Story Bite #24: Finding Your Beginning Through Touch

When students are having trouble with the beginning of a piece, they’re sometimes advised to think about what their character is feeling. Often, this means emotions. But the actual sense of touch can be effective too. This series of posts—Finding Your Beginning—offers tips for students on how to jump-start a scene through the senses. By writing about a sensory elements like touch, the writer can instantly put the reader directly into a scene.

Touch is powerful. It can be soothing, painful, or something in-between. It affects our minds and physical reactions. Think about temperature and what it feels like to be very cold or very hot. As a sensory element of writing, touch is often the most powerful when used in the extreme. But subtlety can be very compelling too.

If you’re walking barefoot on stone like this, you’ll feel the warmth and the hard, rough surface of the stone—and the momentary softness of that lichen. (Photo: Diane Magras)

Think of what it would be like to feel the following:

  • A 1×1 Lego brick (under your heel)
  • A hamster’s fur (against your palm)
  • A casserole dish just out from the oven (on your finger)
  • A sopping-wet fresh snowball (in your knitted mittens)

What would your reaction be to those physical sensations? Create your own list of physical feelings that cause either an instinctive or emotional reaction. If you can’t easily think of some, here are four more prompts:

  • A very soft pillow (against your head)
  • Water in a lukewarm pond (all around you)
  • A muddy lawn (against your knees)
  • The eroded stone of an ancient castle wall (against your hand)

How would these touches make you feel? And the character you’re writing about: How would they feel and what would be happening to them as they felt these things? What would happen next? Water in a lukewarm pond could be a delight (it’s been a hot, long day and someone is thrilled to be swimming at last)—or a terror (someone who can’t swim has just been pushed into the water).

Starting your piece of writing with a feeling can be an action, a reaction, or a prelude to an action. No matter what, it’s a fantastic way to help your reader truly feel the emotions you’re trying to evoke. And the beauty of this approach is that there’s always more to write.

For this Story Bite, think of something you’ve physically felt (or pick one from one of my lists above). If you can (without harm), find it and touch it (or just remember what it feels like, or try to imagine). What’s your reaction? Write down a description of that feeling. Make it quick (The water was cool and refreshing.) or link it with your character (The water filled my ears and eyes. It was all around me, heavy and cold.) and then write what comes next: how your character responds. For example:

The water was cool and refreshing. She surfaced, took a deep breath, and dove back down, away from the world above.

or

The water filled my ears and eyes. It was all around me, heavy and cold. I thrashed, desperate to reach the surface, but I was sinking instead.

What comes next? Is anyone with your character? What are they doing? Add that. What does your character do? Write that next. What happens after that? Keep writing.

Touch is a traditional way to begin a scene for a good reason: It’s an extremely effective way to put your reader directly in the action. And it’s a fantastic way to put your own mind in the scene as well.

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