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The Art of Surprise

03 Jun

I think the word “suddenly” is one of the most overused words in the English language. The word has its uses, but it is not as useful a word as many think it is, in my own humble opinion. The word is an adverb, and if you adhere to Stephen King’s writing recommendations, this makes it inherently evil. While I don’t think adverbs are as terrible as Mr. King does, “suddenly” is an adverb that should immediately arouse suspicion.

Why? Because the word is counterproductive. The word “suddenly” is supposed to inform the reader that something is happening very quickly and is coming as a surprise or shock. But by informing the reader of the upcoming surprise, it spoils the surprise. For example: George lay down in his soft bed, lulled quickly into the depths of slumber by the constant chirps of the crickets outside. He dreamt of cake and cherry pie, and danced a merry jig with the lord of the ladybugs. Suddenly, the chirps stopped. George was awake in an instant. In that example, the word functions as a connector. It marks the transition from the soothing world of cricket chirps to the eerie world of silence. It makes the transition more obvious, less subtle, and most importantly for those who use the word, less awkward.

If you remove the “suddenly” from the example, it becomes: George lay down in his soft bed, lulled quickly into the depths of slumber by the constant chirps of the crickets outside. He dreamt of cake and cherry pie, and danced a merry jig with the lord of the ladybugs. The chirps stopped. George was awake in an instant. This doesn’t really work, as without the mark of the transition, we have no real sense of time or when the transition is taking place.

Yet, at the same time, the “suddenly” takes away from the surprise by warning you that you are going to be surprised. It is a red flag that tells the reader that something unexpected is going to happen. As a result, you expect the unexpected, and the impact of the surprise is lessened. So, the question becomes, how can you make the reader genuinely surprised and shocked, but also make the writing flow and make sense?

My own answer to this is the paragraph. Paragraphs mark divisions, but because they can mark a much wider range of divisions than the word “suddenly,” the reader doesn’t necessarily know that something unexpected will happen when they get to the next paragraph. As a result, we get:

George lay down in his soft bed, lulled quickly into the depths of slumber by the constant chirps of the crickets outside. He dreamt of cake and cherry pie, and danced a merry jig with the lord of the ladybugs.

The chirps stopped. George was awake in an instant.

For me, at least, this last example is the most powerful because of the abruptness of the switch. There isn’t a clear warning sign in the form of a connecting word; the surprise and suddenness of the event in question is conveyed by the abrupt writing and George’s reaction; the last example shows instead of tells. And, unlike the second example, the paragraph break allows the reader to differentiate between two flows of time; the status quo described in the first paragraph, and the disruption of that status quo in the second. To me, an abrupt breaking of the status quo, with no connecting words but a clear differentiation between two moments in time, is the best way to express surprise.

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Posted by on June 3, 2014 in Writing

 

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