If you have seen the blunt end of my editing stick, you probably know that I have made it my mission to eradicate one word from writers' vocabularies: suddenly.
The word "suddenly" has little reason to exist. Adverbs are often bad enough, but suddenly holds a very special kind of useless. Most people use the word as a way to create urgency (e.g., "I was turning a bloody pentagram into a black guitar. Suddenly the guitar turned to Draco!"), but does it really work that way?
Let me give an example: "Suddenly, his beloved wife shot him in the face" can just as easily be, "His beloved wife shot him in the face." Which sentence shows more urgency? Which one is more shocking? Both sentences show that the man's trusted spouse put a bullet in his nose, so there really isn't any difference. Except for that word... so what does it do for the sentence? Nothing. It just adds an unnecessary word to the sentence and that's all.
But then I began to wonder whether there wasn't one instance in which the word "suddenly" could be used in a context that didn't sound ridiculous. I typed "suddenly literature" into the old Google search engine and up came Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. Here are some examples of the context in which Carroll uses the word and how it does or does not hold up:
QUOTE: "So she was considering in her own mind (as well as she could, for the hot day made her feel very sleepy and stupid), whether the pleasure of making a daisy- chain would be worth the trouble of getting up and picking the daisies, when SUDDENLY a White Rabbit with pink eyes ran close by her."
ANALYSIS: If we use the method I used before and take out the word, it reads "...when a White Rabbit with pink eyes ran close by her." It's no less odd to see a white rabbit. The word's presence only forces the idea that this scene is supposed to surprise us. But how else can we show that? How about with a better verb? "...when a White Rabbit with pink eyes darted close to her." Does that sound better? Let's go a little further and help the reader visualize where the rabbit is. "...when a White Rabbit with pink eyes darted over Alice's toes." Hey! Not too shabby! We created a sense of urgency to the situation without using the word "suddenly"! Let's try another...
QUOTE: "The rabbit-hole went straight on like a tunnel for some way, and then dipped SUDDENLY down, so SUDDENLY that Alice had not a moment to think about stopping herself before she found herself falling down a very deep well."
ANALYSIS: Here, "suddenly" is not being used to create urgency as much as it is standing in for another adverb, like "sharply." Now, I applaud the creative usage here, so I'm actually okay with this sentence, but let's try using a strong verb again. "...and then dropped down so sharply that Alice had not a moment to think..." This sentence works as well, but it does lose some of its playfulness. Depending on the mood you want to set, "suddenly" may be the better choice in this instance.
QUOTE:"'I said pig,' replied Alice; 'and I wish you wouldn't keep appearing and vanishing so SUDDENLY: you make on quite giddy.'"
ANALYSIS: Here's another good example of "suddenly" standing in for another word. This time, it means "quickly." You could use either word and it would be okay. Again, a good usage of the word exists.
QUOTE: 'Back to land again, and that's all the first figure,' said the Mock Turtle, SUDDENLY dropping his voice.'"
ANALYSIS: In this context, Carroll shows that the Mock Turtle was excited before and now has dropped it into a more somber tone in an unexpected fashion ("unexpectedly" could be the synonym here). Now, we could use a musical metaphor like, "...said the Mock Turtle, switching from an alto back to a bass." This would work better if we had established he normally spoke in bass or in a deeper voice from the beginning, but it's not a bad sensory image. In this instance, something like that might work better than just saying "suddenly dropping his voice."
CONCLUSION: While "suddenly" is used all too often as a sense of urgency forced upon the reader, there are some instances in which it can be used as a substitute for other words. Still, you may want to consider whether using another word would work better given the context of your story. If you're just wondering when not to use it, here's a rule of thumb: if you can substitute "suddenly" with "OMG!" then it's not a good usage. For example, Carroll wrote: "SUDDENLY she came upon a little three-legged table, all made of solid glass." You could just as easily say "OMG! She came upon a three-legged table!!!" Though Carroll uses the word fairly in other instances, this sentence is not the best usage of the word.
Well, I hope that helps some of you. Maybe "suddenly" isn't completely useless like I'd originally thought, but I hope more of you consider the context before you decide to use that word in your stories.