Writing Tips: How to Describe Setting using Touch

Show, don’t tell. That’s what every beginning writer is told. But how is this achieved? And what does it look like when it comes to setting?

In terms of show, don’t tell, there are two broad strategies to think about. When used together they are brilliant tools to really paint a picture in your reader’s mind. The first is to use figurative language (but more on this in another post). The second is to use sensory language — to draw upon the five senses to describe the setting.

Let’s take a look at one of the more underutilised senses: touch.

When teaching creative writing I like to take my students outside so that they can notice in minute detail what is going on around them. I use the wordtouch rather than feel in this exercise because the term feel tends to lead to discussions about emotions. Instead, I want my students to really notice the touch of the wind on their faces or the ground under their feet.

At first, giggles pervade our circle as I ask the students to close their eyes and concentrate on the sensation of the wind.

‘It feels cold,’ says one student, and the others agree. I challenge them to take this description further.

‘Yes, it is cold. But cold is a neutral adjective which has neither positive nor negative connotations. If we want to paint a favourable picture of this cold setting, what sort of adjectives could we use instead?’

‘Fresh,’ says one.

‘Icy,’ suggests another. And then there is a wonderful debate amongst the class as to whether icy suggests a positive or negative view of the setting.

‘If I wanted my reader to imagine a harsh wintry day, I’d describe the wind as bitter,’ says one of my students proudly.

When thinking about touch, of course, there is so much more than simply temperature to notice. Here are some questions and an info-graphic to help you consider how to use touch in descriptions of setting in your own writing.

 

Your character closes their eyes and notices:

The ground under their feet. Is it hard, soft, undulating, rough, spongey, treacherous or shifting as they walk?

The sun on their skin. Is it weak, scorching, burning, diluted, or perhaps absent?

The wind on their arms. Is it caressing them softly or savagely whipping at their clothes? Is there no wind at all?

The moisture in the air. Is it damp and humid or dry and arid?

The texture of the closest object under their hand. Is it the rough bark of a tree or the cool smoothness of hospital walls?

Of course, there is such a thing as too much description, but it seems more common for writers to use too little rather than too much!

 

There are some excellent examples of books where the author has done an amazing job of describing setting using the senses. Ones that stand out for me are Lord of the Flies, The Clan of the Cave Bear, and The Lord of the Rings.

Do you have a favourite example of a book that describes setting well? Comment below.

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