Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor
zette@cableone.net

Workshop: The Lost Sense

By Lazette Gifford
2007, Lazette Gifford


Andrea walked home from school on the cool November afternoon.  Above her, geese flew, their arrow formation heading southward through a cornflower blue sky dotted with fleecy white clouds.  Dead leaves, yellow and brown, crunched loudly beneath her feet, marking her passage with the snap of each step. 

She rolled a small piece of peppermint candy across her tongue -- the taste sharp and sweet -- and reminding her of the holidays to come.   She wished time would pass faster.  Grandma and Grandpa would be home for the holidays.  She couldn't wait.

The scent of wood smoke hung in the air as she neared home. She kicked at more fallen leaves and then raced the rest of the way to the small house at the end of the street.

 

As humans, we perceive the world in five senses, but often there is one or two of our senses that get lost in our writing.  Sight, sound and scent are prevalent in most works.  Taste comes in sometimes... but touch is often forgotten in common scenes.

And yet we feel everything, all the time -- from the brush of soft clothing to the press of fingers against slick, cool keyboard keys.  We are mostly unaware of our sense of touch until something unusual draws us to it: unexpectedly cold bath water, ruffled fur on a cat's back, sticky candy left to melt in a coat pocket.

This lost sense can add something special to your story -- the right 'touch' at the right time, so to speak.    However, in order to use the sense of touch in your story, you have to be more aware of it in your own world.

Step # 1

Reach out with your hand and touch three different things.  What makes them feel alike? What makes them feel different?  What words come the quickest to you?

Zaphod the cat has what we call rabbit fur around here -- softer and silkier than most cat pelts. Beside him sits a white teddy bear with uneven fur that feels like brushed cotton, while the red bow around his neck looks silken, but feels like a finely woven rough net.

Because touch is so constantly with us, it goes unnoticed until we find that extraordinary moment -- the vibration of the ground when a train is passing nearby, for instance.  And this is how it should be for your characters as well.  Too much tactile description feels unnatural to the reader, and should only be used often if you are painting an extraordinary character for whom touch means more than it does to the normal person.

We notice touch mostly in the moment when it presents change from the norm. Warm tea on a cold day combines both taste and touch... but how often do we hold the cup for warmth, breathe in the scent of the tea, and only taste it at the last?

Most often we also think of touch in terms of antonyms:

  • hot and cold

  • sticky and slick

  • slimy and powdery

  • rough and silken

  • wet and dry

  • soft and hard

  • pain and pleasure

Step # 2

Write a scene contrasting two forms of touch -- either from the list above or some other combination you can come up with.  Find at least two different words for each 'touch' that further defines the experience.

She poured tea into the cup on the tray and handed it to him.  The cup felt startling cold at first, but in moments the fragrant tea began to warm the fragile porcelain, changing it from icy cold to pleasantly warm, and off-setting the chill of the old house. 

The addition of these new descriptions can be subtle, electrifying or sensual.  It can blend into another sense descriptions or stand out on its own. 

Many stories can benefit from a bit of tactile description. Try looking through one or two scenes of our own and see if you can't find somewhere to add a few extra 'touches' to bring out a new layer in description.

Step 3:

Find something of your own where you can add a little bit of tactile description and create more description and depth for a scene.

The trees became shadows again.  He found it far more difficult to stay connected to the world when everything shifted to shades of black and grey.  He wanted the green back, and blessed the little flying flowers moving across his blurred vision, drawing him back from wherever his mind tried to wander.  He gently brushed his hands against the slick damp bark of every tree that came within reach, welcoming the solid reality as another tangible link to the real world.

 

Keep the idea of touch in mind while you write and look for ways to describe the world around your characters using this extra sense.  Just remember, like in the real world, characters are not going to be constantly aware of everything they brush up against or touch.  Reserve this sense for the moment of something extraordinary -- the first touch of a human hand against an alien plant, something unexpected felt in the dark