Thursday, March 12, 2009

Something Suddenly Came Up

"Suddenly" has become a dreaded word among writers. It's use, we're told, almost always seems to fail its purpose of creating that feeling of...of...of...something happening without warning, or happening abruptly -- which is its definition.

The clock repair man took out his handkerchief and wiped the grease off the first of twelve large Roman numerals. Suddenly, the bell chimed and the man lost his footing, dropping twenty feet before his hood was hooked by the ever-turning second hand.

No! we're told. "Suddenly" takes out the suddenness of an action scene. It's best just to say it without.

The clock repair man took out his handkerchief and wiped the grease off the first of twelve large Roman numerals. The bell chimed and the man lost his footing, dropping twenty feet before his hood was hooked by the ever-turning second hand.

This version is supposed to be better. It shows the mark of a sophisticated writer. Isn't that the case? Whenever I come across a scene like this, where a sudden action happens without the use of the word "suddenly" I think to myself, Yes, this is a sophisticated writer. And, briefly, before continuing on with the story, I imagine that sophisticated writer sitting in a burgundy chair, surrounded by tapestries and tea cups and looking quite intelligent.

I agree that "suddenly" often doesn't work in an action scene. But -- and I may well be alone in this -- when I'm most honest with myself and most sensitive to my reading, the alternative of NOT using "suddenly" is equally problematic. Action does actually come at different paces. Some things happen suddenly. To deny that becomes nothing more than a writer showing off how well-trained he or she is. Not using "suddenly" suddenly becomes a sure way of becoming self-conscious, of showing off fake sophistication. Same thing with exclamation points. Never use exclamation points! It's amateur! Good writers will use the context of the story, the language to show their excitement. To me, this restraint often results in writing that feels cordial, robotic, and cold. Not my ideal lover.

I think in some ways, the art of writing good action scenes has been badly damaged by all of the restraining orders that have been put on writers. Don't describe in action scenes. Keep the pacing fast. Use incomplete sentences. No exclamation points. No using the word "suddenly." Many, if not all, of these rules make a lot of sense and should be considered when writing an action scene. But, perhaps the best advice when writing an action scene is to loosen up and try it your own way. As with all rules, following them too rigidly makes us forget their original intent, and we become blind to the occasions for breaking them.


  1. I recently thought about "suddenly," and I agree with you. I think suddenly is a word that helps create smoother transitions from one "thing" to the next.

    For example, some storms seem sudden to us, but we spot others coming from several miles away.

    "He started walking to town. It rained. He threw his raincoat on."

    Do people really assume it suddenly rained in the previous example, or are they thinking "oh, he fast-forwarded"?

    I guess one could use "without warning" or "unexpectedly" in some cases, but it amounts to the same thing, right? Suddenly doesn't only describe how fast something occurs. It also implies surprise on behalf of the person or people witnessing the "sudden" event.

  2. Ha! I just searched my manuscript and found 20 instances of "suddenly." The first one was not necessary, so I changed it. The others are in sections that I am revising, so I'll get to them soon enough. Or eventually, depending on my procrastination levels.

    I see your teacups and burgundy chair and I raise you one crushed velvet smoking robe and the scent of fine pipe tobacco...

  3. I just did a quick search (inspired by Rick) through my own ms, and there are five (5) instances of "suddenly" and three (3) instances of "sudden."

    The OED defines "suddenly" as:
    Without warning or preparation; all at once, all of a sudden.

    "Sudden" is defined as: Happening or coming without warning or premonition; taking place or appearing all at once.

    So can we write "without warning" or "all at once" instead, then settle into leather wingback chairs with our glasses of cognac?

    In the general case, it's probably a good rule. But we have the word because it means something. I think there was a tendency to overuse it in 19th-century literature (inspired, I think, by the New Testament where there's a whole load of things suddenly happening) and that gave rise to the general proscription. Suddenly, it was bad form to use "suddenly."

    As Justus points out, some things are sudden. That's why we have the damned word, innit?

