This blog post is part of a series about why we need to use sensory imagery in our writing. As we learned in my introductory post about sensory imagery, the sensory details draw readers into the setting and allow them to feel a character’s existence. These details must be specific, concrete, and appeal to the senses, whether seen, heard, smelled, tasted, or touched.
In this post, we explore the sense of sight.
Visual imagery is everywhere in our language.
- The writing is on the wall.
- I see where you’re coming from.
- You’d better watch out; he might see what you’re up to.
- See for yourself!
- You have to see it to believe it.
Some enlightened or creative people are visionaries. As repulsive as it might sound, when we flirt, we often give someone the eye, and if we aren’t careful, we might be given the evil eye.
The sense of sight is the sense we use most often in writing.
If you’ve ever tried to describe something without referring to sight, you’ll know just how challenging that is to accomplish.
Perhaps this is because 70% of the body’s sense receptors cluster in the eyes, and it is mainly through seeing the world that we appraise and understand it.
Simply put, the eye gathers light and sends messages to the brain, and in actuality, we see not with the eye but with the brain. Think of a remembered scene from days or even years ago. We can view it in our mind’s eye in great detail.
And even better for the writer, we can picture imagined events. We see the embroidery on the bodice of our heroine’s celadon dress, the glint of a knife as it moves in a murderous arc, a tearful reflection in a mirror.
Most people can see between 150 and 200 colors, but we do not all see precisely the same colors, especially if we’re wholly or partly color-blind. The emotions and memories we associate with certain colors also affect the world we see. Think about how you use color in your prose.
Think of the challenge we as writers have when describing colors.
How do we capture the nuances between apple green, grass green, pea green, and forest green? We need words for the colors of a sunset, the eye of a tornado, and the complexities of bark.
Many languages do not name all colors. The Japanese only recently included a word for blue, where previously there was an umbrella word for colors that ranged from green and blue to violet.
Primitive languages first developed words for black and white, then gradually added some but not all spectrum colors. Ancient Greek had very few color words, and Swahili has a word that could mean brown, yellow, or red.
While English has an acceptable range of words for distinguishing blue from green, including azure, aqua, teal, emerald, indigo, olive, and so on, we frequently argue about whether a color is considered blue or green.
When we see an object, our senses wake up to appraise the new sight, and each, from its unique perspective, tells us what we see.
For human beings, the visual image is a kind of trigger for the emotions.
A single photograph can remind us of an entire political regime, a war, a heroic moment, or a tragedy. One gesture can symbolize the wide angles of parental love, the uncertainty and disorder of romantic love, the fun-house mirrors of adolescence, the quick transfusion of hope, and the devastation of loss.
Look at the olive grove, and you can remember the taste of wine straight from the bottle, damp grass through your blue jeans, soft hands rubbing your feet.
Showing how your characters see the world and how they feel about it will go a long way in capturing your readers’ attention.
Using both complex and minimal descriptions have their place in your writing; just remember to leave room for the reader to conjure their own images, for these are the ones they will relate to and which will stay with them.
To more deeply explore the sense of sight, try the following exercise.
Sit quietly and look at the room around you or the vista if you are looking out a window or are outside. Now, write a description of what you see without using any details that refer to sight. We rely heavily on the sense of sight for description, and this exercise will show you which other senses you are most in touch with and which ones need developing. This exercise is challenging, but I’m sure you can do it. Be curious and have fun!
You can always do this from a character’s perspective, which will give you some unexpected insights.
Go with your first thought. Keep your pen moving.
What did you discover?
Now it’s your turn to see how the sense of sight can illuminate your writing.
You can use the prompts below to explore memories or apply them to a character—you’ll be amazed at how much you discover. These prompts work well for both fiction and nonfiction.
How to start:
Set your timer for 10 minutes. Write the prompt at the top of your page and begin writing—go where the first thought takes you.
- Keep your pen moving.
- Don’t stop until the time is up.
- Suspend judgment.
- Be curious.
- Have fun!
Write by hand. Writing by hand connects the brain and body and, I believe, the heart. It’s especially helpful in getting those first thoughts onto the page.
Writing prompt #1
She needed her binoculars to see …
Writing prompt #2
The outfit was like nothing she’d ever seen before …
Writing prompt #3
If she could step into the painting, she’d be able to see …
Thank you for allowing me to bring you to your senses. Let me know how it goes in the comments box below.