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I am writing a manuscript for a novel. It's my first attempt, and often I find myself wanting to write "suddenly" or "all of a sudden". I do this when I want the scene to change in an instant, or the reader to be surprised.

What is a good way to make this happen, while avoiding the "suddenly"/"all of a sudden" clichés? Are there words or phrases that can replace them? Am I simply building a scene wrong? If so, what is an effective technique for creating surprise without running into this problem?

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Could you give us an example or two where you've been having problems? What is it about your writing or your feedback that makes you feel your use of these phrases is not effective? –  Standback Aug 20 '11 at 20:53
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Ineffective based on frequency. Feel like I want to do it too often, and the reader will start to feel like the surprises are manufactured. –  Tim Chaves Aug 21 '11 at 16:07
    
@Tim - one other thing you can do is ask a question showing a snippet (say a short scene) of work where you want to use "all of a sudden" and ask for a critique where you ask our community to help you replace too many phrases like that. We're good at that style question too. –  justkt Aug 21 '11 at 22:18
    
Noted, thanks justkt. –  Tim Chaves Aug 22 '11 at 12:37

6 Answers 6

up vote 37 down vote accepted

I think this is one of those areas where the 'show don't tell' rule really shines.

Instead of:

Bart sat back in his chair and let himself relax. All of a sudden, there was a huge explosion down the street.

Try:

Bart sat back in his chair and let himself relax. He was almost asleep when something made him open his eyes. There was just enough time for him to roll off his chair and desperately flatten himself against the ground. The cloud of debris had swept over him before he even heard the explosion. He kept his head low, his hands shielding his neck, and tried to understand what was happening. etc.

I'd also suggest short sentences and paragraphs (I didn't do that in my example, but if I were writing this in MS format, I'd definitely consider putting a paragraph break after the second sentence). You may want to go so far as using short, sharp words.

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Perfect answer! I particularly like the use of short sentences and paragraphs to convey the sense of immediacy, the "sudden" quality of the event. –  Feral Oink Aug 20 '11 at 17:32
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Great answer, thank you. –  Tim Chaves Aug 21 '11 at 16:10

Instead of something like,"Suddenly,I heard a scream behind me.I was scared by that sudden scream.",try something like, "Out of the blue.. 'SCREECH!'a loud shriek sounded behind my back,and I froze in terror,puzzled and alarmed at the same time."Using phrases would make the writing a little more interesting,and try using direct speech and sound effects to make the reader excited,and continue reading the story/composition or whatever it is.

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I'm going to disagree with your original premise. I'm assuming from what you wrote ("am writing a manuscript... it's my first attempt") that this is the first draft. If it is the first draft, I would suggest that you just put in the words you think of and keep writing. The key of this part is to get the story told, not necessarily worry about exactly how it is told.

When you get to the revision stage, you can look at the chapter/section/excerpt and see if you are using the phrase too often, and if you are you can decide which places you want to change, and which to leave the same. Then you can have other readers look it over as well to give you more feedback about if they are obtrusive or not.

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There are a few different effects related to the phrase "suddenly"

1) When describing how someone else perceived something or reacted

I believe that towards morning he attempted to commit suicide but did not succeed. He remained locked up till midday—and then suddenly he ran to the authorities. He is said to have crawled on his knees, to have sobbed and shrieked, to have kissed the floor crying out that he was not worthy to kiss the boots of the officials standing before him.

Here there is no problem, the narrator is not asking too much from the reader and the overall effect is not of grand surprise or revelation. If the protagonist did other things in a sudden way, narrator would naturally report on them without disturbing the flow (other phrases could, if appropriate, be used to avoid repetition: 'out of nowhere', 'unexpectedly', 'abruptly' and so on).

2) When you are aiming for an effect of a surprise

In this case using the term "suddenly" can work, but heavy lifting is done by the storyline.

