Writers in the Storm

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April 22, 2022

The Power of Vision in Writing

By Ellen Buikema

Muck And Fuss Restaurant and Bar, New Braunfels, Texas

When I began this series on sensory writing, I hadn’t planned to include the power of vision in writing. Everyone uses the sense of sight, right?

People are unique in that most use sight as their dominant sense, which may be why the sense of sight is so often used in describing scenes and characters.

When using sight in writing, our characters are often guided by what they see.

Color

“As we emerged into the capital of Winter, the corridors changed from what looked more or less like smooth, poured concrete to crystalline ice in every hue of glacial blue and green, the bands of color merging, intertwining. Flickers of light danced through the depths of the ice like lazy fireflies of violet and crimson and cold blue sky. My eyes wanted to follow the lights, but I didn’t let them. I couldn’t tell you why, but my instincts told me that would be dangerous, and I listened to them.” –  Jim Butcher, Cold Days

Color is a great tool to use for sight. It adds life, richness, and contributes to mood, in this case—fear. Winter’s world in the Butcher’s Dresden series is full of treachery and deceit. A cold and violent place. The cool colors add to the tension.

Movement

“On the periphery of his vision he sensed fresh movement. Two more terrorists had entered the room, their guns blazing. He rolled again, still firing, and saw them both fall. He came to a stop on one knee, poised and ready to spring in any direction. … The senator cowered away in the opposite direction, terrified of any movement near him. His lips quivered and he was whimpering like a child.” – David Ambrose, The Discrete Charm of Charlie Monk

The way that characters move through a scene illuminates their qualities and emotions. In this case, the protagonist is open and full of energy (no doubt, adrenalin), whereas the protectee has pulled himself inward.

Light

“The blazing sun, the cessation of the short-lived breeze, and the return of perfect silence to the cemetery made her uneasy. The sun seemed to pass through her as if she were transparent, and she was strangely light, almost weightless, and mildly dizzy too. She felt as if she were in a dream, floating above an unreal landscape.” – Dean R. Koontz, Lightning

Light affects mood, both inside and outdoors.

Perhaps you have a character originally from a sunnier location that moves to the Pacific Northwest, maybe the Oregon coast. How do you think the change of light might affect the character’s frame of mind? Sad? Depressed? Elated? Murderous?

Here’s a great list of weather descriptions to use.

Visual Writing Prompt #1

Find an interesting photo.

  • Close your eyes and imagine yourself in the scene.
  • First focus on individual parts, and then in your mind, step back and see the whole scene.
  • Is it familiar?
  • How does it make you feel?
  • What would your characters do in this environment?
  • Try adding this or similar sensory information in your WIP.

Try using the top image as a writing prompt and see where your imagination takes you.

Visual Writing Prompt #2

  • Stand in the middle of your room.
  • Look all around.
  • Make notes on the details
    • Dust bunnies
    • Crumbs
    • Clothes draped on the floor, furniture, or hamper
    • Textures of bedding, lamp, lampshade
    • Books, glasses, empty plates

Can any of these elements fit into your story?

Writing the Sense of Sight in Different Genres

Sight in Romance

“Sam handed me my hot chocolate and didn’t answer. But his yellow eyes gazed at me possessively—I wondered if he realized that the way he looked at me was far more intimate than copping a feel could ever be.
I crouched to look at the almond bark on the bottom shelf in the counter. I wasn’t quite bold enough to look at either of them when I admitted, ‘Well, it was love at first sight.’” – Maggie  Stiefvater, Shiver

Sight in Humor

“It's not because I want to make out with her."
Hold on." He grabbed a pencil and scrawled excitedly at the paper as if he'd just made a mathematical breakthrough and then looked back up at me. "I just did some calculations, and I've been able to determine that you're full of shit.”  – John Green, Looking for Alaska

Sight in Mystery/Thriller

“I watched her undress with moonlight shivering across the room from behind sheer curtains that moved with the currents from the hearth fire.” – Gabriel F.W. Koch, Death Leaves a Shadow

“Robin was a great kid. Smarter than her father at eight years old. She liked the oddest things. Like the instructions for a toy more than the toy itself. The credits of a movie instead of the movie. The way something was written. An expression on my face. Once she told me I looked like the sun to her, because of my hair. I asked her if I shined like the sun, and she told me, ‘No, Daddy, you shine more like the moon, when it’s dark outside.” ― Josh Malerman, Bird Box

Using sensory details helps your readers immerse themselves in the story and experience the characters’ feelings.

