What To Edit Out: How “Suddenly” Kills Suspense

I shouldn’t have to be told.

Without exception, the word “suddenly” is a waste of space at the beginning of a sentence. Its very presence delays the plot turn by a crucial fraction of a second, which works against what it was intended to do in the first place. If I have to be told something happened suddenly, then in the reality of my reading experience, it didn’t.

I’m not making the blanket statement that all adverbs are bad and wrong. As with semicolons, there’s a time and a place for them. My point is that the presence of “suddenly” as a sentence-opener is usually a telltale sign that there’s a larger problem in the story.

Trimming the fat:

This little opening rant stems from the phrase writers hear in workshops of all genres so often it loses all depth of meaning: “show, don’t tell.” By shaving off unnecessary words and exposition, the writer makes the language work as a team with the reader’s imagination. Trust that the reader has a brain. Don’t waste time telling the reader about what’s happening on the page. Just make it happen. It’s a simple idea and a crucial one; it’s also one of the hardest things for a writer to do.

A story is an achievement in engineering. It’s built on characters, images, and a design that is repeatedly reworked, drafted and improved. The lynchpin word there was “drafted.” The writer has to work out those unnecessary, expository details, those “suddenly” moments, as part of the process of creating the characters and the story. But “revise” means to see again. Over time, and because writing is such an isolated act, that “suddenly” becomes a dirty glass resting on a desk so long it becomes part of the writer’s mental image of the desk itself and, therefore, invisible.

Done? Not quite…

When the story has been through several drafts, when it feels done, that’s when the writer needs to shift from creator to ruthless editor. Whenever the word “suddenly” appears, whenever a description of the character’s feelings gets in the way of what a character does to display those feelings, whenever a list of adjectives is doing the work that one can do on its own, it can go.

Once that’s done, the creative writer can come back to work to fill in the gaps with actions that make the story lived, not told. It’s a lot more work. It’s excruciating. It’s a much more riveting read when it’s finished.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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