For example consider

Suddenly she lifted her face, and her eyes flashed.

which can work, but requires a leap of imagination from the reader, so it is not effortless. However, the quote is incomplete, compare to the effect in the context

There was silence for a moment, during which Mrs. Goyte remained with her head dropped, sinister and abstracted. Suddenly she lifted her face, and her eyes flashed.

which I feel works rather well. Another famous example is found in this passage:

Once Zhuangzi dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn't know he was Zhuangzi.
Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Zhuangzi. But he didn't know if he was Zhuangzi who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi.
Between Zhuangzi and a butterfly there must be some distinction! This is called the Transformation of Things. (2, tr. Burton Watson 1968:49)

To me, this might be the finest example of them all, and here I hope you share my view that the word "suddenly" does not substantially add to the surprise or the revelation of the idea presented. It is an objective (for the narrator) description of an action - he woke up quickly and unexpectedly. Only the next sentence brings the actual revelation, the surprise: the two realities feel equally plausible! The effect of the surprise is somewhat supported by the context of the sudden awakening, but the main effect is achieved through the story.

My general feeling is that "suddenly" has no problems in the first case and in the second case it is not effective by itself.

So, if you want to change the scene instantly it is justified, but it is not essential - any number of words will do as the actual change of the scene is done through dialogs and descriptions that will follow it. Here it is mainly a signal that a change will occur.

Surprising the reader usually has nothing to do with such signal, and actually the signal might take away from the surprise - as it does serve as a warning. Zhuangzi's dream does not suffer from this problem, because here it is not used to surprise the reader by itself.

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a good story/novel/book shouldn't have to have a "suddenly" to get surprise from the reader. a lot of times all it takes is timing. they're going along, doing their regular thing and then something happens. it usually helps to make your first sentence (the one you want to surprise people, remember?) a short one. somehow this adds to the dramatic effect. if that isn't working for you, try making it something your reader never thought would happen in a million years.

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I felt this was best answered by examples. A lot of examples :P

"Sudden" does not guarantee surprising

This is fundamental "show, don't tell" - describing something as being "sudden" doesn't mean the reader gets a sense of surprise while reading it, any more than you'd laugh at reading the line "Bob is a really funny guy." So one key skill is, look out for writing "surprises" that aren't surprising. Here are a few examples:

Suddenly, the train arrived.

In most cases, this makes no sense. A train can't arrive "suddenly" - you can see it drawing near; it makes a lot of noise; clocks everywhere count down to its arrival. Describing this as "sudden" is either an artificial attempt to make an ordinary event seem more exciting, or else it's trying to explain something else - e.g., that the protagonist's attention was elsewhere up until now - and doing so poorly.

Suddenly, the patient's heart stopped beating.

This makes sense intuitively, but in practice it's a mess - it tells us what happened, but it doesn't convey the actual experience. That's because the protagonists don't experience it as "suddenly, his heart stopped beating" - instead, their attention is on the blaring alarms, or the patient's sudden collapse, or the steady thump falling silent. In order to convey the experience of suddenness, you need to convey what the protagonist is actually experiencing.

Suddenly, the door opened.

This makes sense, and can work. Using "suddenly" gives an air of surprise and tension. But if that's not backed up by other elements reinforcing that atmosphere, you risk the "show, don't tell" dangers I mentioned above. Particularly, overusing this casual "suddenly" is what can really grate on a reader - the more you use it without clear justification, and the more you rely on it to create excitement without doing other things to help, the more obvious and artificial it seems.

Suddenly, Claire screamed and ran from the room.

This is the good example. Why does this work where the others don't? Because here, it's a sudden action, and the suddenness of it is what surprises us. If the surprise is amply clear, you can safely use "suddenly."

Back it up

If you are using "suddenly" for surprise effect, it's good to back it up with appropriate portrayal of the event. Compare:

Suddenly, the butler came in with the main course. It was a delicious lasagna with fresh greens and spices I didn't even recognize.

vs.:

Suddenly, our conversation was overpowered by bustling servants clearing the table in preparation for the next course. I managed to snatch one last mouthful from my plate before it was whisked away, and before I had swallowed, the butler was proudly uncovering the next steaming dish.

With the second, the "suddenly" element is clear, and fits in just fine with the rest of the paragraph. In the first, it is perhaps not implausible, but feels out of place.

Surprise does not require suddenness

"Luke," he suddenly said, "I am your father!"

There's an intuitive sense to this example: learning such a revelation provokes lots of immediate, sudden reactions. So isn't this sudden?