How do you use the sense of sight in your writing? Do you have any examples of writing using sight you’d like to share?

* * * * *

About Ellen

Author, speaker, and former teacher, Ellen L. Buikema has written non-fiction for parents and a series of chapter books for children with stories encouraging the development of empathy—sprinkling humor wherever possible. Her Works In Progress are The Hobo Code, YA historical fiction and Crystal Memories, YA paranormal fantasy.

Find her at https://ellenbuikema.com or on Amazon.

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13 comments on “The Power of Vision in Writing”

  1. Hi Ellen,

    I love the movement in sight example by Koontz. It brings it to life almost as another character.

    Thank you for your practical prompts for writing more to the senses. This has been helpful as I revise my current manuscript.

    Kris

  2. This post made me really think, Ellen. I went back and pulled all my old copies of books I have cherished all the way back to my youth (yes, I still have copies of books I read then). I read the first lines. Every single one of them had a strong visual opening within the first paragraph- most of them in the very first line. It's not surprising, that when I think of those books, my first thought is always of the opening picture. This held true with every book/play I looked at this morning in the library, including such wide array as To Kill A Mockingbird (Jem's broken hand), MacBeth (the Witches at the cauldron), Old Yeller (the charging bear), The Maze Runner (the metal grate opening to a new life), Hunger Games (the empty bed, and her sister curled up with her mom), Divergent (the mirror that opens once a year), Le Morte d'Arthur (Igraine appearing), and so many others. My epiphany is that the visuals was what made those openings so powerful, not just a good opening line. I mean, who wouldn't be drawn in by a line that starts with" A dark wave rose on the rolling sea, and from it lifted a hand. (The Lost Years of Merlin, TA Barron)--then again, I absolutely adore the Lady of the Lake's powerful,quiet symbolism.

    1. Hi Miffie! I like to be "grounded" in a scene to get a good sense of where I'm at and what's going on. Books are frequently my means of mental escape and I like to know where I'm vacationing.☺️

      I wonder how many novels start with a visual? Time to hit the books!

      Thanks for giving me something to ponder.

  3. Great examples. Another good book for deep visuals that really bring the reader into the environment is The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy, That book makes use of all of the senses, including intuition.

    I probably use sight more than any other sense in my writing. Maybe even too much. It's a big part of how I let the characters build the scene through movement through and interaction with the environment, rather than having the narrator describe it, even if the narrator is first person.

    1. Hi Eldred! I think weaving sensory information into our works using the characters' interactions with the environment is a real challenge but we'll worth the effort.

      I look forward to what you invent next, or what the characters insist upon. They can be bullheaded.

  4. Such an important topic - good choice for a post. We forget or take it for granted.

    For sighted readers and writers, visual is the strongest sense - it has to be. We take in the world, analyze, make decisions about millions of things daily, quickly.

    'Perfume' married it to the sense of smell brilliantly (almost TOO brilliantly - some of those descriptions!). But the medieval world it emphasized with odor was also incredibly visual - and the author called up those visuals we all have but with a new twist. He didn't just skip vision.

    I almost gave you the ending of the WIP's last finished scene - because there are four different vision tokens in the two paragraphs, starting with "He read her eyes," something we do all the time because looking directly at someone's face is a prime way humans learn what's going on (including deception).

    Now the challenge is to make the writing of these something new and not cliched. I often start with whatever cliche my mind throws into the arena - and tweak from there.

    1. Hi Alicia! I trip on cliches all the time and need to rewrite them. Often, I don't notice I've used them until the offense is brought to my attention.

      Starting with cliche and playing from there is an interesting method!

      I wasn't sure if this particular sense would be blog-worthy. I'm glad that it's working out.
      Thanks for your input!

  5. I use AutoCrit, and it has a huge database of cliches, which it kindly marks for me. So if I didn't catch while writing, and tweak it immediately, it will be pointed out for me later - so I can gut it at my leisure.

    Many editing programs will identify cliches - let them do some of the work for you. At least, when you leave a cliche behind, wounded but not dead, it will be deliberately.

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