Humans are social beasts: we live together, we yearn for the comfort of quality time, of family memories, and of physical closeness. But right now, touch has a bad rep. In the midst of a global health crisis, humanity must distance themselves from loved ones, colleagues, and friends. So I thought I’d talk about touch in a positive light. It’s a fantastic sense to use in writing but is usually underused.
The Touch Sense
Being touched, even if it’s as innocuous as a handshake, makes one vulnerable because you allow others into your personal space. The same is true for our characters. Sure, the touch could be for romantic reasons, but what if someone in the story is a secret assassin? Your protagonist letting them get close enough to kiss them is a terrible decision—but one that will up the tension in your plot.
The senses are regularly used in isolation in prose, but all of them are connected; that’s why when you taste something, you often smell, too. Touch, when it is used, tends to be found in romantic situations—caresses and skin-on-skin. But oh, my dear writers, touch is so much more than just a caress, especially when it’s layered with other senses.
Mixing Touch and Taste
Touch, while usually reflected in our fingertips’ connections with objects, is augmented by tangential elements. It’s these often-neglected elements that bring the most depth to your writing.
Taste, for example, involves a range of textures. I’m sure you’ve eaten crunchy foods or those with squelchy, gritty, or sloppy textures. Close your eyes for a minute and imagine with me…
- the resistant crunch of undercooked broccoli
- the fluffy inside of a roasted potato
- the tender bite of a juicy piece of meat
Food is universal; every human on the planet has to eat to survive, so it’s extremely relatable. When you add those food touches into your writing, you don’t have to work as hard to convey the image you’re trying to create.
Think Beyond Texture
You don’t have to stop layering touch there. Yes, primarily, touch is about texture: coarse, rough, smooth, sticky, slick, undulated, rocky, etc. But touch has other aspects, like heat, pain, pleasure, and vibrations.
Here’s a quick example:
Scarlet ran her fingers first over the blade. Its surface was smooth and icy, far colder than the air around her. Odd. Her fingers slipped to the cutting edge. As she examined the shape and lines of the weapon, she drew her index finger down the edge. It was so sharp it stung hot as it sliced into her finger tip. She smiled; she hadn’t pushed hard enough to cut her skin. The blade was obviously hungry for flesh. A drop of red rolled to the metal tip and she swore the blade vibrated in response: deep, rumbling. Almost as if it was greeting her: one weapon to another.
“I’ll take it,” she said and slung a pouch of coins on the counter.
~Sacha Black, Murdering Magicians
When you’re using touch in your writing, deepen your description through elements other than texture. Consider how you can add temperature or other sensations to create something unexpected.
What Can be Described Through Touch?
If you’ve struggled to incorporate touch in your prose, consider what other things can be described with this sense. Here are some ideas from my new book, The Anatomy of Prose (which is available for preorder!):
Buildings: “Buildings have an array of opportunities to describe textures, from glass and brickwork and the structural foundations of the building to the furnishings and objects inside.” As well as describing what you see, allow your buildings to have sensations, and temperatures, or perhaps they create an aching memory for your protagonist.
Weather and Air: “The sun can burn or warm, the wind can caress or ravage, the rain can patter on the arms or pound the body with hail, and the air can be dry or humid.” Weather is often used as pathetic fallacy, so add layers by considering how the weather affects your protagonist. How does it interact with their skin or mood?
Ground: “The ground can squelch with treacherous mudslides; it can undulate or be rough and hard.” The ground is a good obstacle for any protagonist on a journey. They can sit on it, or touch it, or fall on it. Layer the description to give deeper meanings. Let the touches symbolize the bigger mood in your story.
Skin: “Can be rough, brittle, leathery or smooth.”
Weapons: “Sharp blades, cool barrels, or the smoothed, polished wood of a mace handle.”
Clothes: “Fabrics are a great way of including textures as there are so many, from smooth silks to rough hessians, soft fleeces and rubbery wetsuits.”
Again, with weapons, skin, and clothing, try to get your descriptions to work twofold for you. How can those touches mean more than just an interaction with an object? Can the cool point of a blade foreshadow a death to come? Can the skin of a lover’s hand feeling brittle and worn be an omen of their death?
Nature: “Nature is the ultimate texture haven. Plants have thorns, rose petals are silky, some plants are furry.”
Emotions: “You might not think of emotions as having a texture, but they do! Think about the hot throbbing of rage or the cold prickle of fear.”
Layering description for emotions is one of my favorite things to write, and something Angela and Becca’s Emotion Thesaurus will help you with. Consider the physicality of the emotion. How does it touch your characters viscerally? Does it hurt or feel pleasurable, does it have textures? And don’t forget you can layer the other senses on top, too.
Touch is an underused sense, but I hope I’ve given you some new ideas for how you can incorporate it into your stories. (The Texture Thesaurus at One Stop for Writers can also help with this.) Think outside the box; look at the settings and environment for ways to layer in touch, and remember that it should be more than fingertip caresses.
Sacha is the author of the #1 bestseller for writers, 13 Steps To Evil – How To Craft A Superbad Villain. Her blog for writers, www.sachablack.co.uk, is home to regular writing, marketing and publishing advice sprinkled with dark humour and the occasional bad word. In addition to craft books, she writes YA fantasy. The first two books in her Eden East Novel: Keepers and Victor, are out now. You can find her manning the helm at The Rebel Author Podcast, and on social media: