the house of a poor woman, who agreed to take him in; but not knowing (or caring) that he was her king, she made him do chores in lieu of rent.
‘I’m going out foraging,’ she told him one bright morning. ‘I’ve set some cakes by the fire to cook. Watch them carefully, and don’t let them burn.’ Then, with a pointed finger and a fierce stare that warned of retribution if he failed, she stalked out, leaving him to it.
He was lost in thought, his mind dwelling, as it must, on kingly matters. For a long time he just sat there, his head in his hands. Then he heard the good woman’s steps, and he looked at the hearth. The cakes were blackened ruins.
She entered. She stopped. She sniffed the air. ‘I see you burnt the cakes, then, Alfred,’ she said with unnatural calm. ‘I ask one simple thing of you, and this is the result.’ Then with a piercing shriek she grabbed the besom broom and brought it down upon Alfred’s head.
This happened; then that happened, and then that happened, and then another thing happened… put like that, you can see the difficulty.
To begin with, there’s the repetition: then appears seven times in some fifteen lines of text.
All too often, then creeps in where it doesn’t need to be. It’s put there to signify that things follow in sequence; but you’ve written them in sequence, so the reader already knows – you don’t have to tell him. It’s like presenting a list with bullet points – not what you want in your sweated-over prose. ‘This reads like a presentation to the board of governors’ isn’t the kind of response you’re hoping for, unless of course it is a presentation to the board of governors.
Try dropping all the thens that crop up in your work. You may find that some actually belong there: Then the rotters gathered a huge army and invaded anyway. Others are just filling space that doesn’t need to be filled: Alfred was then forced to flee; Then one day and Then…she stalked out, leaving him to it. Remove them, and the text becomes more immediate.
Then can be distancing; it can also turn your work into plodding prose with no spark. It slows things down, putting a small hiatus between one action and the next by forming an introduction to that subsequent action. Go straight into it instead, and you pick up pace.
‘I see you burnt the cakes, then, Alfred,’ she said with unnatural calm. ‘I ask one simple thing of you, and this is the result.’ With a piercing shriek she grabbed the besom broom and brought it down upon Alfred’s head.
I’ve kept the use in the first line, because it’s a natural part of the woman’s speech. I’ve cut the next one out, with the result that she moves from her complaint straight into sound and movement.
It’s just a little word, but it has an effect far beyond its size. If it really needs to be there, well and good; if not, then lose it.