Setting Thesaurus Entry: The Gallows


A mob-like crowd, edging close to the stage, people holding baskets of rotten vegetables or stones, the local law enforcer (police/sheriff/lord/constable/official/captain etc), rope, noose, a block of wood or platform, trapdoor, wooden structure and steps. cross beam, supports, pulley for trapdoor, priest to deliver last rites, guilty prisoners in shackles, black hood, executioner, steps, many faces pulled in expressions of hate or excitement, only a few with disgust, people shaking fists and spitting, children climbing up on barrels or risers for a better view, spectators lining the roof of nearby buildings, faces pressed to windows, a courtyard area surrounded by buildings or with the prison close by, women selling wares to the gathered crowd (food, drink, etc), men close at hand with weapons of the era to prevent escape, bits of rotten produce littering the steps and gallows platform, perhaps smearing the accused's face or clothing before the law puts a stop to it


The crowd cursing, yelling screaming, shouting, excited murmurs, the hard raspy breath of the prisoner, the drone of the religious representative offering last minute prayers or urgently requesting the prisoner repent his sins, confess, etc. The thump of heeled boots crossing the planks of wood, the dragging footsteps of the condemned, begging, pleading, crying, moaning, weeping, the official addressing the crowd, giving voice to the crimes the person had been found guilty to and the punishment, the thunk of the trapdoor opening or block of wood being kicked over, the creak of a taut rope, the snap of a neck or squirm and shuffle of fabric as the condemned chokes to death, the final exhale, the clump of cabbage or rotten apples bouncing across the platform, the whump of the body hitting the ground or into a waiting wagon bed after the rope is cut or released


Stale sweat, body odor, dried blood, dirt, dust, the smell of pine or aspen if the platform is newly constructed, weather (sunshine beating off the planks of wood, flowers being carried through the air, rain, etc), cow or horse manure, smoke, rotten produce, the foul stench of breath and fear inside a hood used many times


Sweat, tears, spectators meals brought from home (bread and cheese, water, fruit, etc)


The pinch and rub of raw wrists against rope, shoulders pulling and painful at hands being bound behind back, the solid planks underfoot, each step heavy and full of foreboding, flinching at being touched or trying to avoid being hit by a projectile, the hard, digging grip of a lawman pulling you to the gallows, dragging your feet, swinging wildly side to side, trying to break free, pulling back as you're being dragged forward, jerking head to resist the noose, a shove to the back or side to keep you on route, sweat dripping down neck, chests and sides, taking the step up onto a block, flinching as the the weight of the rope settles around neck and then is pulled tight, tense muscles, teeth clenched, hands turned to fists behind back, chest heaving with frantic breaths wondering which will be the last, the sudden drop and weightlessness, then the final tug and jerk of dead weight and darkness.

Helpful hints:

--The words you choose can convey atmosphere and mood.

Example 1:

Marcy looked on, ignoring the satisfied shouts from the crowd. She expected to feel something more as the man who'd raped her swung from a length of hemp like rotten fruit too stubborn to fall from the tree. Hands patted her back and squeezed at her wrists before moving off, eventually leaving her alone in the dusty courtyard. In that moment she understood how much she had in common with the dead man--both had all the good life had to offer stolen from them. What justice was it that his reward was death while she had to remain in this world, living on with nothing but pain?

Example 2:

Halfway through a hot, stale breath, the floor gave way beneath Jess. For the smallest moment the jeers of the spectators faded and he was rewarded with an exhilarating memory of jumping off his uncle's barn roof with his cousins. A sharp, stiff jerk brought him back and as the rope choked off his breath he understood: no soft pile of hay waited to catch him this time.

--Similes and metaphors create strong imagery when used sparingly.

Example 1: (Simile)

The mob crowded the gallows like hungry jackals closing in on a waiting feast.

Example 2: (Metaphor)

A yoke of guilt bowed the man's shoulders and sent his gaze to the ground as he approached the gallows. He didn't look up, not once, not even as the noose settled around his neck.


Taryn said...

I have an early ms, in which the heroine is returning home after sneaking to London to (reluctantly) witness a hanging... this has given me an idea for a better opening. I think I may drag out that old ms again!

Brad said...


Excellent images!

Karen Lange said...

Great stuff! I can see that you were inspired during your 'unplug time". Or you are just gifted:) Am thinking both!
Happy weekend,

Michelle Gregory said...

you don't happen to have anything that describes a medieval army camp??? just hoping. guess i'll have to do some research.

Mary Witzl said...

I especially love that second example -- the fleeting, joyful childhood memory. ank

And thank you for the word 'thunk'. We're still unpacking our books and my thesaurus isn't at hand. The word 'thunk' was just what I needed!

Jenna Reynolds said...


Melissa Gill said...

Gallows scenes give me nightmares. And this will keep me awake for a week it's so scary. But great job Angela as always. If I ever get brave enough to write a gallows scene I'll depent on this.

Lindsay said...

Angela, amazing as always. This one actually brought goosebumps to my arms. I did a lot of research on the witch hunts a while back and am considering putting all of it to use in the form of a young adult fiction novel - this post would definitely be helpful!

Shannon said...

I think this has to be one of your best Setting Thesaurus examples. Just reading the lists were very evocative. Love it!

I know I'm not the first to say it but: awesome second example.

By the way, were you going for a mood of the Popular Execution? I'm sure they're more common and a lot of people did enjoy a good execution, but it seems you've missed out on some of the sights and sounds of an unpopular execution. One which the general public wish wasn't happening.

Angela Ackerman said...

LOL, I guess I'm a bit twisted because this was a fun one to do. :) So many possibilities!

Shannon, you're right, there is the other side of it--the quite hush of the crowd, weeping, people praying and wishing they could look away...not all hangings are just, not by a long shot.

Cruella Collett said...

This is a very good writing exercise. It's interesting, because I did something similar (but much less organized) for one of my stories-in-brewing (the one I am currently most satisfied with the "mood"). I wrote down a number of words I wanted to include/inspire me, and only when I had done that did the various characters form in my mind. I never thought about the possibility for doing so for each scene, though, and I didn't categorize them either. I'm making a mental note to do that when I pick it up again.

Laura Pauling said...

Thanks for all your hardwork!

April said... amaze me, you know that! Every time I read one of your posts, I'm inspired to take more time with each scene and make it real. This one gave me goosebumps and spiked my eyes with tears. Excellent. Thanks for the imagry and the inspiration.

Henya said...

Most inspiring. Well done.

Voyagefan said...

This is great! The images are really descriptive. I'll have to try writing descriptions like this sometime! Great post!

Stina Lindenblatt said...

I don't supposed you could do a post on renaissance festivals, could you? Like for tomorrow. :D

I went to one as a teen, and now I'm trying to remember it using all my senses. You're so much better at this than I am.


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