The Gross-out … [is] the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs, it’s when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm. The Horror … [is] the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around, it’s when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm … Terror … [is] when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there’s nothing there…
Stephen King, the master of gory description, never leaves out tactile imagery in his captivating descriptions, as is evident in the crime writer’s above description of the three types of terror. Tactile imagery relates to the sense of touch. It is one of the seven types of sensory images used to create description in writing. The other six are visual, auditory, kinesthetic, olfactory, gustatory and organic.
In writing, the ability of the author to use imagery effectively will determine the reader’s impression. It is the writer’s job to stimulate and form the reader’s experience. Imagery helps out by forming a picture, eliciting emotions and creating an experience. Whether you are writing for children, copywriting, romancing your novel or want to know how to write short stories that sell using tactile imagery effectively is an important device for engaging your readers.
Tactile imagery is described based on our sense of touch. Adjectives may include hard, soft, rough, smooth, wet, dry, hot, cold, and so on. Typically, the experience depends on the whole picture created by more than one type of sensory imagery. The following lines from the famous Ezra Pound poem ‘The Seafarer’ uses rich sensory description:
Hung with hard ice-flakes, where hail-scur flew,
There I heard naught save the harsh sea
And ice-cold wave, at whiles the swan cries,
The mews’ singing all my mead-drink.
Storms, on the stone-cliffs beaten, fell on the stern
In icy feathers; full oft the eagle screamed
With spray on his pinion.
‘Hard-ice flakes,” “ice-cold wave,” and “icy feathers,” together with the feel of “spray,” convey a chilling seafaring experience. ‘Stone-cliffs” provide texture. A symphony of bird sounds is created through aural imagery: “swan cries,” “mew’s singing,” and “eagle screamed.” All the sensory imagery contributes to the depiction of the seafarer’s experience.
Tactile Imagery and Descriptive Language
Descriptive language uses words to describe the six senses. Adjectives are most often used to describe tactile imagery such as temperature and texture. A lot of information can be conveyed through tactile imagery, including information about a person’s life experience. A baby’s skin is described as smooth whereas a carpenter’s hands are rough.
John Keats’ Ode to a Grecian Urn’ demonstrates the use of adjectives to create tactile imagery.
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.
Keats’ choice of adjectives help him describe extreme conditions. The head is very hot and the tongue is very dry.
Tactile imagery can also be created by other parts of speech including verbs. The coffee burned the top of her mouth. We can imagine a steaming hot cup of coffee. The edge of the stone cut her hand. We know from this description that the edge of the stone was sharp.
Tactile Imagery and Figurative Language
Figurative language describes tactile imagery through comparisons. It is a more powerful way of conveying an experience to the reader as it elicits the experience and emotions of a comparable experience.
Similes create images through the comparison of similar characteristics. ‘As’ and ‘like’ are used to make direct comparisons.
His hands are as rough as sandpaper.
Her hands are soft like a baby’s bottom.
H.G. Wells Time Machine uses the simile of “a lash across the face” to convey the harsh experience of separation from reality through time travel. The figurative language of the simile is more powerful than the literal words.
At once, like a lash across the face, came the possibility of losing my own age, of being left helpless in this strange new world.
Metaphors ascribe a tactile characteristic to something by comparing it to something else with similar characteristics. The description in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 of Guy Montagu, the fireman, running from the police is full of metaphors. Count the number of metaphors that are used to describe pain.
Get up!” he told himself. “Dammit, get up!” he said to the leg, and stood. The pains were spikes driven in the kneecap and then only darning needles and then only common ordinary safety pins, and after he had shagged along fifty more hops and jumps, filling his hand with slivers from the board fence, the prickling was like someone blowing a spray of scalding water on that leg. And the leg was at last his own leg again.
He then uses the metaphor of scalding water to describe the pain of the slivers. Are both metaphors good characterizations of these experiences of pain? A metaphor can recreate the experience for the reader – he/she may even wince at the thought of the pain – when it accurately elicits the experience.
Personification assigns the characteristics of a person to inanimate objects.
The parched grass screamed under the heat of the sun.
The reader can imagine the experience of being so hot that he/she screams.
The stone-cliffs “beaten” by the storms in the Seafarer poem (below) seem to provide the storms the human trait of beating up on something, although this personification of storms, wind and rain has been so widely used its association with the human action is not always made.
At the beginning of this article, we looked at how multiple types of sensory images were combined to create the overall experience. In this next passage, we can see the tactile imagery of cold continues to build up the chilling experience of the seafarer. The ‘chill’ of the frost is compared to ‘chains’; as he continues to endure the cold, it seems as if he cannot escape it. A powerful comparison is made by evoking the experience of those on dry land.
And dire sea-surge, and there I oft spent
Narrow nightwatch nigh the ship’s head
While she tossed close to cliffs. Coldly afflicted,
My feet were by frost benumbed.
Chill its chains are; chafing sighs
Hew my heart round and hunger begot
Mere-weary mood. Lest man know not
That he on dry land loveliest liveth,
List how I, care-wretched, on ice-cold sea,
Weathered the winter, wretched outcast
Deprived of my kinsmen;
Do Not Overstretch Tactile Imagery
In our desire to bring the reader so close to the crime scene in our mystery novel that he/she can hear the blood curling scream of the victim, we sometimes overdo it. The description becomes so elaborate that its message is unclear. Professional writers avoid over complicating description, use repetition effectively and understand when plainer is better. Unnecessary redundant words and repetition take away from the overall impression you desire to create. Be clear and concise. It is well known to copywriters that too much information in advertisements confuses buyers, and thus they are more apt to have trouble making a decision and walk away from a sale. Similarly, overstretching thoughts, even if you keep the description simple can lose the reader’s interest.
Jargon and ambiguity are other ways of losing the reader’s attention. I have borrowed this example from the Plain English Campaign:
References in these Regulations to a regulation are references to a regulation in these Regulations and references to a Schedule are references to a Schedule to these Regulations.
When professionals use jargon not understood by us common folk, it is called gobbledygook. We seldom can make sense of it.
The first step to writing is getting your ideas on paper. Creative Writing: Turning Your Idea Into Pages will help you get the creative writing process started and master the rules of writing. Then, you are free to let your inner Hemingway create your masterpiece. Writing With Flair: How to Become an Exceptional Writer can teach you how to write clear, concise yet powerful description. Be descriptive but be precise, as Hemingway advises:
Every day is a new day. It is better to be lucky. But I would rather be exact. Then when luck comes you are ready.