Why You Don’t Use “Suddenly”

There are tons of writing adages out there along the lines of “Show don’t tell” that you’ve no doubt heard your old creative writing schoolmarm repeat hundreds of times. Unless you know what they’re really saying and what they really mean, though, these cheerful mottoes can’t help you. Today, I want to fire off a quick explanation for why writers generally should stay away from the word “suddenly.”

“Suddenly” is a crutch. It’s cheap. It’s easy. Lots and lots of writers pepper their manuscripts with it because then they don’t have to worry about writing transitions, describing actions or giving the reader any context. They just slap a “suddenly” on to an event or feeling and voila! It fits!

Except it really doesn’t. A reader’s job is to react and infer and analyze what is going on in a manuscript or book. When we’re faced with “suddenly,” it’s like a power surge. Our system is scrambled. Something suddenly comes on the scene that takes us by surprise, whether it is a plot twist, an action, a feeling or a thought. And that’s fine. We react. We try to understand what the new development means. If it is an emotion, we try to fit that into the character and situation. We do our job.

The problem is, though, that a writer who leans heavily on the “suddenly” crutch usually thinks that “suddenly” is enough. They whallop the character and the reader with something and then move on. We don’t get a reaction from the character, we don’t get the feeling explained, we don’t see a lot of context. The “suddenly” has been used to shoehorn something into the narrative without much regard for how well it fits.

For example:

Suddenly, a big slimy alien burst out from behind the wall.

Reader’s reaction: Jarring, but okay. Hopefully there are aliens elsewhere in this book and this isn’t the first one we see.

A rage overtook her and she suddenly punched him square on the nose.

Reader’s reaction: Whoa! Wait. They were just kissing. Where did that come from? Why?

As you can see, “suddenly” is usually a treasure map of lazy writing. When you come across “suddenly” in your own work, you’ve likely found a section of the narrative where you could’ve given more context, more reasoning, more explanation. Let’s rework one of our examples:

She pulled away from him and looked deeply into his eyes, only to catch him staring blankly at the TV over her shoulder. The rage that overtook her was so intense that she sent a fist flying straight for his nose.

At least now we understand her rage (even if we think she might be overreacting just a liiiiittle bit). So take a look at your manuscript. Are there any places where “suddenly” is standing in for something that could be expanded, deepened? That could be given some more meaning and context? It’s not the word itself that’s bad, it’s what it does with the reader’s understanding of your work.

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  1. Anne M Leone’s avatar

    I do struggle to avoid the word suddenly and frequently ponder if there are other, better ways to describe things that happen quickly and unexpectedly.

    After reading your post, I returned to the book I’m currently reading (should I give away the title??) and three paragraphs in found this gem:

    “She was dreaming of her great imprisoned father when suddenly, for no reason at all, she woke up.”

    I laughed out loud. Completely annoying, and just as your post concluded, the suddenly wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to know WHY she woke up and the author clearly didn’t think it worth telling.

    So maybe you’re on to something. Must go back and re-examine all of my own suddenlys now. Thanks!

  2. Shaun Hutchinson’s avatar

    Ahhh! This is so great. And, of course, I had to go count how many times I used “suddenly” in my book. 7 times out of 58k, but I’m still going to go back and see if I need any of them.

    I found this cool free program at http://www.supermagnus.com/mac/Word_Counter/index.html
    It has a function that shows you word frequency and I use it to find all my crutch words. Seriously, I used “seriously” 30 times. It’s so easy to fall into traps like these and sometimes it’s difficult to step back and see that you’ve fallen into them.

  3. Jill’s avatar

    Thank you for this! I teach 7th graders and I’m constantly harping on why the should NOT use “suddenly”! I’ll be sharing this with them.

  4. Edith Cohn’s avatar

    Interesting. I shall think on this. ;)

  5. MeganRebekah’s avatar

    I went and checked through my current WIP. In almost 50,000 words I had two uses of suddenly.

    One I had already highlighted to change (it was on the first chapter which I’m not allowed to revisit or edit) and the other was the MC describing an event that happened lightning-fast.

    Not too bad overall. Probably because I try to avoid adverbs in general.

  6. Kate at Read This Book!’s avatar

    Great tip! I agree with this. When I was in middle school, practically everyone used “suddenly” in their essays. So annoying. I am not a writer or anything but I am going to enter NaNoWriMo this year and I’ll definitely check to make sure I don’t use “suddenly”. :)

  7. Pat Zietlow Miller’s avatar

    This was really helpful. I’ve never thought of the word “suddenly” like this before. I’ll have to go through my manuscripts and see if I’m guilty. I can think of one instance right off the top of my head.

  8. Tim Clifford’s avatar

    “Suddenly” is pretty bad, but at least it’s occasionaly apt as things can happen suddenly. One I hate even more is “without warning”, as in “Without warning, the killer entered the room and brandished his machete.” What warning was the killer supposed to give, anyway?

    Even rarer is the dreaded “Suddenly and without warning….”

  9. Christy Lenzi’s avatar

    It is lazy. And tempting, sometimes. Thanks for the reminder.

  10. JJ’s avatar

    When I’m beta reading, this word irks me almost as much as nails on a chalkboard. I cannot remember one instance where ‘suddenly’ stood out in a good way.

  11. Kathy Stinson’s avatar

    Kathy suddenly felt a sudden urge to go do a “suddenly” search on her current novel-in-progress!

  12. Menton Couve’s avatar

    I’ve read somewhere long ago about a writer’s pet peeve being “suddenly”. I don’t recall his name, but have adopted his ways since. The book I’m writing is still in the making (I’ve put it aside long ago), and have eliminated from it all suddenly-s. I’m reading Proust’s Swann’s Way that is translated by Moncrieff and Kilmartin, revised by Enright. There are plenty of this unwanted words in it. And yes! I’m crossing out all of them as it seems to irritate me so much: I shrug every time I hear or read this word!

  13. James’s avatar

    All at once he slapped his forehead hard with his palm and cried out: “Of course! ‘Suddenly’ is weak and lazy, like ‘nice’ and ‘interesting’. I shall have to work extra hard to avoid such crutches in the future!”
    He contemplated the author with much affection and esteem.

  14. kathleen duey’s avatar

    “Suddenly” is almost always the beginning of a slide into narrator voice, too, which is rarely as compelling as the character’s voice.

  15. J. Cameron McClain’s avatar

    Indeed, it’s a crutch, but beyond overuse, many cases are also misuse. The problem with sentences like “Suddenly the phone rang,” for example, or “Suddenly another car crashed into ours,” is that the writer is adding the adverb to a situation that is, by implication (if not by definition) already unexpected. I’ve been editing novels for a while and the explanation seems to cure my clients of that particular writing problem.

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