I wonder how many people in a hundred feel the urge to touch anything labelled ‘wet paint’, just to make sure it's wet. I do – every time. So far common sense has mostly won out and I haven’t actually stroked a window sill with a warning sign above it, but I have dragged my fingers lightly across the edge.
Human beings are naturally inquisitive creatures. However, something we have to remember as writers is that we’re a little more inclined to be nosy. Our characters might share some of our impulses to touch the things we’re told or advised not to but it’s possible they would draw the line before you. An old woman cautiously weaving through the crowds on the pavement might just be concerned she’ll be pressed against the paint and that it might stain her nice beige coat. Equally, a bouncy six year-old with a more adventurous spirit might run up and plop his hand straight into the squidgy mess. It’s all a matter of character – again!
Offering small snippets of everyday occurrences like the wet paint scenario in the course of a novel, particularly towards the beginning, give the reader actual experience of how that character behaves. It’s the old adage of showing not telling. At the same time, though, be careful that you’re not inserting this information in a contrived manner. Everything in your novel should contribute in some way to the plot so don’t have a completely irrelevant scene where your protagonist juggles knives to demonstrate his fearlessness.
If I was to insert the wet paint example into my current WIP, for example, I’d have my protagonist, Lily, running the back of her hand across the window sill. But this derives from a number of factors. Lily’s a painter. As such, she has an idea when paint may be dry enough to touch safely. In addition to that, she spends most of the novel focusing on the world around her because she doesn’t want to face up to her own life. To someone intent on looking out instead of in the thought of touching something unpredictable can be extremely enticing.
There are certainly a few questions you need to ask yourself before you insert a demonstrative scene into your WIP.
1. Does this scene add to your plot? If I was to have Lily indulging in the wet paint scenario it would be on her way to a pivotal scene at the local bar and maybe it would show her anxiety or attempts not to think about the things really worrying her.
2. If your character is going to do something a little strange is it in character? Lily's an artist so in the paint scenario it would be plausible.
3. Is this for your benefit of the benefit of the plot, character and reader? Never ever let it be for you!