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.


“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.


“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.


“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
    • 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?

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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 or on Amazon.

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