Writing relies heavily on telling the reader descriptions: clothing, appearances, landscapes, cities, movements, clues for time of day, and such. But there is so much more to the world of your story than this!
Plus, it is telling and isn’t this supposed to be “show don’t tell?”
A good story pulls the reader into the world by sharing the experiences of the characters. The best description is what the main characters sees. But real experience is beyond sight!
This writing tip series is dedicated to deepening the setting of your story by utilizing senses other than sight. Because we rely on it far too much as writers! Bring your character and world to life for readers with immersive descriptions.
Touch is not used much in most fantasy stories. It falls lower than sound and smell for use. Unless, of course, you are writing a love scene. Then, suddenly, touch seems to be the only sense!
But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a sense to include with a bit more frequency. The world you create should be three dimensional, which means feeling that third dimension… something you should have the characters doing. Touch helps make the nebulous world of your words feel concrete.
So how can you utilize touch?
With world building, touch has a strong place. This is the one sense that gives dimension to what you are describing. Is the stone of a wall smooth, cold, rough, or warm? Horses have fur, but when is the last time you read about a character resting her cheek against the soft, warm fuzz of a horse’s neck? Or how cold and stiff a leather saddle can be in the morning. Metal swords can be described as heavy or balanced, but how often do you hear about grasping a cold hilt unless it is made of ice?
And let’s not forget this is fantasy. What does the touch of magic feel like for both the wielder and the target? Making the abstract feel realistic is the goal of fantasy and part of that is by giving what is fantastical a description, be it visual, a sound, a smell, or a touch! So whether a character wields fire and feels the kiss of its warmth or energy that crackles across skin and raises the hair on her arm, write about the touch of magic!
Everything a character interacts is an opportunity to add a small layer of depth to the world with touch. From sunlight to wind, rough boards of a ship, the weave of rope, the weight of a full tankard of ale, draw in a reader with this far too underused sense.
Character and creature descriptions
You might wonder how touch can be used to enhance a character description short of the obvious of a love scene. Well, since I brought it up, lets start with characters falling in love. That is often a chance for one character to touch another and discover warm skin, smooth cheeks or the roughness of stubble. Fingers can find the knotted flesh of old wounds or an opportunity to explore another character’s tense muscles with an excuse for a massage. Give the physical description of a character more depth with these subtle touch descriptions.
Of course, don’t forget touch is a fantastic way to add nuances to the POV character. The heavy swirl of skirts as the lady rushes down a hallway or the stiff weight of new armor can and how the character feels about each – pride for the armor, annoyance for the cumbersome skirts – will anchor the reader in that character’s reality and mind.
And don’t forget, falling in love is not the only time characters come in contact! Handshakes, a slap on the shoulder, or a fight all offer a chance to add in mention of the firmness of armor, the shock of a sword strike, the cut of a wound, and the stunning impact of a fist to a character’s cheek.
As for creatures… how close does your character get to one? Do they touch the stone like hide of a troll or the glass like scales of a dragon? My rule is not to use a thesaurus when you are trying to edit out all the times you described a forest as dark. Instead, add in a new description to provide information the reader didn’t know. Is the forest mossy, damp, ancient and gnarled? Describe the dragon not simply as massive but with sharp scales and the next time how they reflect light like gems. Don’t repeat yourself, and a synonym is simply repetition! And if your character gets close enough to touch what you are describing add in that!
Can touch build tension? Of course! At least, it can add to the building tension as you layer in descriptions. And I don’t just mean sex scenes, authors!
Before a fight, a character can dry sweaty palms or nervously grip the hilt of a sword. The archer fingers arrows, selecting fletching as the add pressure to the tight line of the bowstring against fingertips. These subtle clues deepen the moments before action, helping to increase tension as well as drawing the readers into the story.
How else can you use touch in a novel? Share excerpts and ideas in the comments!