Elmore Leonard’s Rules for Writers #6: Never Use the Words “Suddenly” or “All Hell Broke Loose”

Welcome to the sixth in a series of posts covering Elmore Leonard’s rules for writers. Leonard started his career writing westerns, then switched to hard-boiled crime, which became his specialty. His skill as an author was widely praised by both the literary community and the general public of readers. Many of his works were made into famous movies, and he received the National Book Award in 2012.

Leonard developed ten rules for writers (and a bonus eleventh rule that sums up the rest). I love his books, so when I learned these rules, I applied them to my own writing. I think they’ve made the single biggest positive change to the quality of my work.

So, in this series, I’m going to take you through all of them. Continuing with…

Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”

The problem with these words is that many authors (amateurs and professionals, alike) rely on them to create suspense in their scenes. But there’s a better way to do that. Let’s take a look…

You might see: “Vinnie walked down the dark alley. Suddenly, all hell broke loose.”

It’s always more effective to describe the action in vivid language, rather than to fall back on over-used words and phrases like these.

Ask yourself: what specifically happens to Vinnie in this scene? What does he see, hear, and feel? What are his thoughts? Does he say anything? Including that information leads to a much more interesting sequence.

Let’s remove “suddenly” and “all hell broke loose” from the example and then take a second look:

“Vinnie walked down the dark alley. He felt the gun in his back. ‘So,’ he said, ‘you found me, huh?’ ”

Notice how it’s clear that all those actions happen suddenly, so we don’t need to include the adverb. Instead, we hit the reader with one action after another. That’s how you build suspense and keep the tension up.

And instead of using the generic phrase, “all hell broke loose,” we now give the reader an account of every single thing that happens in the scene. Our character is in an alley. He feels a gun in his back. Oh, no! Then he gives a slick line of dialogue to the person who’s holding that gun.

See how much more exciting that is? And we didn’t need over-used words like “suddenly” to make it work.

So, banish these words from your writing vocabulary. When in doubt, use vivid language, not clichéd phrases, to make a scene dramatic.

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