Visual Sensory Details

Andrea Del Sarto, Portrait of a Young Man

Andrea Del Sarto, Portrait of a Young Man



Vision is one of the primary senses through which most people gather information about their surroundings. It is the ability of the eye and brain to sense and interpret electromagnetic energy within the range of the visible spectrum.

Most writers naturally incorporate a lot of visual information in their work. Vision can tell us what things look like, how big they are, where they are located in relationship to each other, and so forth. But some of the more subtle aspects of vision are sometimes neglected. Consider how some of the following aspects of vision could be used to evoke a mood, create suspense, or even give a deeper understanding of a character.

  • How much light is there in this setting? Is there bright ambient light that reveals everything? Are there areas of shadow? If it’s dark, is there light from the moon or stars, or is it the thick, choking kind of darkness that lurks deep inside caves?
  • What kind of light is there? Is it bright, clear daylight? The grey light of an overcast day? Bleached fluorescent lighting? Warm, flickering firelight? A wavering flashlight? A circle of pale yellow illumination cast by a streetlight that’s only partially successful in holding back the darkness? Colored light from a neon sign? The choppy light of a strobe? What kind of shadows are cast by your light?
  • How clear is a character’s vision in the given circumstances? Is it foggy or raining? Is the character peering through a lens that isn’t quite focused? Are bright reflections dazzling the viewer’s eyes and making it difficult to see? Perhaps the character is peering through a crack in a wall and can see only a narrow strip of what is happening. Maybe the character is blind-folded, but can make out moving shapes through the weave of the fabric. What about driving in a snow storm?
  • Does the viewer have any visual impairments? If your character normally wears contacts or glasses, what happens if the corrective lenses are missing or unavailable in one scene? If your character is color blind will he be able to accurately describe the color of the criminals’ getaway car? What about including a character who is partially or completely blind? What about a character who is oversensitive to bright lights? What if the flickering of fluorescent lighting gives a character motion sickness? 
  • What visual details are available to a character with closed eyes? The red glow of sunlight through eyelids? A photonegative afterimage of something beautiful or terrible that the character just observed? Colored sparks or moving patterns that can result from rubbing the eyes or low blood pressure, as when standing too fast or feeling faint?
  • Is what your character seeing real? Has your character intentionally or unintentionally been exposed to a chemical or drug that might cause visual hallucinations? Does your character have a psychological condition that could produce hallucinations or flashbacks?
  • How much stress is your character experiencing? At moderate levels, stress can cause our bodies to release hormones that temporarily heighten the senses. Vision might seem more acute than usual. Higher levels of stress can push a character into the fight / flight / freeze / or fawn response. The hormone cocktail involved in this response can create tunnel vision, or can cause a phenomenon in which the brain records visual data at a higher rate than usual, which makes everything appear to happen in slow motion.

One last thing to consider about using the visual sense in writing is the actual visual appearance of your text on the page. Readers can often feel intimidated by large blocks of text, whereas text with lots of white space feels more open and friendly. In fact, poetry regularly uses the white space at line endings to guide rhythm, pacing, and tension. In non-fiction, bulleted or numbered lists, charts, and graphs can make information easier for a reader to process. And publishers generally choose type styles and sizes that are suited to the intended audience. 

Paying attention to the visual details can make a difference between a world that is interesting to read about, and one that feels magically real.