Did your school ever throw you a curveball that needed unlearning? We've all been fed the excitement of the word 'Suddenly!' during our childhood. Placing it at the beginning of a sentence seemed like the ultimate shortcut to convey swift action—but does it? It took delving into the world of novel writing for me to grasp the subtly misleading nature of that seemingly innocent word.
Now, I bet a bunch of you have already figured this out. Though the word isn't totally worthless (I personally think it does a good job as an adverb before a verb, rather than flying solo as an adverbial phrase), there are way better ways to show how fast things are happening in your story. In this post, I've done my best to compile a list of methods that you can use to convey immediacy in your scenes.
Show, Don't Tell
This rule applies to so many aspects of writing (I may do an entire post on the subject!), and conveying sudden events is no different. In real life, things can often happen so quickly that we don't have time to process them.
That being said, the same can apply in your writing. Focus on the effects of the action, rather than the action itself. This will give the effect that the action was too quick be seen. Don't be afraid to cut characters off mid-thought, mid-narration, or mid-dialogue too
Forget setting up for the event. Don't let the reader see it coming; simply launch into the action by writing in its initial effect in a single, concise sentence. Just as you would if you were to right 'Suddenly, the door opened,' get rid of suddenly and simply write, 'The door opened.'
Take this example from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling:
There was silence. He stared all around him. What had happened to her? Her scream seemed to have come from somewhere ahead. He took a deep breath, and ran through the enchanted mist. The world turned upside-down. Harry was hanging from the ground, with his hair on end, his glasses dangling off his nose, threatening to fall into the bottomless sky.
As you can see, rather than describing the sensation of being turned upside-down in detail, Rowling summed up the effect in four words, reducing any slow in pacing from Harry running, to the sky and ground reversing. Only once the reader knows what event has occurred does she go into the consequences, mentioning Harry's hair and glasses.
Use words that connote speed.
Avoid adverbs, instead opting for verbs that already imply speed. For example, 'He ran across the room' becomes 'He shot across the room'; 'She turned around' becomes 'She spun around'; 'My eyes moved to the door' becomes 'My eyes darted to the door.'
Here's another example from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire:
Before Voldemort could stick his snake-like face around the head-stone, Harry had stood up ... he gripped his wand tightly in his hand, thrust it out in front of him, and threw himself around the headstone, facing Voldemort.
Particularly, look at the words 'thrust' and 'threw'. Rowling could have simply said 'Harry held his wand out in front of him' and 'moved himself around the headstone,' but by using thrust and threw, Rowling successfully translated force and speed into Harry's movements.
Use plosive language.
These are words that have a sudden stop and start of air when you speak them. They are explosive sounds that can help to connote explosive movements. For example; shot, bit, cut, prick, trick, pop, bat, gun, kick.
Takes a look at the example below from Lee Child's 61 Hours (Jack Reacher 14):
The front end of the car punched straight through the wooden sliding. The airbags exploded. The windshield shattered. The front wheels kicked up on the hut floor and the whole car went airborne. The front bumper hit a bed frame and smacked it like a cue ball and drove it into the paraffin stove.
In five sentences of varying lengths, Child has described the impact of the car crash using a impactful selection of plosive words, which connote both speed and severity.
Order of Sensations
Think about the order sensations are taking place in your scene; this applies no matter what point of view you are writing from. Logically, sensations usually go like this:
(Optional) Hint of impact, such as a brush of air or flash of movement. Including this can help your action feel less out of the blue, which may help if beta readers complain something comes 'too' suddenly.
Feel of impact. Depending on what the impact is, this could be pain, pressure or whatever else. If somebody jumps out from behind a curtain and starts tickling your character, that will be the sensation they feel.
Physical reaction to the impact, such as flinching away or fighting back.
Visuals, observing and identifying the cause of the impact. And yes, that is all you should be doing at this point. Dwelling too much on this stage will immediately slow your scene down. Leave any 'thinking' to step five.
Thoughts, analysing the cause - this is the point your scene will begin to slow down. Always leave thoughts until last. This includes thoughts such as; 'Why are they doing this?', 'Where did they come from?' and, 'What will happen next?'
Steps 1 to 4 should be quick, involving only as much detail as you need to let you reader know what is happening. However, you can mix the order up in certain circumstances (such as when adrenaline delays pain register) and also combine or forgo steps where appropriate for your narration. Take this extract from my novel Seeking Shadows, for example:
(1) Jay’s hand was ripped away from mine. I spun as she screamed, pulling at the hunter’s arm wrapped around her throat. I lunged to help, (2) but fingers wrapped around my wrists, yanking me harshly back. The tendons in my shoulders screamed as my arms were painfully twisted over my wings. (3/4) The two hunters had no problem turning me back to Taren and pushing me forward. (4/5) My eyes widened at the sight of Luc struggling on the floor, four large bodies pinning him to the grated metal. A hunter kicked his sword out of reach as he attempted to grab for it.
In these two quick paragraphs, the hint of impact is Jay's hand being ripped from my MC's. As she lunges to help, she feels herself being grabbed, followed by pain. In the case of this scene, my MC is unable to physically react as she is pushed forward; at the same time, she recognises who is holding her and quickly takes in her surroundings. Her thoughts - implied by the widening of the eyes - take the shape of her concern for her comrade.
Lastly, you can help sudden events feel more sudden by contrasting with the pacing of the previous paragraph. Let's say your sudden event happens, and you're using all of the techniques mentioned to speed up your scene. By slowing down the paragraph before the event, the event will feel quicker by comparison. You may choose to fill this space with relaxed dialogue, thought tracking, or description of the setting.
So next time you're tempted to use the word 'suddenly,' think again; can you rearrange or rewrite your scene using any of the techniques above to display the 'suddenness' in a more creative and thought-provoking way?
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