6. Never use ‘suddenly’ or ‘all hell broke loose’
Elmore says: ‘Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose”. This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use “suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.’
There is absolutely no reason to believe that a single word will automatically impair the quality of your writing, unless that word is ‘refudiate’ (or anything else invented by Sarah Palin). Elmore’s sixth commandment can safely be ignored, although all creative writing tutors will tell you to use adverbs sparingly…
The Guardian were on top Elmore-defying form when reporting the London riots last summer: ‘a peaceful protest, then suddenly all hell broke loose’ was the headline for a piece on 7th August. Presumably the sub-editor was sleeping on the streets by the 8th.
Reasons to ignore him:
Elmore Leonard, Djibouti
‘And all hell broke loose…’
Where better to start than with Elmore himself? It took him 44 novels to work up to such a flagrant violation of his own rules, but in Djibouti ‘all hell broke loose’ appears twice, both in lines of dialogue rather than in the narrative. Leonard is enjoying a joke at his own expense here — even he doesn’t truly believe that there are ‘rules of writing’ which must be adhered to at all costs. And if there were, the first rule should be that all writers must possess the capacity to laugh at themselves from time to time.
Robert Graves, I, Claudius
‘I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus This-that-and-the-other (for I shall not trouble you yet with all my titles) who was once, and not so long ago either, known to my friends and relatives and associates as “Claudius the Idiot,” or “That Claudius,” or “Claudius the Stammerer,” or “Clau-Clau-Claudius” or at best as “Poor Uncle Claudius,” am now about to write this strange history of my life; starting from my earliest childhood and continuing year by year until I reach the fateful point of change where, some eight years ago, at the age of fifty-one, I suddenly found myself caught in what I may call the “golden predicament” from which I have never since become disentangled.’
And that’s just the opening sentence. Graves initially struggled to make a living from writing, telling the BBC that ‘there’s no money in poetry, but then there’s no poetry in money either’, and I, Claudius was something of a ‘get (relatively) rich quick’ scheme, written in order to support his poetry career. All too predictably, the Claudius novels have outlived the poems: I, Claudius was chosen as one of TIME magazine’s hundred best English-language novels in 2005.
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
‘She was suddenly roused by the sound of the door-bell, and her spirits were a little fluttered by the idea of its being Colonel Fitzwilliam himself, who had once before called late in the evening, and might now come to inquire particularly after her.’
Current enthusiasm for Pride and Prejudice has a lot more to do with Colin Firth wearing a wet white shirt than Jane Austen’s effective use of adverbs, but the ‘suddenly’ in this sentence hasn’t done any harm to the book’s reputation. Austen, who wasn’t publicly identified as the author of her own novels until after her death, had her work resubmitted to publishers in 2007 by David Lassman, under the pseudonym ‘Alison Laydee’. The opening chapter of Pride and Prejudice, with character names and locations changed but the famous first line still intact, was unanimously rejected.
Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre
‘I wonder if he read that notion in my face; for, all at once, without speaking, he struck suddenly and strongly.’
Run through the top five of any list of ‘greatest novels in English’, and you’re likely to find at least two or three authors who use ‘suddenly’. (Admittedly, ‘all hell broke loose’ is rarer, and — to the best of my knowledge — doesn’t appear in the works of any of the Brontë sisters. Perhaps Jane Austen’s posthumous masterwork Pride and Prejudice and Zombies would be a better bet.) Here, John Reed is the obnoxious schoolboy punching below his weight and striking ‘suddenly and strongly.’
George Eliot, Middlemarch
‘And here was Mr. Lydgate suddenly corresponding to her ideal, being altogether foreign to Middlemarch, carrying a certain air of distinction congruous with good family, and possessing connections which offered vistas of that middle-class heaven, rank.’
A novel the size of Middlemarch was always going to be liberally sprinkled with uses of ‘suddenly’, which have done no damage whatsoever to George Eliot’s reputation. Regrettably, ‘all hell broke loose’ is conspicuous by its absence — until someone gets round to writing Middlemarch and Minotaurs/Mutant Mammoths/Marauding Man-Eating Monsters.