No, of course not. The reactions are sudden; those you leave to the reader (and, I guess, to Luke). The action itself isn't sudden. It doesn't rely on suddenness to be surprising. Even if the action is sudden, that suddenness isn't what's important, and will be more distracting than helpful.

Similarly, if something surprising happens, it might happen quite un-suddenly (like a magician, milking the trick's punchline for all it's worth), or its suddenness may be irrelevant. Convey the scene as best you can; make sure the surprise is clear, and count on your reader's reaction to be where the sudden shock takes place.

What's very common is to put emphasis on the realization, on that moment the penny drops. "Suddenly" can do that - but there are other great shorthand methods.

  • The end of a paragraph:

    There was something in the icebox, amid the frozen marbles. Frosted itself, it took me several minutes to scrape away the ice. Then I wished I hadn't. It was a human finger.

  • A short, one-line paragraph for the punchline:

    And at that moment, after all my searches, I finally understood who I'd seen in the magic mirror.

    It was me.

  • Describing the reaction:

    Max? No, it couldn't be. It couldn't possibly. Max had been dead for years. Was this man in front of me some sort of ghost?

Surprises are great, so are other stuff

You write you use "suddenly" for scene changes; that's fine. If you feel like you're overusing it, though, your problem may be less the particular phrasing and more the breakneck pace. If you feel you've got a lot of scene changes happening "suddenly," that might give your story an abrupt, disjointed feel. The reader may feel you're jerking scenes around arbitrarily - that the story doesn't build naturally from one scene to the next; instead, it's constantly being interrupted.

So maybe instead of using surprise from one scene to the next, try something else. Suspense is great - that's almost the opposite of surprise; it's openly building up to a big climax. There's lots of other tools in your toolbox - try things that let your characters take the initiative; try things that give your story a change of pace (or a lull you can interrupt more dramatically later); try a ticking timebomb to increase peril over the whole story instead of a bomb going off every time the story slows down.

Don't sweat some repetition

"Suddenly" is not an obtrusive word you need to be concerned about using twice in a chapter. It's also got plenty of innocuous uses - intended less to surprise than to simply describe ("the deck gave a sudden lurch," "I suddenly remembered I'd forgotten to hand in my homework," etc. etc.). And sometimes it's plenty useful when it does help with a surprise; that's natural and not really bothersome. So don't worry if you're not managing to weed out all of them; you can leave plenty in before they become a real problem.

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Holy shamoly Standback. This is incredible. It's almost like you've done this before ;) Fantastic answer that I'm sure I'll be coming back to over and over as I write. –  Tim Chaves Aug 21 '11 at 21:27
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+1, nice points and generally a good answer. Though sometimes not really precise, for example one should notice that context can make most of the counterexamples work well (re e.g. Luke, if the conversation was about something mundane, the change of subject can be sudden. Also, the reactions are definitively not sudden: reactions are to something that happened suddenly. Your main point here is, I believe, that through reactions we experience suddenness as readers, not because it has been proscribed by the narrator.) –  Unreason Aug 23 '11 at 8:16
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@Unreason: Thanks :) I'm not sure I understand what you're trying to correct - if I read a book, and the last line is "Standback, I am Oberon the King of Fairies and I AM WATCHING YOU," I'm not reacting to something that happened suddenly. It wasn't written suddenly; I didn't read it suddenly. The suddenness is in my reaction to it - my train of thought was wondering who's got that darn Maltese Falcon, and as a result of something unsudden, I am now suddenly reacting in an entirely different way (even if my response is to do nothing). That's what I meant by "the reaction is sudden." –  Standback Aug 23 '11 at 8:56
    
@Standback, dictionary defines sudden as immediate and unexpected. And indeed, in your example, something unexpected was read and furthermore that reading was immediate (some would say that every act of reading is immediate) and therefore regardless of what the reactions are something sudden happened. (Do note that introducing the reader into the reading of a story makes the example particularly atypical and contorted because it is hard to see what the 'action' is here, but it still does not justify what you said). –  Unreason Aug 23 '11 at 10:10
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This is one of those times that I wish a question could have two accepted answers. –  J David Smith Nov 14 '13 at 21:24

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