Friday, August 1, 2008

Day 5 – Sense of Touch

We feel things on the inside and the outside, but for the purpose of description and the tactile sense of touch, I won't go too far into the emotional end of things. All description should affect emotion regardless, so I don't want to compartmentalize it. However, someone really ought to do a weeklong workshop on emotion by itself. Don't you think?

So where was I? Oh, yes, tactile sensations…

What does your body feel at this very moment? It's early evening here in Bend, Oregon, and a light breeze flutters in through the open sliding glass door, cooling my ankles and my calves. My thighs are warmed by the laptop I've had sitting on them practically all day. I just cracked open a birthday beer, a Wailua Wheat Ale that's flavored with Passion fruit, and it's quite yummy. I feel relaxed and calm as I listen to my husband play his guitar on the patio.

If I were a book character, someone would break into my home right about now, shoot my husband and my dog, and successfully shake me from my complacent world. That's what fiction does. It stirs up trouble because reading about contented people is boring.

Like sight, the sense of touch fairly dominates our work. Our characters are always feeling things, inside and out, and expressing those feelings can be a challenge. The touch of a calloused hand might mean strength and provide a sense of security, or it could be a threat. Your words will sculpt the character's state of mind and drive her to action.

Continuing with our scene we started on Monday:

The tile was green and shiny. The air smelled like a swamp. Lisa heard footsteps coming closer. She bit the sleeve of her shirt to keep from crying out. She hurt so bad she thought she would faint.

And the better way:

Green tile glistened in the sunlight. A humid scent like wet moss and mud floated on the air. Footsteps sloshed through a puddle of standing water, forcing Lisa farther back into the bushes where she hid. She gasped, then chomped down on her shirt sleeve to stop herself from screaming. The filthy cloth filled her mouth with the taste of blood; the gash in her arm had yet to stop bleeding. Dizzy enough to pass out, Lisa gritted her teeth against the blazing pain of her wound and clamped her fingers around her arm to stanch the bleeding.

Our lovely Lisa is in dire straits. Help better come soon or she's a goner.

DO use concrete images when describing touch. When it comes to tactile senses, it's important to include physical objects in your description to avoid filling it in with too many thoughts and feelings. Emotions alone are telling, and when you use too much you risk boring the reader. You can really put the skids on a well-paced story when you stop the action to explain how a character feels.

DON'T use sentimentality and melodrama to express description. Things like "She was wracked with grief" and "His happiness knew no bounds" will get you rejected so fast your head will spin. No kidding. This is a pitfall of generous description so be careful! Edit your prose with a machete and measure your modifiers to avoid overwriting. Above all, avoid pathetic fallacy, which means do not ascribe human emotions to natural phenomena or inanimate objects. Example: The flowers danced with vicarious joy. That's just silly. Keep it real.

Examples of using the sense of touch in description:

The cool breeze had brushed against his brow a second time, and something about the way it touched him seemed like a sign. As though the breeze was saying look, look…
Galilee by Clive Barker

I jerked my head to one side, gasping, and felt the duct tape pull as he cut it barely a quarter inch from my neck. I felt the cold kiss of the knife drag down and bury itself shallowly in the skin of my shoulder.
Windfall by Rachel Caine

His claws sliced through my jacket, his hot breath bathing my neck as the room's cool air chilled my bloody back. Shui hovered close, inhaling my scent, one claw tracing an immature wing that struggled to break free.
Knight's Curse (not yet published) by Karen Duvall

Homework Assignment: Let's play a game. You'll need someone to help, like a spouse, family member or friend. Close your eyes, or better yet, blindfold yourself, and ask your friend or loved one to hand you an object. You can't see it, but you can feel it. Maybe you can smell it. Just focus on what it feels like in your hands, its weight and texture. Now write about the experience in 100 words or less. It can be from either your point of view, or the POV of a character in a story you're working on. Don't be afraid to combine other senses, but focus on touch for this exercise. Post your creation in the comments section. If you prefer to choose something from your WIP that you feel is an effective use of touch, that's fine, too.

Well, that concludes this week-long workshop for Writing Effective Description Using the Five Senses. I hope you found it helpful, as well as fun. Writing should always be a joyful experience. Please come back to my blog some time for a visit and to say hello. On Saturday I'll draw three names from those who commented and announce the winners on my blog, so be sure to stop by to find out if you won. I'll need to know where to mail your prize.

Happy writing, everyone!


suelder said...

My narrator/MC in Lawgiver is blinded (temporarily) during the novel. I used this opportunity to beef up this scene by concentrating on his sense of touch:

For two days, I sat in the silence of the sick room, unable to see and unwilling to talk. My eyes were hurt, possibly damaged beyond repair. No one had said anything to me, but perhaps I’d been beyond hearing. The fact remained that I could not see. And the pain centered in my eyes.

On the third day the smells changed. There were still the scent of herbs you would find in a sick room – sage and yarrow. But lavender and lemon teased my nose as I woke and a rich voice, feminine but deep, greeted me. “Good afternoon, Padron. How are you feeling?”

I tried to speak, but could only croak. Warm, soft hands took mine and wrapped them around a cup. My fingers were stiff, but they gripped the cool, firm cup. Fired clay with a silky glaze sat under my fingers; what color was it? I ran my thumb along the smooth surface, imagining the cup's shape, and with her help, I took a sip of water.

“The pain is less,” I managed to say. Gentle fingers brushed mine and helped the cup to my lips again. She took it away after another sip.

Thanks for this workshop. You've helped me think about things I should already know and focus on them.


Just_Me said...

(looks at homework)

(looks at ever-helpful children)

I just know I'm going to get handed a bug.... I'm opting for a pass on this one.

Fennel Giraffe said...

I like to mention texture: slick, rough, silky, furry, etc.

- - -

Maliya took a deep breath, dragged her forearm across her eyes, then began to climb. Her hands, already scraped raw, stung as she gripped the rough stone. One foot slipped. She scrabbled to hold on, heart pounding, as what she had thought a solid foothold clattered away. Resuming her climb, she crept slowly upward. When she reached the top of the huge boulder, she stood cautiously upright.

No change. Nothing except rocks and glaring sun. The view had been the same hours earlier. How far had she traveled since then? Trembling with exhaustion, Maliya dropped to her knees. If only she knew how she got here. If only she knew where 'here' was.

Marti Verlander said...

Karen, I've really enjoyed your workshop. Your ongoing example was very effective, especially supplmented by the amazing work posted by others in the workshop. Thank you!


Beyond the horses, a sinuous, silvery crescent on the grass seemed to move. Jynx gave it her attention.

Something slammed into her head. She staggered, grabbed the wagon wheel to stay upright, gasped as the assault intensified. She fell to her knees, and in the next moment of self-awareness lay crumpled in new grass. Her arms warded her face, but nothing physical touched her. She writhed in painl,cried out.

The pain stopped. Jynx lurched to hands and knees, head hanging. She sucked air raggedly into her lungs. When she could, she sat back on her heels, half dazed, looking for the source of the blows that felt physical but weren’t.