Nitpicking with Sevastian Winters: A “Sudden” Problem
The first time I read “Stein on Writing,” by Sol Stein, at the advice of an agent who took enough pity on me, to tell me that my writing sucked, and that I should go and learn my craft, I came across a line I will never forget: “Every word matters.”
At the time, I rolled my eyes. I seriously thought the man was full of shit. As time has progressed, however, I've come not only to agree, but to chant his mantra to the point of infuriating writers who think I'm a pretentious snob. (Incidentally, I might actually be a pretentious snob, but that doesn't negate that I might also be right! Ain't that a bitch? )
Anyhow, yesterday, I came across a Facebook post from an author I respect wherein she was asking whether it was more proper to say, “all of the sudden” or “all of a sudden." Several people suggested that she should just use “suddenly,” and be done with it. Indeed, that was my initial response. But then, it hit me:
NONE OF THE ABOVE!
Something we forget, as writers, is that for a reader, everything that happens in a story happens all of the sudden. Indeed, the term itself, no matter how you want to represent it, smacks of narrative voice, as if the narrator is equally surprised.
I'm botching the job explaining this, so perhaps I should just demonstrate.
Consider the following:
“All of the sudden, a truck crashed through the wall. Shards of drywall, joined books and other debris, enveloping the room in dust. Tina's heart jumped in her chest. She lifted her arms and legs, a vain attempt to shield herself from flying debris. Something slammed into her shoulder, shooting white-hot pain through her. She screamed. A cloud of drywall dust enveloped the room. She squeezed her eyes, shut and tried to take a breath, but it was no use. She choked. She pulled her blouse over her mouth to filter the air for another attempt to breathe. It worked. She squinted her eyes open.“What the hell?”
That's how many authors would show their readers what happened. Indeed, I've been guilty of it myself.
The problem with the scene, however, is two-fold:
Firstly, the sequence of events is skewed. By identifying the truck as the first order of business, we take the reader out of the scene. They are hearing about it, but not experiencing it with the character. Think for a moment, of the sequence of an unexpected truck slamming into the wall beside you: What happens? First, the world exploded around you. Then chunks of debris smack into you, and envelop you in dust. Then you respond. And choke on the dust. All of that happened before you make enough sense of the situation to identify the intruder as a truck.
Secondly: Again, to the reader, everything is sudden. They don't know what's coming next... even if they guess. The addition of “all of the sudden” or “suddenly” is unnecessary commentary that does nothing to add tension to the scene. Indeed, just the opposite, it relieves the tension, by explaining what happens before showing the aftermath. The reader misses out on the experience of sitting in the room when the truck blows their environment apart. Here's the same scene in proper sequence of events:
The wall to Tina's right exploded, hurling books, and shards of drywall at her. Her heart jumped in her chest. She lifted her arms and legs, a vain attempt to shield herself from flying debris. Something slammed into her shoulder, shooting white-hot pain through her. She screamed. A cloud of drywall dust enveloped the room. She squeezed her eyes, shut and tried to take a breath, but it was no use. She choked. She pulled her blouse over her mouth to filter the air for another attempt to breathe. It worked. She wiped her eyes and tried to squint them open, just enough to see.
“What the hell?”
She waved dust away from in front of her face and tried to look again. She reached out to a massive shape beside her. Metal. Rounded glass. She peered again into the abyss. Anger slammed into her soul as she realized what it was. Bob's truck!
Do you see the difference? It's more words, and more descriptions, to be sure, but partly that's because we are in the scene now, sorting out, with the character, what the hell just happened? Not knowing what had invaded the room adds to the tension, and improves the story. Moreover, it puts the reader in the scene. They have only what Tina does to work with. Perfect!
Now, before you start giving me exceptions to the rule I'm now espousing, I will clarify this: I can see how a character in the story might use the word “sudden,” but other than that, though I didn't know it yesterday, I know for sure today; it doesn't belong in your narrative.
Learning to becomed a very much gooder author is a process.... a journey—not a destination. To some reading this, my advice here likely comes across as nitpicking, but I guess, for me, that's why I love what I do so much. Tiger Woods won his first Masters Tournament and then went home to pick apart his swing. That's what pros do... and what I've tried to demonstrate here. I hope you've found it helpful.
PS.... if you found this helpful and want more of the same, please stop by Amazon and pick up a copy of my book How I are Becomed a Very Much Gooder Author and/or pick up a copy for a friend. Thanks again for reading!