Finding the Right Word So You Can Get On With Your Life

photo from

photo from

Have you ever been writing down an idea and then hit the proverbial brick wall that stops you dead in your tracks and completely derails the process? If not, count yourself lucky. Happens to me far too often. To the point in fact where I’ve had to develop some coping mechanisms to deal with it. In this post, I’d like to focus on three of the ways I’ve learned to turn these walls into speed bumps: Breadcrumbs, Dictionary Dives, and Thesaurus Thumps.

We’ll start with “Breadcrumbs” because the other two ideas can be used to follow up on those later. When I’m pounding away and suddenly am at a loss for the next word, I’ve discovered that I can a) completely derail myself for hours or days by trying to figure it out immediately or b) put in a marker of some sort with a few key ideas and keep on chugging away. Option (b) sounds like a much better approach to me, though I probably go with (a) more often than I want to admit.

The basic technique works something like a Mad Lib. I put in a blank with a few words beneath it or put the keywords in brackets or parentheses and then move on to the next thought as quickly as possible to not lose the train of thought. Later on during the editing or revising phase I can find these little breadcrumbs and hunt for the correct term, idea, or concept to fill it in.

Let’s take the following passages as examples: “…As the party slowly works down the hall, they may hear (with a decent Perception check) the [slimy, squishy, blubbery] noises of something up ahead…” or “A small rusty metal cannister has been placed carefully on the shelf between two ancient tomes. Inside you find the [sand-like, dust-like, shavings-like] remains of something of indeterminate origin. On the can is a small note with lettering smudged and worn to the point where all you can read is ‘add water.'”

As you can see, I mostly use it for descriptive words, but it can be a handy technique for just about anything. Need a name? Tag it. Need a place? Tag it. Need a thing? Tag it!

So what do you do with the tags when it’s all said and done? Well, that’s up to you of course. I use those breadcrumbs to remind me what I was looking for and then use a couple of different techniques… Dictionary Diving and Thesaurus Thumping.

image by Improulx

image by Improulx

There are two variations of “Dictionary Diving” I use frequently. Rarely do I actually open a physical dictionary, though I have one by my desk at all times for just such an emergency. It’s far too easy to hit the web and go to to do my exploration. It involves taking the keywords from the breadcrumb, typing them into the search field in my favorite dictionary website, and seeing what comes up. If you feel like living dangerously you can even do a raw Google search with your terms to see what comes up.

If I try this approach with my two breadcrumbs exactly as I wrote them in the passages I wrote earlier, I end up with nothing useful. I can’t simply put in “slimy, squishy, blubbery” or “sand-like, dust-like, shavings-like” and expect good results. Think of this as like spelunking where we’re exploring different dark caves in a network, finding a few dead-ends, and doubling back to find something more cool or useful.

So let’s go down the rabbit hole and I’ll show you the process. In this case, if I try “slimy” I end up with the basic definitions and an encyclopedia entry, Nothing very useful. But if I click on the linked term “slime” I find the definition “any ropy or viscous liquid matter, especially of a foul kind.” Viscous is a great word, but doesn’t really apply to sound, so I’ll write it down and set it aside for now. Like with a good prestidigitator performing a card trick, this is a bit like being asked to “pick a word, any word” and stuffing it back into the book so we can pull it out later.

If I don’t end up with anything I like out of the dictionary, I can use the same technique with my favorite online or offline thesaurus. If I look for “sand” at, I end up with a variety of great terms to play with: ashes, filings, granules, flakes, grit, powder, dust, gravel, or soot. And I can play with various words and combinations, exploring different paths until I end up with a word or phrase I like.

In this case, I may end up with something like “they see thin, viscous trails along the walls and floor and hear something squishing down the corridor ahead” and “the gilings and granules of some ancient thing once whole, now ground to pieces…” There’s endless varieties and this exploration of words not only helps any immediate word choice problems, but expands your vocabulary for later projects. I’m constantly learning new words and new uses for old words.

Hopefully these techniques help you in your own writing!

One last piece of advice… Remember that sometimes it’s not about finding the exact word YOU need, but about finding the right word that expresses what you’re trying to say to your READER! It can be very easy to be so focused on finding the perfect word that you get lost along the way, never to return. If that happens often, I recommend you set a timer and give yourself 5 minutes to poke around. If you still don’t have what you need, leave a more detailed breadcrumb with some of the choices you investigated, and keep moving. Don’t get so deep you forget why you were there in the first place. 🙂

Brian “Fitz” Fitzpatrick is a Software Engineer who manages (or is that mangles) Game Knight Reviews and tinkers with writing game materials via his Moebius Adventures imprint. When he’s not writing about gaming, he’s actually gaming or at least thinking about gaming in some capacity. During the non-writing, non-gaming time he’s likely trying to keep up with his wife and two daughters or wrangling code for a living!

