All of a sudden, he was suddenly there

Please excuse the delay in blog posts, I’m currently recovering from some nasty bug. Now that I am once again able to sit at a computer, we return to your regularly scheduled blog posts.

Today’s question:

Somewhere I heard that you should never use “suddenly” or “all of a sudden” in writing… I was just wondering if this was true or not.”

Now, before we start, it’s always important to remember that “never” is an abused word when it comes to writing tips. There are certain things that can make your writing weaker–such as over using “to be” verbs, or adverbs, or…–but it’s just as much of a problem if you hinder your writing by avoiding things like “to be” verbs or adverbs at all cost. Advice that begins with the word “never” should always be taken with a grain of salt. Or, as my friend likes to joke, “Never take advice that begins with the word ‘never’.”

That said, I don’t believe trying to stay away from using “suddenly” “immediately” “all of a sudden” etc. in your writing is a bad idea. Beyond the fact that it sometimes falls into the category of unnecessary words, using “suddenly” and its partners often has the exact opposite effect of what you want it to in writing. It makes the action seem less, well, sudden.

This comes down to one of the biggest problems about writing action scenes. Where in a movie or the like you’re able to control the pacing (wait just another second and then *bam* Monster is there out of nowhere) each reader reads at their own pace. It’s possible that they’ll read slowly enough there seems to be little tension, or have to do something and set the book down, or get distracted, or any other number of things that you can’t control for as an author.

So how, then, are we supposed to get that same jump-through-yourself moment you have in the movie? Use “suddenly” right? That’s what it means after all, all of a sudden. “Suddenly the monster appeared.” It makes sense.

Counterintuitively, however, putting in another word makes the entire action less sudden to a reader.

Often when editing, I’ll put in the suggestion to keep sentences short in high action scenes. You can’t control much about the pacing as far as how your readers read a scene, but sentence length and paragraph breaks are a good way of speeding up and slowing down action. The shorter you keep a sentence the more immediate the action is. For example: “He ran.” Two words, the reader knows exactly what’s happening and is on to the next piece of information. Make it longer, however–“He began to run”–means it’s going to take the reader longer to make it through one action. The longer it takes to read something, the slower the action feels. The same goes for breaks. When reading, a comma is a generally a quick pause in the reader’s mind. A period is a full stop. (Hopefully how you read the past two sentences served as a good example for me). Commas blur things together. Periods break them apart. Therefore:

“She looked around, and then the monster was there.”

Seems to move more slowly than.

“She looked around. The monster was there.”

The same goes for using “suddenly” “all of a sudden” etc. “The monster was there” takes four words to get us from point A to point B. “All of a sudden, the monster was there” takes double that (and has a natural pause in reading it with the comma).

By writing that the action is sudden, we have successfully made the action that much less sudden in the pacing of the scene.

As with all of my other advice, you shouldn’t take this tip as gospel law. If “suddenly” makes a sentence flow more smoothly, use it. If it seems entirely necessary, use it. It is just one more piece of advice telling you to look carefully when you feel the need to point out something is sudden. Don’t hinder your writing trying to stick to “Never do X, Y, and Z” rules, but always consider how you can best serve your writing. If that’s by using an adverb or “was” or “all of a sudden” by all means use it. But, if there’s a better, stronger way to say what you mean, use that.

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7 thoughts on “All of a sudden, he was suddenly there

  1. bwtaylor75 says:

    This is why I keep coming back to your blog. You help me see things in a different light. You get me thinking about the construction of a sentence as opposed to the content of the sentence. As I’m reading about keeping action sentences shorter and why it makes sense, I’m thinking about my manuscript. What have I done? I’m guilty of writing from both sides of the spectrum (the too much or too little). As writers we have the tendency to try and explain too much when most of the time simpler is better.

    Hope you are feeling better, and thanks for the great post.

  2. Alex Gaines (@AlexAboard) says:

    How strange; I removed three instances of ‘suddenly’ from my novel yesterday. I have nothing against the word, they just didn’t sit right.

    I suppose at the very least it brings the word count down a bit; I seem to be getting the hang of editing, on day one I ADDED words!

  3. bsienk90 says:

    Reblogged this on Boldly go… and commented:
    Another helped tip. I have a scene were someone “Suddenly” runs out in front of my main characters car…I’m struggling with getting this action sound right.

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