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  1. Because of his experience making his own films, he was hired as a script supervisor by Cathay Studios. Soon afterwards, Woo was able to start directing.

    1. Because of his experience making his own films, he was hired as a script supervisor by Cathay Studios. Soon, Woo was able to start directing.

    2. Because of his experience making his own films, he was hired as a script supervisor by Cathay Studios. Afterwards, Woo was able to start directing.

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Soon and afterwards have different meanings.

Soon refers to the shortness of the time interval (see Merriam Webster:soon). But to have a time interval, one thing needs to happen after another, so "soon" means "soon after".

Afterwards (or afterward) refers to the sequence of events, regardless of the time interval (see Oxford: afterwards). "Afterwards" does not imply "soon".

Your example 2 means the same as example 1. The first sentence describes the first event and implies that it is what you're comparing to in time.

Example 3 does not mean the same thing. "Afterwards" could apply to something decades later. Actually, the first and second sentences don't even need to be related, although in normal usage, they would be. That kind of juxtaposition is sometimes used in humor; you expect the sentences to be related but they aren't.

I bought a watermelon. Afterwards, astronauts landed on Mars.

(OK, I didn't say anything about good humor.)

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What a fun question! In the context of the examples given, "soon" and "soon afterwards" mean essentially the same thing. Using "afterwards" by itself is not quite the same in that the information conveyed by "soon" is missing. "Afterwards", when used with "soon", is, strictly speaking, redundant, but that does not mean that it is incorrect to use "soon afterwards".

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