This week Elmore Leonard passed away. He was 87. It was a great loss to literature. Mr. Leonard, who lived in Detroit for his entire life, was a fine writer of pulp fiction.
His ten rules for writing have been passed around on various websites including social media these last few days, and one of the rules inspired this post.
I want to talk about Rule 6: 'Never use the words ''suddenly'' or ''all hell broke loose.'''
Mr. Leonard says in his notes that this rule doesn't require explanation, yet this or something very like it has required explanation to my writing students more times than I can count.
At this moment, I just want to talk about my own use of the word 'suddenly' in the context of its use elsewhere. This isn't intended as an argument for peppering your prose with time adverbs. But rules always have a tendency to be over-applied by some. It seems prudent to determine the spirit of the rule and where it might differ from its letter.
I'm going to be a heretic now (please forgive me, Elmore Leonard) and say that you may use the word suddenly on occasion. Fire will not rain down on you from the sky. Your lodgings will not crumble to dust. Your readership won't abandon ship in spite of all the sharks clearly visible in the dark waters of not reading your book. Your lover* won't kick you out of bed (*possibly excepting a purist like Damien G. Walter).
On rediscovering Mr. Leonard's rules, I began thinking about the word 'suddenly'. I was sure I'd seen it in the book I've been working on most recently. I often edit it out of my clients' work, but what about my own work? When might I feel justified at leaving it in and... well, was I justified?
I did a search for the word in the two books I'm working on. One of them is a collective novel, written by a lot of people. I didn't have total control over whether suddenly was used. I found it. A lot of it. I started to look at each instance in terms of why it was there and whether it could be removed. Two thirds of the time, I felt I could take it out without any change in meaning. It struck me that in those cases 'suddenly' was actually redundant. The very statement of the event clearly showed the sudden nature of its occurrence.
The other third of cases were more difficult. What this rule doesn't say specifically, but must mean, is that you can't just pull out suddenly and replace it with another adverb or adverbial phrase. That would be the same problem only slightly disguised. No, instead, you'd need to rewrite the sentence so that the suddenness became apparent.
For example: 'He was walking along the edge of the street, taking care not to step on any of the tiny frogs, when a loud bleeeeeeep startled him.'
You can probably see where someone might want to put 'suddenly' (probably right after 'when') but you can also see as easily that the sentence would be weighted down with the word.
Now, I'm going to take a piece of my own text and show you an example of suddenly that's not so easily replaced. And these are the ones I sit on the fence with. It's all about THE FEELS. Realizations, the way feelings and new knowledge dawn on us, the way with the flick of some invisible emotional trigger, we change an opinion or come to a decision. This is where a rare suddenly, to me, can save a boatload of trying to explain.
I stopped talking when I saw the girl who’d opened it. She looked about nineteen. She had long red hair, and she was wearing a miniscule pair of lime green underpants and a scooped out, nearly transparent white muscle shirt that barely covered her breasts.
I stood there with my mouth slightly open, sorting my thoughts into two piles. Wrong apartment? Or WTF, Brown?
Before I could manage a coherent sentence, the girl said, “Brown told me to catch you before you yelled ‘Open up, police.’”
“Um…” I laughed through my nose. “Okay. Can I come in?”
The girl stepped aside just as Brown came out of the hallway into the living room. He had something pink and shimmery draped over his shoulder and a sequined bra hung around his neck by one shoulder strap.
“Did I happen to mention I was doing a shoot today?” he said. His arms were full of other frilly and brightly colored bits of almost nothing. He dropped the armload of clothes into a chair and untangled the bra and what turned out to be a see-through pink robe trimmed in feathers from around himself, adding them to the pile.
“Not that I remember. But no worries.” I closed the door, but kept standing in front of it with my coat on and my briefcase in my hand.
“Cassandra’s in there picking out her shoes. You should go in and see what you can find that fits.”
I snorted. “Who are you talking to now?”
“Jade,” Brown said.
“Me.” The girl put her hand up.
“Oh.” The entire situation suddenly seemed hilarious to me and I felt a huge grin spread across my face.
So you see the suddenly in there. Last sentence. This one takes a bit of stepping back. Actually as I looked at it, I decided the first part of that sentence could go. So now it will just read, "Oh." I felt a huge grin spread across my face.
But in some instances it's not so easy to resolve. I'd argue, as is my usual argument, that if you have to write a really convoluted sentence to get across what you can with one word, it's probably better to use the one word. The caveat that goes with this is, you might have to try hard to succeed in some cases, or before giving it up.
You'll be missed, Mr. Leonard.