Nathan Scalia's picture
Nathan Scalia from Kansas is reading so many things February 19, 2016 - 8:49am

Hey all,

One of my recent realizations is that using "suddenly" to introduce a surprising event gets old quickly. Let me use a silly cliche example.

"The Bad Guy walked forward with a knife, chortling maniacally.

Suddenly, a gunshot rang out, and the Femme Fatale stepped out of the shadows holding a smoking revolver."

Blah. I want to create a sense of suddenness to try to shock the reader with this event, especially if it's a twist, but there seems to be limited ways of accomplishing this. Dropping "suddenly" works out in some situations, but there has got to be some options.

Do you have any examples, or can you create any examples of some strategies to navigate this?

Jack Campbell Jr.'s picture
Jack Campbell Jr. from Lawrence, KS is reading American Rust by Phillipp Meyer February 19, 2016 - 8:58am

As a general rule, I never use suddenly. You can't really have a startle scare in fiction. "Suddenly, a gunshot rang out..." to me has no better impact  than "A gunshot rang out..." It's just an extra word that doesn't do anything. I can't think of any real substitutions. The way that I've tried to create a sense of suddeness in the past is more through juxtaposition than through any particular word. If the gunshot comes at a time when a gunshot is not expected, it will seem sudden.

Jose F. Diaz's picture
Jose F. Diaz from Boston is reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel February 19, 2016 - 1:22pm

I'm a firm believer of the general rule. Never use suddenly.

However, if you are going to use it, I think it can be done used for effect. I think this can go for any modifier. Oversell it. Don't just use it and cast it aside. Suddenly, like the suddenly before, nothing happened. It was as sudden as something that was not sudden suddenly was suddenly sudden. It was a magical poof of suddenness. Suddenly, suddenlys everywhere. It was a filthy mess of suddenly. Perhaps it wasn't suddenly, but it was unexpected.

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal February 19, 2016 - 8:54pm

this should go in that thread you started... community wisdom...

anyway, i agree, i use it seldomly. usually when it doesn't describe action or things that are surprise! sudden! i'd rather say something like "suddenly i understand" or whatever.

suddenly i realize something: if you think about it, we're under the umbrella of show-don't-tell here.

 

anyway, if you're looking for options, i say make the narration really, really concise. if it moves fast enough and is exciting enough things will be sudden because the reader's eyes will be racing.

you can also have something like a sound effect? BAM! but that's hard to pull off. too adam west batman.

MattF's picture
MattF from Tokyo is reading Borges' Collected Fictions February 21, 2016 - 3:11am

You can accomplish a lot with sentence length and rhythm. An example from an action/fight scene in M.R. Carey's The Girl with all the Gifts:

 

There's something ritualistic about all this, the way the older man holds her still and waits for the other to dispatch her. It's a rite of passage--a bonding moment, maybe, between a father and a son.

The youngster steels himself, visibly.

Then he's gone. Knocked off his feet. Something dark and subliminally fast has whipped by and taken him with it. He writhes on the asphalt, struggling with an enemy that despite its tiny size spits and mewls and claws at him like an entire sackful of pissed off cats.

 

Three longer, leisurely sentences in the first two paragraphs, broken with commas, followed by the two quick punches--"Then he's gone. Knocked off his feet."--creates a sense of suddeness.

Also the transition from thought into action. The first paragraph is a kind of contemplation of an idea. The second paragraph turns physical, but also depicts an image of stillness, a mental freeze. Then it bursts into the quick actions of the third paragraph. Also the single syllable word choice of the two short sentences help the effect.

I'd also say the vagueness of the two action sentences add to it. "Then he's gone. Knocked off his feet." Very clear meaning, but the reader doesn't know just what's happened. Where did he go? How was he knocked down? So the reader will rush forward, also heightening the sense of quickness. The next sentence is longer, but also has no commas so it facilitates the rush forward as well, providing more information but also maintaining the mystery and tension. 

Sentence lengths, commas, word length, thought vs action, the single sentence paragraph as well--a ton of small decisons that can be manipulated to pretty good effect, I think.

 

DrWood's picture
DrWood from Milwaukee, WI, living in Louisiana is reading A different book every 2-5 days. Currently Infinite Jest February 21, 2016 - 8:06pm

I use suddenly rarely, and not at the beginning of a sentence.

John was describing Dr. Lector's lecture on anatomy when he suddenly broke into tongues. Or Aramaic, or some other language that I have never heard.

MattF's picture
MattF from Tokyo is reading Borges' Collected Fictions February 22, 2016 - 4:44am

Yeah, the word isn't the problem, its usage is the problem (as tends to be the case).

I think it's fine in indicating a condition of suddeness. It's horrible in conveying that sense of suddeness.

I think it's so instinctively hacked at that moment because it's more acceptable in oral story telling. Phrases like "suddenly, out of nowhere..." are commonplace when telling a story to friends. They just suck on the page.

voodoo_em's picture
voodoo_em from England is reading All the books by Tana French! February 22, 2016 - 9:22am

Craig Clevenger wrote a bit in an essay about using suddenly, he calls it "shark music" because upon reading the word "suddenly" the reader expects a surprise and it defeats your purpose. My suggestions for how to avoid it would be purely in the scene unpacking and sentence rhythm. Here's the Craig Clevenger link in case you wanted it. :)

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal February 24, 2016 - 2:21pm

^

exactly.

Jose F. Diaz's picture
Jose F. Diaz from Boston is reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel February 24, 2016 - 3:01pm

^

... he said suddenly.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated March 7, 2016 - 8:20am

So... what about dialogue? I mean people use the word right?

Jose F. Diaz's picture
Jose F. Diaz from Boston is reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel March 7, 2016 - 8:34am

@ Dwayne

I think in dialogue it is good to go. If that's the word the character would use, then I would use it. I probably would turn the person into a valley-girl/surfer stereotype. "Suddenly X happened, and then suddenly he was all like whoa, and then suddenly he was like whoa. It was so sudden."

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated March 7, 2016 - 12:12pm

I was thinking more, "I was eating brunch and suddenly the guy at the next table started flipping out."

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal March 12, 2016 - 5:42pm

I think dialogue is where you can (and often should) break all the rules because people talk how they talk despite it being bad prose.