The Dangling Description Mystery Method Formula — The Secret Sauce To Riveting Descriptions

I was working on a new Faster Combat lesson about the Action Economy last weekend and a lightbulb went off.

I know exactly what I want to deliver each time you and I describe something to our players.

This applies to descriptions for encounters, NPCs, items, monsters, and locations.

This applies to boxed text, bullet style, or 100% improvised descriptions.

Get this right and you hook your players every time.

Use this method and you’ll get your players’ immediate attention and get them engaged in the moment.

What Natural Storytellers Do

Some people are natural storytellers. I am not one of those lucky folks.

I prefer concision.

Make a point, with a purpose, and move on.

But natural storytellers know how to tease things out.

They turn even mundane daily events into compelling recounts of something interesting that happened.

We need to take their talent and deconstruct that into a skill with which we can learn to craft great descriptions.

And here’s how we can do that.

Use Dangling Description Mysteries

Put your player hat on for a sec. What description would you find more engaging?

This one:

“You track Morkus to the market. He’s charming people with his magic helm.”

Or this one:

“You enter the busy market and spot Morkus right away. But his behaviour is very strange….”

The first description is one I’m likely to give. Straight and to the point.

But it lacks mystery.

With the second description, you capture your players’ attention.

You’ve dangled a mystery in front on them. Their brains are now chewing on this puzzle. You’ve created an open loop of curiosity, and players must have closure, so they pay attention.

But wait. There’s more.

“Yeah, he’s snaking between people. He’s getting close to each person and dabbing their backs, shoulders, or elbows. But that’s not the weirdest thing….”

You do it again. You dangle another mystery.

Now you’ve really got them hooked! They want to hear what you have to say next. They’re puzzling over the details you are reeling out. And tension builds as they wait to discover what it all means to them and their characters.

“The weirdest thing is, as he touches each person their eyes roll back. It’s so creepy. Only the whites of their eyes show. And their faces also go blank.

“It happens instantly. One moment they’re laughing, or annoyed, or curious. And then the next moment….empty. Just a blank expression. Like a switch turned off.

“And as Morkus passes on to the next person, something else happens that sends chills down your spine. Something that makes you realize you are in great danger!”

Ok. What player isn’t waiting with bated breath now, hanging on your words?

You’ve dangled another, and final mystery in front of them.

And you’ve made it about the characters.

You’ve drilled down in your description and setup until it’s become personal, imminent, and exciting.

And that’s the Dangling Description Mystery Method.

How to Create Dangling Description Mysteries

The formula is simple.

But first, a caveat.

We talked before about how session pacing is managing table energy.

One tactic is to raise energy levels when they’re low and lower energy levels when they’re high. The amplitude, or amount of swing between peak and valley of the change, is the degree of pacing change.

Want a big change of pace? Create a big swing in table energy.

Dangling Description Mysteries have energy swings built-in.

You pivot major details into cliffhangers.

But swing too much too often and players get numb. “Oh great, here’s another one of those crazy descriptions. Dude, I just want to buy some iron rations.”

You can use Dangling Description Mysteries any time. But make them fast and minor mysteries for minor things. Then give players the full treatment, like with Morkus, for significant moments.

Ok, here’s the recipe:

Dangling Description Mystery Recipe

Step 1. Pick 1-3 Details

Step 2. Sequence the Details

Step 3. Put Each Detail at the End of a Build-Up

Step 4. End Each Build-up with a Cliffhanger Statement

Step 1. Pick 1-3 Feature Details

What is interesting about the thing you’re describing?

Think features, actions, results.

Runes on a sword. NPC using a magic item. Animal hackles rising.

This requires practice.

Prep a few descriptions in Campaign Logger ahead of time. This will give you time to figure out the details.

You’ll get a sense of what’s interesting with practice. As you skill-up, you’ll be able to spot key details on-the-fly instinctively.

Step 2. Sequence the Feature Details

Put the feature details in order of dramatic effect.

Like a good joke, we can’t lead with the punchline.

To make this step easier, we order our details so the final part of our description has the most impact.

Perhaps it’s a time sequence. Things build up. Something happens. Then another thing. And then another thing.

Perhaps it’s a camera zoom sequence. The big picture first. Then details. Then even finer details. Then the final revelation.

Maybe it’s a relevance sequence. We don’t know what it means to us at first. But then details emerge that drill down into a realization or discovery.

Step 3. Put Each Detail at the End of a Build-Up

By the same token, we put the feature details near the end of each Dangling Description Mystery section.

This increases the dramatic effect. It sets up our cliffhangers.

“You enter the busy market and spot Morkus right away. But his behaviour is very strange….”

“Yeah, he’s snaking between people. He’s getting close to each person and dabbing their backs, shoulders, or elbows. But that’s not the weirdest thing….”

“The weirdest thing is, as he touches each person their eyes roll back. It’s so creepy. Only the whites of their eyes show. And their faces also go blank.

“It happens instantly. One moment they’re laughing, or annoyed, or curious. And then the next moment….empty. Just a blank expression. Like a switch turned off.

“And as Morkus passes on to the next person, something else happens that sends chills down your spine. Something that makes you realize you are in great danger!”

Step 4. End Each Build-up with a Cliffhanger Statement

Writers have a trick. They build up a library of transition phrases and techniques.

These little connectors help introduce new developments and paragraphs without jarring the reader.

A writer can’t be a one-trick pony. They can’t use the same transition all the time, else the writing becomes stilted and repetitive. Readers will get bored or frustrated and close the book.

We GMs need to build a library of cliffhanger statements in the same way.

Imagine how terrible this player experience would be:

“Morkus walks up to a person.

“And then he touches their back.

“And then he mutters a word.

“And then the person’s face goes blank.

“And then their eyes roll back.

“And then animals start barking like crazy.

“And then he mutters something else.

“And then and then and then.”

Verbal communication can get away with more repetition than written. But still that’s a lot of “and then’s.”

So we need to pepper our descriptions with a variety of cliffhanger statements.

“Then something weird happens.”

“And you won’t guess what happens next.”

“But wait, it’s gets worse.”

“And the troubling thing isn’t what he does, it’s what he says.”

“Roghan, you notice something strange with the animals.”

Listen to people, the news, chapter endings in good books, and dialogue before scene transitions in shows, and other story moments.

Look for the cliffhanger moments and see how they dangle the mystery.

Steal these ideas to build up your own inventory of interesting cliffhanger statements to keep your Dangling Description Mysteries fresh and exciting.

“You enter the busy market and spot Morkus right away. But his behaviour is very strange….”

“Yeah, he’s snaking between people. He’s getting close to each person and dabbing their backs, shoulders, or elbows. But that’s not the weirdest thing….”

“The weirdest thing is, as he touches each person their eyes roll back. It’s so creepy. Only the whites of their eyes show. And their faces also go blank.

“It happens instantly. One moment they’re laughing, or annoyed, or curious. And then the next moment….empty. Just a blank expression. Like a switch turned off.

“And as Morkus passes on to the next person, something else happens that sends chills down your spine. Something that makes you realize you are in great danger!”

The Dangling Description Mystery Method Formula

Follow those four steps to make this technique happen in your games.

Write for practice. Deliver dynamically as you get better at this skill.

Add this formula to your GM screen:

Build-Up => Detail Reveal => Cliffhanger

Try the Dangling Description Mystery Method and let me know if your storytelling and player engagement improves.