Searching for the Right Words? Tip #23


This series is aimed at helping writers use the right words to express their meaning. All thoughts and comments are welcome.

As a writer, you want to inspire readers with joy, stoke their terrors, romance them with love, overwhelm them with horror. This set of posts examines ways of influencing mood by selecting the ‘right’ words for the job.


“The body in the opened chest had an arm sticking up and its smell was terrible. It was just skin and bone.”

This tells readers the basic facts, but there’s no atmosphere. It’s just a bald statement of fact with no emotional content.

Let’s try again.

“The body had been crammed into the space and was bent and warped from its unnatural confinement. One hand was partly raised, as if the victim had been trying to claw his way out of the prison. The clothes had disintegrated; bones showing through desiccated flesh, hair straggling on the skull. The evil smell came from the chest and, now it was open and disturbed, increased in strength until the two watchers gagged.”

This sample from a short horror story of mine called, Heir to Death’s Folly, lends atmosphere and emotion to the description of the corpse lurking in the open chest.

If nothing else, I hope this series will enhance our writing with words that more precisely reflect what we’re trying to convey to readers.

I prefer Roget’s Thesaurus when editing; the 1987 edition, which I started with. It still lives within reach on my reference shelf. Other books of word choices, which I consult when the apposite word continues to evade me, reside with it. But first I try to gather that ‘right’ word from the tumultuous void within my skull: it’s good mental exercise.

Any thesaurus will provide alternatives for the idea of the word you seek, but not all those suggestions are true synonyms, so always consider context.

4 thoughts on “Searching for the Right Words? Tip #23

  1. Good tips, Stuart. One credo I hold dear is that, when you need to depict a scene of horror, let the reader do it for you. ‘I prised open the coffin lid. I took one look and turned my face away. My fellows in the cellar did the same and fled. And I did too’. The reader is left with the question: what did the protagonist see there? Their vision will be more horrible than anything the author might describe.

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    1. Good technique, John, and one that works well in many situations. In the sample quoted, however, the reader needs to know what’s in the chest, as it’s central to the story. But you’re right; combining mystery with tension is a certain way of encouraging a feeling of horror in the reader.


    1. That’s great, Noelle. I’ll keep them coming for a while yet. But I don’t want to bore readers by keeping the series going beyond its natural end, so I won’t continue indefinitely!

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