  4. I searched the 97,000 words of my manuscript and found 15 instances of suddenly. Not bad, I think. And most of them need to be there, in my opinion. I'll double check, hehe.

    I agree. Loosen up. This is not a competition to see who can follow all those rigid rules!

  5. I defended the word, but it does not appear in my manuscript, yet.

  6. provides these alternatives:
    aback, abruptly, all at once, all of a sudden, asudden, forthwith, on spur of moment, quickly, short, sudden, swiftly, unanticipatedly, unaware, unawares, without warning

    I like suddenly better. Although "unanticipatedly" is rather poetic in its clunkiness.

  7. Suddenly, I feel a bit sick about my (possible) overuse of suddenly. I found 30 in my almost 94K manuscript. I do have a lot of action though and things do happen suddenly. Hmmm... I may have to consider giving some of those the boot though.

  8. Yeah, Justus, I think those other words are just like suddenly to some people. It's fine to use them all!

    Rick, I like unanticipatedly! I'm going to use that all the time from now on!

    Scott, Lady Glamis, Rick, Kate, good idea about the counting words. There's a really fun tool, I think it's called wordle that does a pictorial analysis of which words you use in a document. I'll try and remember it in more detail tomorrow.

  9. Great post! I'm revising and saw a few suddenlys. I deleted all but one, because I wanted it there. I know exactly what you mean about creating that quick action. It's a tough balance.

  10. I try not to use suddenly too often. I'll have to go through and check just have often I use it.

    Great post. As writers, I don't believe that we should follow all of the rules of writing. Rules can be too restrictive. Where's the fun :)

  11. I've used suddenly and then went back in revisions and backspaced that little word right out.

    It means something that happens unexpectedly but sounds better in a sentence than the other words that mean the same thing.

    I'd love to use it in my action- adventure middle grade novel but I think it would be SUDDEN death for it. :)

  12. I'm probably one of the writers who RUINS IT FOR EVERYONE ELSE by overusing suddenly! And CAPS! And most definitely adverbs!

    But although I do agree in my own writing, if I find three suddenlyson a page, it's really too much, I agree with your point. The rule makers sometimes go to far and become tyrants.

    I remember reading a writing book which was explaining why one shouldn't use adverbs. The grammarian illustrated the point by editing a scene from The Great Gatsby. The scene was "improved" by the removal of all the adjectives and adverbs.

    I'm sorry, but I much preferred the original Gatsby to this so-called improvement.

    I'm fine if some writers choose sparse language, but I think it's sad all writers should be held to the same Procrustean bed.

  13. I'm a bit late to the party on this one...

    Being in the midst of juggling suddenly throughout a 130,000 word novel (where lots of things happen quickly) I found this conversation and your observations fascinating.

    Long before I started juggling suddenly, I listened to the whole Harry Potter series on audiobook, read by Stephen Fry. And when I started juggling, I thought back to J.K. and wondered if she'd deliberately avoided suddenly, because during the listen there were two words that stuck in my mind (or stuck in my throat more like, I was so sick sick sick of hearing them), above every other turn of phrase: without warning.

    I felt like she'd said without warning about 200 times by completion and hoped I'd never hear those words again.

    Having read your comments, I went back over the books to see if J.K. had been given the same advice about suddenly, and had consciously replaced it with 'without warning'. I was really surprised!!

    J.K. uses sudden/suddenly 580 times throughout the series, that's an average of 82 times per novel (and you're chastising yourselves for using it between 5-30 times ;o). BUT! She uses without warning only 21 times, an average of three times per novel. And yet I didn't notice her over-use of suddenly, I only noticed her deliberate attempt to avoid it, or to mix it up with something else.

    I'm a writer ... I use 20 words when I could use two ... so in short, what I've learned from your post is this:

    If you're actively avoiding suddenly, take it out altogether, or use quick action verbs instead, like snapped, jerked, etc. But be careful of replacing it with thesaurus alternatives like without warning, or unanticipatedly, because readers notice and then tire of these replacements far more quickly. Suddenly can easily slip right by.

    So glad I found your post because I was about to use 'all at once' and now I don't think I will!


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