Touchstones: a reader’s way into your story

In this guest post by Martha Brockenbrough, grammarian, freelance writer, columnist, and author discusses how to pluck the heartstrings of your reader.

When I worked as a freelancer for a company that created really special games—games designed to draw out the best talents of each player—I learned about an idea-development strategy that has informed my writing ever since.

Touchstones. The game creators wanted questions to contain “touchstones.” A touchstone is pretty much what it sounds like—something that, when we encounter it, will evoke certain memories. I love the sensual aspect of the word—the idea that there is something we can fold into a story that readers can reach out and touch with their minds.

A touchstone is something readers can identify with. Some even cut across all cultures. Think about something like losing baby teeth. All kids do this, which is why tooth fairy stories are so important. This particular touchstone is often going to evoke happy memories, though Judy Blume managed to give it something else entirely when she had Fudge fly like a birdie from the top of the monkey bars with disastrous results.

Those monkey bars, come to think of it, are another touchstone. Think of the difference in the story if Blume had had made Fudge jump off the top of the car, or a ledge, or some other high object that didn’t have the same resonance as the highest spot in the playground. It would lose something, wouldn’t it?

Touchstones don’t always have to evoke happy emotions in writing. The death of a pet is certainly a sad touchstone that many of us can relate to. Judy Blume knew this, which is why she did what she did to Peter’s turtle.

Of course, touchstones don’t have to drive a plot. They can be used more subtly, to add sparkle and resonance to a story. The movie “Wall-E” was full of touchstones like these: Twinkies…Rubix Cubes, sporks…even “Hello, Dolly,” the music they play on Main Street at Disneyland, which means even children who haven’t seen the musical could very well have a positive association with the song.

Really, though, it’s deeper than adding sparkle—it’s connection. Touchstones provide something readers can relate to, something they can touch with their minds and hearts, even in an unfamiliar world like an Earth that’s been buried in trash. They can be a way into a story, a way to make it a reader’s own. I think that’s pretty powerful stuff.

Martha Brockenbrough
THINGS THAT MAKE US [SIC]- St. Martin’s Press, October 2008
– Founder, the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar
– Cinemama, MSN Movies
– Columnist, MSN Encarta

sic Martha Brockenbrough is author of Things That Make Us [Sic], a funny guide to bad grammar published by St. Martin’s Press, and Founder of the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar. She’s also a busy freelance writer, contributing the Cinemama column to MSN Movies, and columns on language and pop culture to the online encyclopedia Encarta. She also blogs about family life for the calendar company, Cozi, and is hoping 2009 is the year she sells her first children’s manuscript.

If you want to do a guest posting, or if you have a revision story you’d like to share, email me at darcy at darcypattison dot com.

  • Cheryl
    February 10, 2009

    Darcy and Martha, thank you for this post. I love the concept of incorporating “touchstones” into stories. Thanks for this new tool to apply to my writing! ~Cheryl

  • marj watkins
    February 26, 2009

    Touchstones–a grand idea for linking reader and story. Thanks, Martha, for posting it, and thanks, Darcy for a website that welcomes guest posters. Marj