Tuesday, April 5, 2011

"Familiar" is a Lame Adjective

This is my motto for the week. And now, I'll explain.

First off, I must say this: editors are incredible human beings. No, really. They are. I think they should get a special place in heaven. They see things we can't, point it out in a coherent, constructive, concise way, and then teach you how to prevent it from happening again. What you do after that is on your head.

Secondly, I've decided that in order to be a writer, you must truly be a masochist. I mean, how many people do you know want to get beaten senseless, and then actually enjoy the broken bones and bruises? Yeah, thought so. We are an odd bunch.

But the grounds for this post is brought on by one of those fabulous creatures called an editor. Everyone says "show, don't tell", and you may sit, minding your own business, typing away merrily, wondering exactly what that means. You may even think you have a good grasp on the concept. I thought I did. Lesson learned: never assume you know anything. Ever. And certainly don't over-use lame adjectives like "familiar", which I have done.

When you use a word like that, particularly in your first chapter when readers don't know anything about your MC or setting, familiar means nothing. Familiar to what? And why should you care? This is a wasted opportunity. If I tell you a door is familiar, that's it. I've told you. You have no emotional tie to that door or understanding of that memory what-so-ever. It can't possibly be familiar to you. But if I tell you that the gargoyle knocker on the door hangs lower than I remember, and I never liked how its iron eyes follow me everywhere, you've suddenly experienced it yourself. It is now familiar to you, because I've shown you how it's familiar. If I tell you someone has a soft, familiar voice, again, I've just told you. But what's familiar about it? How does it make the MC feel? Does it elicit any memories? By noting the elements that are familiar and the effect it has on the MC and/or supporting cast, the reader is suddenly able to relate and make that observation their own.

Now, these are just a couple examples, but I feel that every example helps. Even though we hear the concept of "show, don't tell" all the time, it is still important to remember how valuable of a tool it is. It's how we pull readers into our story. It's how we make them care about our MC, understand who he/she is, and believe that he/she is real. It's how we make them have no choice but to follow our hero/heroine into the next chapter, and every subsequent chapter. And it all starts with something so simple, yet so difficult to master. Little words like "familiar" aren't always lame words to use, but they can be wasted opportunities to develop your characters and the setting around them.

How do some of you battle out the "show, don't tell" problems?


  1. Great post!!! Glad you found that editor so helpful!!! "Showing" really is something we have in the back of our minds all the time as we write, but sometimes we forget to do it. I loved your example - I can't wait to read another version of your first chap! Now, I'm gonna go take a look at what "showing" I can add to mine.

  2. Thanks! Yeah, remembering this makes me realize I need to go back through mine yet again. Amazing how we think we know things and then people drop anvils on our heads. I can't wait to read YOURS! :)

  3. I've always been after the blood of adverbs with a machete but never even suspected the evils of 'familiar'. From now on, it will receive no mercy. Thank you.

  4. Ha, you're welcome. It snuck up on me too, and I was ill-prepared. Never again!

  5. Seriously though...in my ignorance I disrespected "Familiar" and ended up on the business end of "Redundant's" knife.

  6. Ouch. That one hurts. It really hurts.

  7. "Everyone says "show, don't tell", and you may sit, minding your own business, typing away merrily, wondering exactly what that means."

    Lol. LOVE this line. So sad but so true!

  8. :) it's why we need critique partners and editors!

  9. I'm really lucky in this aspect. My style sort of lends itself to show, but every time I slip up I have an AWESOME crit partner who points it out.


  10. P.S. Tell your husband he's awesome for reading your blog!


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