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The Adverb Suddenly

By Author: Matthew Scott
Total Articles: 37

There are a few things that can effectively ruin a writer's day. Writer's block, a cold shower, a tingling sense of hopelessness festering in the back of your mind. Running out of god damn coffee. But none of that matters right now. We're here to discuss the weight class up, a problem that made you its bitch long ago. The adverb "Suddenly".
The word is fun.
So fun.
The word is like cocaine to an avid writer, whipping it out everywhere like a brand new cell phone, using it every chance they get. The word is so great, you can use it with everything. No seriously, try it. I got up. I suddenly got up. The mayor stepped down from office. The mayor suddenly stepped down from office. I kicked the iguana across the roo- you get it. Heck, as far as adverbs go, this one tops out the rest.
But that's a pretty universal opinion. Any word can get sapped of meaning when overused, and to say it's overused would be a generous understatement. Let's look at the facts:
1. The word suddenly or the less popular brother phrase, "all of a sudden", just doesn't give the real sense of urgency that you're trying to elicit.
2. The word is just so incredibly overused by everyone and their mothers, whatever value it once held disappeared (around the fifth year after English was invented).
3. Writers who excessively use it go to Hell. (Sorry to break it to you, kids.)
With all that in mind, we can all agree that this just boils down to the show, don't tell paradigm. Instead of giving in to the habit, show an action that indicates urgency, not an adverb. Or if you really want to use the adverb, at least back it up with some better imagery. For example:
Bad
The old ranger ambled down the cobbled sidewalk, casting glances over his shoulder and every which way. The path ran up along the Wilke's Mansion, a decrepit old place that plagued every childhood memory he had. Suddenly, his foot caught on an overgrown root and he stumbled.
Better
The old ranger ambled down the cobbled sidewalk, casting glances over his shoulder and every which way. The path ran up along the Wilke's Mansion, a decrepit old place that plagued every childhood memory he had. The world suddenly did a backflip as the ranger crashed to the ground over an overgrown root.
Best
The old ranger ambled down the cobbled sidewalk, casting glances over his shoulder and every which way. The path ran up along the Wilke's Mansion, a decrepit old place that plagued every childhood memory he had. The ranger's heart skipped a beat as his foot missed a step, and the world rushed towards him like a cannonball.
Basically, all I did was illustrate the paragraph by describing the scene with action, in response to something that happened to him. Why say he tripped, when you can instead show what he's doing? He's falling. The second example uses the word suddenly, but it draws attention away from it more than the first. They're of course not the best examples, but they paint a picture.
Not last, but not least, I must say that the word is not taboo. Flipping through the best sellers of my favorite authors such as Jim Butcher and Terry Goodkind, I've found multiple uses of the word, although less of its brother "all of a sudden". But I noticed a pattern.
The word can be used, but only really for the mind. To clarify, I mean that to describe something physically, the word's a train wreck. But to describe something that's happening mentally, that's a whole nother story. There aren't very many verbs you can use to show a sudden thought, or epiphanic realization. For that you're going to have to rely more on the telling part of the paradigm. For example:
The old ranger ambled down the cobbled sidewalk, casting glances over his shoulder and every which way. The path ran up along the Wilke's Mansion, a decrepit old place that plagued every childhood memory he had. A sudden, nostalgic thought surfaced in his mind, of the days when he and his friends would lose a ball over the impenetrable stone walls of the place. He managed a weak chuckle, imagining all the balls and paper airplanes piled up on the other side.
Of course, there are ways of portraying a thought like an action, but it's usually not worth all the fuss, and only every once in a blue moon. And all thoughts don't have to be spontaneous and random.
Basically, use what feels natural to you, but look it over. Chances are your natural is a little too lax. The word's like anything in life- good, in moderation. If your natural rhythm is too dependent on the adverb, then you're being lazy.

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