Exploring the Senses: Sight

A series looking at the five senses and how to use them to immerse your characters and reader in a story. This essay deals with sight.

Image Credit: 
© 2017 Epytome / Used With Permission

Follows: Taste

Sight is without a doubt the most abundant sense in any form of writing. Even if you write a first person story told from the perspective of a blind character, the lack of the sense of sight would be a prominent feature in the narrative. Sight is also one of the most powerful and versatile of the senses. It shows us the world, can be a window into other people’s intentions or feelings, and it can bring us the most severe pain or the most wondrous pleasure. Using sight effectively in your writing will make it stronger and resonate with your readers greatly.

Our sense of sight is also not as reliable as many people may think. Even with perfect vision, it’s easy to not truly see things as they are and our minds have a habit of filling it gaps that we miss with our eyes. When you see a recognisable shape in the clouds, that’s your mind creating the image. Also, it’s estimated that as many as 4.2 billion people globally have some form of impaired vision to varying degrees. It makes vision one of the more unreliable senses, when everything is taken into consideration. The unreliability of vision could be an interesting element to your writing.

Imagery for Empathy

You can use visual imagery to show how your characters are feeling without telling the reader.

Two of the fairest stars in all the heaven,
Having some business, do entreat her eyes.
To twinkle in their spheres till they return.
What if her eyes were there, they in her head?
The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars.

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

In this extract, Shakespeare puts you into the eyes of Romeo. You can feel his love for Juliet just through the way that he sees her. By using very clear yet still striking images that we can all very easily envision, he creates a picture in our minds that shows us how Romeo feels, and we feel it along with him.

Vision is also incredibly subjective. I would see your loved ones very differently than you would. We tend to attach personal emotional attachment to things that we see, but this is different for every person. This can be an incredibly powerful tool in your writing to show how your characters perceive the world and how they feel about certain things.

Relation to Environment

You can use sight to show your readers the environment your characters are in.

When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud by William Wordsworth

What Wordsworth does here is show you the setting. The reason for the way this works is because of the little details that he added and by using personification to describe the way that the flowers look. He describes them as a crowd and that they are dancing in the breeze. Because of these extra details and the good use of language, we have a very clear image of the setting. Much clearer than if he’d simply said: “There were some daffodils next to a lake.”

When you’re describing the environment it is very easy to go down the minimalist or the excessive description routes. Both have their place in writing, but for the majority of the visuals you will be describing you need to give life to the image by adding metaphor, personification and this type of language. Wordsworth only used one adjective in that extract. Description is much more powerful if we, the reader, create the image.

Interpretation of Emotion

You can also use visuals to build an emotional reaction from your readers.

Lennie went back and looked at the dead girl. The puppy lay close to her. Lennie picked it up. “I’ll throw him away,” he said. “It’s bad enough like it is.”

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

What Steinbeck does here is create a very simple picture of the scene. It doesn’t need any more than he put because of the blunt way it is described. By leaving out the detail in a scene that should have more in it, Steinbeck jars us with his abruptness. This helps to foster an emotional response from us as a reader.

It is worth noting that there is a very fine balance between under described and appropriately described. Keeping things simple and straight to the point can work for specific parts of your work, but it may not work for all of it. Using a good mix of vivid and simplistic descriptions in your writing can strengthen it.


Being aware of the fallible nature of vision can add a lot of depth to your writing. I’ve touched upon our habit of our mind creating images for us and vision impairments, but there are visual hallucinations, our imagination creating something because of our fears or anxieties, or us not remembering what we saw with perfect accuracy. Too add that layer of realism to your writing it is worth considering adding in the same fallible nature of vision. It can create a piece of writing that resonates much more strongly with your audience.

Describing your character’s senses in general is a good thing to do to add a lot of depth to your scene, your characters and your writing overall. You’re going to be including a very large amount of vision in your work already, but it doesn’t take much to make it that much stronger. By being clever with the language that you use and allowing your reader to create the image in their head for you, you create something memorable that resonates with them.


Next: Smell

David Chitty was born and raised in Thanet in the 90s. He devotes most of his energies to writing fantasy fiction novels.

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