Words To Avoid in Writing Fiction

Using “suddenly” in your manuscript falls under the category of words to avid when writing fiction. 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.

But 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 some thoughts on words to avoid in writing fiction — especially “suddenly.”

words to avoid in writing fiction
Words to avoid in writing fiction: Suddenly, a chameleon appeared!

Using “Suddenly” in Creative Writing Is a Cheap Crutch

“Suddenly” is one of those words to avoid writing in fiction because it’s a crutch. It’s cheap. It’s easy. It’s a writing cliché (more on how to avoid clichés). 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 wallop 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.

Examples of When “Suddenly” Works and When It Doesn’t

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. It’s still a writing cliché, but it’s not as egregious as the following example:

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.

Words to Avoid In Writing Fiction: Context Is Key

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 for words to avoid in writing fiction. 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.

If you’re finding writing clichés in your manuscript, bring me on as your novel editor. I will give you actionable revision challenges to help you take your work to the next level.

25 Replies to “Words To Avoid in Writing Fiction”

  1. 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!

    1. In my example below I remove the necessity for “Suddenly the voice inside the fridge, said … ” This way, the reader experiences the surprise in much the same way as the protagonist.

      Justin opened the fridge door well into the early hours of the morning, his head screaming in an echo chamber of champagne and far worse bad choices of the pill-popping variety.

      Light from inside the fridge pierced the late night kitchen murkiness. Justin squinted as he tried to focus his half-blinded eyes.

      “You need to stop living this way,” said a voice from inside the fridge.

      “Huh?” Justin jumped back a few feet. His eyes lost their squint and bulged wide open. They were well focused now.
      After his initial shock, he calmed himself down. There had to be a logical explanation.

      “Ah, I get it.” His furrowed brow smoothed out and a knowing smile broke on his face. “Someone has played a practical joke on me. I’ll bet there’s a mobile phone in the fridge. Simple.”

      He looked intently at the inside of the fridge, but could not see any sign of a phone. He edged forward and started rummaging about in the fridge.


      “Well, there goes your theory of a mobile phone, Justin Barton,” said the voice. “Now pick up the can of beer talking to you and place me on the kitchen floor in front of you.”

      Justin was flabbergasted, his heart pounded. Nevertheless, he managed with trembling fingers to pick up the can of beer, which felt warm to the touch, alive, and placed it as carefully as he could manage on the kitchen floor.

      He stepped back at least six feet, not knowing what to expect next.

      *Blah, blah …*

  2. 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. 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.

    1. Obviously, suddenly, should be used in the right context where it would be useful.

      Removing it entirely would be a big mistake. Just as removing all adverbs would be a big mistake. Just as removing all nametags would be a big mistake.

      I think if ‘suddenly’ appears at the beginning of the sentence, it is quite likely, it should be removed.

      What do you think?

    1. If I wrote the following in my first draft:

      Urko abruptly jumped off the tree branch, suddenly realizing the safety net beneath him was no longer being held by his fellow gorillas, he immediately fell to his death.

      This is how I might edit it:

      Urko had to get on with things, the time travelling humans were getting away. On the upper branches of the oak tree, he tucked his seeing glass securely away in his shoulder bag.

      He looked down.

      “Hold that safety net taut,” he shouted down to his fellow gorillas.

      “We’re all ready for you, General!” shouted up Lieutenant Aldo.

      Urko jumped.

      But no sooner had he jumped when he heard a commotion beneath him.

      He looked down.

      In the clearing below, his fellow gorillas had scrambled in all directions, dropping the safety net.

      “Aaaaaaargh!” he screamed, his eyes wide open with fear.

      “Why?” he thought, before slamming into the ground and bouncing up a few inches as if he were a giant hairy ragdoll.

      Broken and barely alive, he glimpsed an approaching band of fearsome humans.

      “Huh, armed slave-humans?”

      Pain, upon pain seared through Urko’s brain as he felt violent kick after violent kick smashing into his dying broken body. It seemed the only weapons that the slave-humans preferred to use were their feet.

      Urko wondered if he would at least live long enough to survive his pummeling.

      Seconds later …

      “Let’s go,” said a female human.

      “But Number 1, he’s still breathing,” said a male human.

      “If he survives, fair play to him. Never forget, Number 3, we’re not apes; we’re humans. We kill to defend ourselves. They kill for pleasure.”

      Toodles for now.

      T. J. P. Campbell

  4. 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.

  5. 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”. 🙂

  6. 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.

  7. “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….”

  8. 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.

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

  10. Menton Couve says:

    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!

  11. 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.

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

  13. J. Cameron McClain says:

    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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