This blog post is part of a series about why we need to use sensory imagery in our writing. As we learned in my introductory post about sensory imagery, the sensory details draw readers into the setting and allow them to feel a character’s existence. These details must be specific, concrete, and appeal to the senses, whether seen, heard, smelled, tasted, or touched.
In this post, we explore the sense of touch.
Language is full of metaphors about touch.
When we care deeply about something, we say that it touches us. Our emotions are called feelings. Problems can be thorny, sticky—or need to be handled with kid gloves. The word touchè is used in fencing when the foil touches you, and you concede to your opponent. We also say it when we concede a point in an argument. In a crisis, we say that things are touch and go. If something seems real, it is tangible, and sometimes we lose touch with people as time goes by.
How does our sense of touch work?
Touch is a complex sense to research. Every other sense has a corresponding organ that can be studied: sight has the eyes, smell has the nose, taste has the tongue, and hearing the ear. What does touch have? It has the skin, the largest organ of the body, weighing from six to ten pounds.
Our skin is what stands between us and the world. It gives us shape, protects us, cools us down, and heats us as needed; it produces vitamin D and holds in our body fluids. It can mend itself when necessary and is constantly renewing itself. It’s waterproof, washable, and elastic. And it lasts surprisingly well despite drooping and wrinkling. And let’s not forget that it is the key organ of sexual attraction.
Consider the importance of the sense of touch.
Studies on the importance of touch, site newborn babies (especially premature babies) as gaining weight as much as 50 percent faster than babies who are not touched.
In our attendance of the dying, we are again reminded of the importance of this sense, as is it often the last to go. Frederick Sachs wrote about this quite poetically, I think, in The Sciences, “The first sense to ignite, touch, is often the last to burn out: long after our eyes betray us, our hands remain faithful to the world.”
What better way to get in touch with your characters than by getting into their skin?
Think of all the varieties of pain, irritation, abrasion; all the textures of lick, pat, wipe, caress, knead; all the prickling, bruising, tingling, scratching, banging, fumbling, kissing, and nudging a character might feel.
I want to mention the sense of sight briefly because the combination of touch and sight is what teaches us that we live in a three-dimensional world. We look at a photograph of someone we love, and we remember the feel of their hand, the curve of her hip, the texture of his hair. Think about paintings, how the mere gesture of a shape, a single curved line, can evoke round. We have touched round; we know what round is when we see it.
Remember to use touch when working on your settings.
For example, if you’ve put your character in an outdoor setting, you can—
Explore what’s underfoot: Is it hard, soft, uneven, moving? If they are barefoot you can explore further and see if it’s painfully unpleasant or lusciously pleasing.
What is the temperature of the air on their skin? Is the sun pleasantly warm or burning? How does shade feel?
Is there movement in the air? Wind can be incredibly annoying (think whipping hair and flapping clothes,) and a breeze can conjure all sorts of pleasure as it caresses the back of a hot neck.
Is the air moist or dry? Is skin cracking or are clothes sticking?
Can your character reach out and touch something? A rough concrete wall or the sleek surface of a coffin.
Try the following exercise to become more familiar with the sense of touch.
Collect five small objects from around your house and put them in a box or basket. Now, close your eyes, or blindfold yourself. Reach into the box and pick up the first object you come into contact with. Of course, you know what it is because you choose it, but your job now is to get out of your head and put all your attention into your fingers. Even better, if you have someone to help you, they can hand you an unknown object.
Now, begin to explore and be curious about its features.
Light or heavy?
Hard or soft?
Smooth or rough?
Solid or squishy?
Does it have a scent?
When you’ve thoroughly explored your object put it aside without looking at it, and begin to write a description of what you experienced. You can always do this from a character’s perspective, which will give you some unexpected insights.
Go with your first thought. Keep your pen moving.
What did you discover?
Now it’s your turn to see how the sense of touch can enrich your writing.
You can use the prompts below to explore memories or apply them to a character—you’ll be amazed at how much you discover. These prompts work well for both fiction and nonfiction.
How to start:
Set your timer for 10 minutes. Write the prompt at the top of your page and begin writing—go where the first thought takes you.
Keep your pen moving.
Don’t stop until the time is up.
Write by hand. Writing by hand connects the brain and body and, I believe, the heart. It’s especially helpful in getting those first thoughts onto the page.
Writing prompt #1
The touch of her fingers on my arm felt …
Writing prompt #2
The spider’s web clung to his face …
Writing prompt #3
The weight of the rock was beyond anything she …
Thank you for allowing me to bring you to your senses. Let me know how it goes in the comments box below.