A client recently asked me if I ever have an opinion on certain words. I don’t. Words are there to communicate a message – to tell a story. I do not sit with a dictionary ticking off the words I love and scratching out the words I hate.
There is one word that I cannot stand. And here is why.
First, let’s examine this word.
It’s an adverb and, occasionally, an adjective too. According to OED.com, the definition is:
Without warning or preparation; all at once, all of a sudden; In some contexts the implication is rather ‘At an unexpected moment, unexpectedly’.OED.com
There are a few other definitions, including a few obsolete definitions to the word but we’ll stick with this one for now.
So, what is my problem with this?
Well, for one, I’ve seen far too many fiction manuscripts liberally scattered with the word. I’m not making this up, I’ve actually read this in a story:
Suddenly, all of a sudden, they …
How unexpected was that event that we needed two examples of the word?
But it’s not just the overuse of the word that grates. Let’s look back at the definition: Without warning or preparation.
As a reader and as an editor, I love a twist. I love to be able to say (and I frequently do it out loud) “Ooo, I never saw that coming.” And that’s great. Twists and turns are what keep a story interesting. They keep the reader turning the page.
But just because you want to surprise the reader, it doesn’t mean you have to take them by surprise all the time. Look again at the definition. Without warning or preparation. As a reader, part of the fun comes from guessing the twists and turns along the way.
A big part of the craft of writing is knowing when to put in those little clues, little signs along the way. You may have heard it called foreshadowing. But that’s just the fancy name that creative writing tutors like to use to explain the concept of giving a hint.
Let’s imaging the tale of Micky the Mouse (this is a work of fiction any resemblance to other mice, either alive, dead or cartoonish is purely coincidental). Micky is walking along one day on his way to his field.
As Micky is walking along, he hears a strange call from overhead and a shadow falls across his path. He looks up into the sky and sees …
Okay, so this is massively over simplified, but you get the point. We’ve dropped some hints for the reader that poor Micky is about to be eaten by a bird. We’ve done some foreshadowing with actual shadows.
We could surprise the reader and have the strange noise and shadow come from an alien spacecraft. That would be a twist. That would keep me happy.
How does this relate to suddenly?
Well, let’s rewrite the story …
Micky was walking along to his favourite field. Suddenly a bird drops in a eats him. Poor Micky.
Where’s all the tension gone? Where was the foreshadowing and hinting? Where was the storytelling?
Again, we are using a very simplified example. But here’s my point. Yes, stories need unexpected events. Readers need moments where they are surprised by something that has happened. Only suddenly just takes all the fun out of it.
Of course, there will be plenty of times where a suddenly is more than appropriate. In dialogue, for instance, as one character discusses events with another, suddenly is more than appropriate as, for the characters, it was without warning or preparation.
And even the occasional, very occasional, use in prose is acceptable. But if a number of your paragraphs are starting with Suddenly, perhaps you need to think about how you are taking your reader on the journey.
Now, lecture over and just for fun, here’s another definition of suddenly,described as now obsolete: As an adjective, meaning quick or rapid. The dictionary gives this example from 1556 (the year not teatime), can you reword it for modern English usage?
Yowre thoughte is soudainlier than ower tonge.
“suddenly, adv. (and adj.)”. OED Online. December 2020. Oxford University Press. https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/193469?redirectedFrom=suddenly (accessed January 06, 2021).
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