How to Use Touch to Pull Your Reader Into Your Novel

Did you know that leprosy doesn’t actually make your fingers and toes fall off?

I didn’t. What happens is the bacteria attack the nerve endings in the body so the sufferer can’t feel pain. When they injure themselves, they don’t feel it, and this can lead to infection and gangrene before the injured person realizes it and can get treatment. Imagine if they lost their sense of touch entirely.

Touch is the one sense we can’t survive without, so if you’re not using it in your story, you’re dooming your manuscript to an early death.

Over the past months, I’ve looked at three ways to make your novel scratch and sniff and three ways to use taste to make your readers hungry for more. This week, it’s time to look at three ways to use the sense of touch to touch your readers.

Use All Aspects of Touch

Touch is one of the most multi-faceted senses. You can touch and be touched. You can be touched by another living being, by the weather, or by an inanimate object. To convey touch to your readers, think about temperature, texture, pressure, and intent.

Temperature is about more than hot and cold. It’s about hot and cold within context. A cool hand on a feverish forehead soothes. A cool hand in a handshake is often interpreted as a sign of a cold personality. In an old an episode of Columbo, a character’s cold hands tipped him off to their poor circulation, and that in turn helped him solve the case.

Texture also goes beyond the gritty sand between your toes or the sliminess of separating an egg with your fingers. My co-writer Lisa Hall-Wilson recently wrote a post on how The Details Make the Story. For one of her earliest attempts at a novel, she wanted to write about a fireman and so she booked a tour of a fire hall. Near the end of the tour, she asked to feel one of the firemen’s hands because she needed to know if they were rough like a farmer’s or smooth like a mechanic’s.

Pressure can show intimacy, a threat, or add humor. At my best friend’s funeral, a well-meaning older lady took my hand and squeezed it while she talked to me. The pressure she used normally wouldn’t have been a problem except that when she took my hand, the ring I had on twisted, and every time she squeezed, the stone cut into the finger next to it. She interpreted the pain flashing across my face as emotional and squeezed harder. It was funny in hindsight. Not so much at the moment.

Intent adds layers. I once read that women don’t slap men they’re genuinely furious with. They might punch them, knee them in the groin, shove them, or simply walk away, but they won’t slap them because a slap says that part of them isn’t angry. Part of them secretly knows the man was right or is secretly attracted to him because of what he did. A slap is ambiguous.

Observe (or Break) the Continuum of Intimacy

By its very nature, touch is an intimate sense. You can smell a scent carried on the wind, hear a sound from a mile away, look at stars through a telescope. To touch something, you need to be within arm’s reach.

Jenny Hansen had a helpful post on Using the 12 Stages of Physical Intimacy to Build Tension in Your Fiction where she points out that skipping over any of the stages of intimacy causes conflict. Drawing out these stages amps up the tension as your readers hold their breath to see when your characters will reach the next milestone. You can observe or break the order of the touch levels on this scale depending on what emotional effect you want to have on your reader.

Jenny also notes that the stages of physical intimacy speak to boundaries. Personal space boundaries vary by individual, by gender, and by age, but they also vary by culture. In North America, you don’t kiss an almost perfect stranger on the cheeks in either greeting or farewell. In other cultures, straight men kiss on the lips in greeting. You can add richness to your story by having touch interact with personal boundaries and cultural norms.

Consider How Your Character Will Interpret It

The most important thing for touch, though, is to know how your character will interpret it. A woman whose love language is physical affection will interpret a hug differently than will a woman who was sexually abused as a child. How will a germaphobe handle touch? What about an aging musician whose fingers are going numb?

Do you have a funny story about touch? What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever touched? What did it feel like? (I held a baby crocodile once. He wasn’t slimy at all, and his belly was actually very soft.)

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Grammar for Fiction Writers is now available from Amazon, Kobo, or Smashwords. (You might also be interested in checking out Showing and Telling in Fiction or Dialogue: A Busy Writer’s Guide.)

All three books are available in print and ebook forms.

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Photo Credit: Britta Kuhnen (obtained via

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