Posted by: nancycurteman | January 18, 2011

Describing Words Can Kill your Mystery Novel

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Describing words can kill your mystery novel. Adjectives like pretty, nice, ugly, scary and adverbs like friendly, quietly, sadly, happily, along with emotion words like loved, hated, worried, excited, are general terms that mean different things to different readers and as such may or may not advance reader understanding of character or plot. Of course, description is an essential element of a mystery novel. So what’s a writer to do?  The answer is always the same “show”  your description. Here are some ways to do it without interrupting the flow of the plot:

• Eliminate words like felt and was where possible.
Instead of: She felt sick.
Try: Her flushed face burned and her stomach churned. How long could she keep her lunch down?

• Make description part of the action.
Instead of: She hated him.
Try: When he approached her, she clenched her teeth and glared at him. Some day…some day she would humiliate him. Expose him. Destroy him. See him thrown in prison. See him dead.

• Describe through the eyes of another character.
Instead of: She was homely.
Try: To Mandisa, Susu resembled one of those skinny, dirt-colored hounds that rummaged through the garbage heaps that lined the township’s dusty streets. Long boney arms and legs jutted from her undernourished body. Her greased down hair accentuated a flat nose.  Thin lips didn’t quite cover her buckled teeth. Only her big brown eyes and long lashes lent a morsel of beauty to her face.

• Use dialog to describe.
Instead of: It was a dark and stormy night.
Try: “Are you kidding! I’m not going out there. I’ll drown in that downpour. Look at that black sky. I’d have to wait for the next lightning bolt so I could find my way to the car. No way. You go.”

Every time you insert a general describing word into your manuscript, stop and think about how you could use dialog, action, character perspective or specific details to “show” your description.

Don’t let describing words kill your mystery novel.

Other writing tips:

Author’s Voice: How to find it?
What is Story Structure?
6 Ways to Avoid “Information Dumps” in a Mystery Novel
How to Write “Killer” Scenes in a Mystery Novel


  1. I like it…. oops, I mean I found your suggestions to be appropriate and helpful.


  2. The old ‘show, don’t tell.’
    Actually I started a story with ‘It was a dark and stormy night.” But then went on to explain how it really was, in more ways than one. :-\

    I love Nancy’s descriptions too.


  3. Wonderful examples, NC.


  4. Thank your for very helpful suggestions. You never fail to offer meaningful instruction. I appreciate it and look forward to reading your posts. Blessings to you…


  5. Thanks for the great suggestions. Showing the reader forces them to feel what the character is feeling, whereas telling just seems to create a divide. I will definitely have to print this off and put it on the bulletin board for a reminder!


  6. Akkk! You’ve been reading my manuscript in secret again, haven’t you! I swear most all your posts evolve from some issue or other I’ve been working to edit OUT.

    Kidding. Great post full of VERY useful info.


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