As with any of the other senses touch can be used to convey a variety of things from repulsion to eroticism. If we put our hand in sludge the cold viciousness repels us, if we caress a lover’s warm skin it attracts us. This doesn’t mean we have to describe the feeling of everything but in certain situations it can intensify a reader’s reaction.
However, we don’t simply have to use it to attract or repel we can also use it as a break in a conversation, a distraction or a comforting thing. Perhaps some characters are having an uncomfortable discussion and one of them rubs their fingers over the bumps and grooves in a table top. This has the duel effect of creating a break in the conversation and showing a characters discomfort. Or in a different context it may convey their boredom because the table top seems more interesting than the conversation.
Another use of touch may be as a replacement for sight. In the dark, or if a character can’t see, they may use their hands to feel their way around, a common image that appears in fiction is feeling their way along cold slick walls. This is usually used in a tense situation where they’re lost or trying to escape and the image heightens the tension because we all recognise the horror of putting out our hand in the dark and wondering what the heck we’ve put it on.
It’s important to remember that if we’re using touch to replace another sense then the lack of one sense doesn’t heighten it superhuman levels we simply pay more attention. When we’re feeling under the desk for a dropped pen is the carpet really that rough beneath our fingers? No, we’re feeling for something so we pay more attention to what we feel. It may be dustier because we haven’t hoovered under the desk and we can feel gritty dust or cottony dust bunnies. There may be something else we’ve dropped under there like a bottle cap or a smooth piece of paper. A surprise piece of paper in the dark may be hard to identify because it appears smoother or rougher than we might expect, but this is simply because we normally look at a piece of paper and our eyes tell us that’s what it is so we don’t notice the feel of the paper.
As with any type of description over use can have the opposite effect we intend. We may have a character who pays more attention to one of their senses but we usually have to establish this or the use can be glaring and off putting. For instance we may have a character who is very aware of their sense of touch and the feel of things such as materials and we have to establish them as a character who if they go into a fabric shop touches all the fabrics as we would with anything else about a character. In this case the reader will adapt because it’s simply part of the character but if we have a character at the other end of the scale who we establish doesn’t like touching things but keeps describing the feeling of things it becomes off-putting because it’s inconsistent. Perhaps when this character does touch something they would have an intense reaction but this would presumably be rare and therefore the heightened intensity would be effective because of its rarity. In this case the reader wouldn’t be perplexed by it because an intense reaction to touch from someone who doesn’t like it would be understandable.
I can’t give you precise quantities of description because it entirely depends upon stories and characters. Using the senses in description is something that takes trial and error and editing to achieve a description we’re happy with. I include myself because for all the theory I know it’s something I can improve in my own writing.
Seeing room for improvement in your writing is not failure, it’s simply a sign that you’re knowledge and experience are improving as you progress and practice.
NOTE: Each article series comes in five parts published between Monday and Friday. This is the last in this week’s series.