Ruth E. Walker
I imagine you’ve heard this kind of phrase more than once:
I’m touched by your generosity.
I swear he’s been touched by an angel.
I can’t wait to get my hands on that ring.
As soon as this bloody plane touches down, I’m out of here.
And so on. It is interesting that the sense of “touch” should be used in such emotionally charged moments. I believe it speaks to the power this sense has to connect our hearts and minds.
In any kind of writing, the power that all five senses can bring to your material is enormous. In previous posts, we’ve written about smell, taste, hearing and sight. Then just to keep you thinking, we followed each post on the sense with a companion post focusing on poetry using that sense.
Today, we bring it all home with a focus on the sense of touch and ways in which it can power up the emotions in your writing and immerse your reader in the story.
A trio of touches
We touch through our skin. As our bodies are 99.9% wrapped in the stuff, this massive organ is constantly sending messages to our brains. Once there, our brains choose what signals to notice and what signals to put aside.
There are three types of touches.
- A light touch, also known as a “protective touch” includes tickling. A light touch engages our brain immediately so, if an insect starts crawling along your arm, your body responds right away. Depending on your history with bugs, you might swat or brush away the insect immediately or, if you’re less bug-averse, take a closer look to decide if it’s a threat or benign.
- A fine touch, also known as a “discriminative touch” is responsible to give your brain specific information about what is touching your body. So, the fine touch alerts the brain that the insect left a slimy trail on your arm as your fingers touch the yucky stuff. Ewww. Get. Slime. Off.
- Touch pressure and deep touch pressure is the last of the trio. Shoes that are too tight or that dear old auntie who gives everyone a hug are examples of touch pressure. Covered with a soft feather duvet or a double-layer woolen blanket, it’s your touch pressure sense that tells your brain how heavy each one is. If you’ve ever caught your fingers in a car door, you’ll know what deep touch pressure is like.
Be aware of the degree of touch in your writing. I’ll have more to say on that in a moment.
Touch in writing
It’s easy to use ordinary actions. He touched her face. She picked up the stone. They hugged each other. But it’s useful to consider the variety of ways in which humans give and receive a touch and apply those to your writing.
Touch is more than hands. All of our body is touching something all the time. Even naked, our skin is touching the air.
- Do your characters touch only with their hands?
- If the hands are the logical body part to use, can you get more specific? Fingertips, nails, palm, heel, knuckles – all can be used to “feel” something/someone
- What degree of touching? He felt for a pulse versus he pressed two fingertips against her cold neck, seeking a pulse.
- What other body parts can you use for touch? Our bodies bump into things all the time and we don’t notice – are there places where a hip brushing against a doorway or when a thorn lodging inside a thigh could give a bit more of setting for your reader? Lean back in your chair and what parts of you are connecting with it? Now write a paragraph or two with one of your characters sitting in a chair, describing the physical connection with that chair.
Go beyond the physical
And touch is not simply physically connecting with something. There are degrees of types of touch that relate to more than the object itself. Touch as an action either being delivered or received is affected by a person’s emotional state and by their own history (stove=hot!) and sensory input levels. Someone with acute sensitivity to physical touch will back away from a hug or even a handshake. And that same person may avoid wools, corduroy or nylon materials. A person with low levels of sensitivity may not notice the texture of rough wool and, in extreme cases, not have any sensory input for types of pain.
With the emotional in mind, remember that the act of touch includes many qualities, and as infants, we learned about our world through the senses. Touch taught us so much through physical explorations. If you want to bring your reader deep into the story, you’ll be wise to keep those qualities in mind:
- Texture – every physical thing has an exterior that has a texture. Sharp, smooth, ridged, pocked, spongy, liquid, etc.
- Size – from tiny seeds to cardboard boxes to solid walls, touch informs us of size
- Shape – similar to texture and size, our 3D world holds all of geometry. Round, flat, oval, rectangular, bulgy, pyramidic, etc.
- Temperature – cool to the touch, barely warm, flaming hot, ice cold. Our skin is our constant thermometer
- Pressure – a squeeze of an arm or a chokehold on our throat, we feel the touch and can decide if it’s good or bad
- Vibration – Place a hand on the washing machine in the spin cycle and the movement and noise reaches us but it’s our skin that is the “first responder” to that vibration
- Pain – So many kinds of pain that come from our skin being touched by something or someone and yet, so many kinds of pain that can be relieved with a soothing or loving touch
This is just an overview of this last of the five senses. When you finish your first draft, remember to give at least one edit pass that focuses on your use of the senses. If they’re missing or just given a superficial treatment, then you are probably missing the opportunity to immerse your reader in the physical and emotional heart of your story.