Brainsqualling Techniques


Photo by Leszek.Leszczynski @ Flickr

Brainstorming. The term is thrown around enough these days you’d think it would solve all your problems while cleaning your house and cooking you a gourmet five-course meal. It can be done alone or in groups and be quite effective. But it boils down to thinking, talking things out, or doodling on paper or on the computer to come up with or flesh out ideas.

That said, instead of “storm,” I prefer the word “squall.” Storms can last hours or days and may affect larger areas. Squalls pop up quickly, affect a smaller area, blow things around, shake things loose, and rattle the walls… then they’re gone just as fast. That’s more what brainstorming is to me.

So let’s call it “brain-squalling” for now, shall we? And yes, I am getting to a point.

How do you come up with ideas for your adventures or campaigns? Inspiration? A muse? Alien transmissions? And what happens when those sources dry up and you are generating material for the next session? Does the world suddenly stop? Probably not. There’s always another session to plan for!

What I want to cover here is three different techniques I use to rattle things loose in my brain pan when I get stuck… Mind maps, lists, and talking to myself. Hopefully they’ll help you generate ideas as well.

Let’s start with mind maps. In case you’ve never heard of a mind map, here’s a good description. Basically it boils down to using a bit of a graphical approach to draw on both sides of the brain, combining art (circles and lines, so don’t panic) and words (or phrases) and discovering relationships between them.

It’s really easy to get started. Get a piece of paper. Write down a word (let’s start with “dungeon” here) and draw a circle around it. Think of the first thing that comes to mind about a dungeon and write that down somewhere close to “dungeon” and draw a circle around it. Then draw a line between “dungeon” and your second term. If more words come up for “dungeon”, add them and circle them. If a word comes up for one of the secondary terms, write it down and connect the two via a line. Eventually you’ll end up with prickly beasts of words surrounded by circles and connected to other circles. Each connection denotes a relationship of some sort. And before long you might have your idea for a dungeon or a session or a whole campaign.

Here’s a sample mind map I came up with for a dungeon (using FreeMind – a free mind map tool)…

RPG Mindmapping

Next up… Lists. They’re everywhere. Whether it’s a list of names, items, or words; or a list of questions to get you thinking about a topic from another direction – sometimes we just need that spark to get us going. Do a quick search on the Internet for “world builder questions” and you’ll come up with a half dozen lists right away including the exhaustive Patricia C. Wrede Worldbuilder Questions or 13 Worldbuilding Questions from Veronica Sicoe (a little more recent), you should get somewhere quickly by coming up with answers for yourself. If you’d rather look at some of the awesome products from Lee’s Lists at DriveThruRPG and other folks – everything from prophecies to monsters, names, artifacts, food, and more.

And there’s always the classic list – Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How? If you’re designing a dungeon, here are a few questions you might ask yourself:

  • Where is it? Above-ground, below-ground, mixed?
  • What’s it made of? Stone? Brick? Wood?
  • Who built it? Miners? Slaves? Contractors? Priests?
  • Why was it built? Honor the dead? Hide treasure? Secret lair?
  • When was it built? Is it ancient? New?
  • How was it built? By hand? Magic? Alien technology?

Lastly, I’ve had great results just talking to myself out loud. There’s something about how the brain processes spoken language vs. how it processes written language that gets entire chunks of the brain in gear that don’t always fire when you’re just reading and writing. I don’t recommend doing it in a crowded place or you may get a few funny looks from your unintended audience, but if you have a few minutes of alone time in a place where you can talk openly it’s made a difference for me.

Use some of the different techniques together… Why not mind map the answers to some of the questions that you’ve asked yourself out loud? Looking at a single problem from multiple angles sometimes reveals interesting creative tidbits.

Hopefully you’ll find one or more of these techniques useful. And if you do use them, let us know how it went!

Brian “Fitz” Fitzpatrick is a Software Engineer who manages (or is that mangles) Game Knight Reviews and tinkers with writing game materials via his Moebius Adventures imprint. When he’s not writing about gaming, he’s actually gaming or at least thinking about gaming in some capacity. During the non-writing, non-gaming time he’s likely trying to keep up with his wife and two daughters or wrangling code for a living!