Ruth E. Walker
Sight, as a sense, is what the eye can see. You open your eyes and look in front of you and you see exactly what is there. Ah, but dear writer, as you see the words in this post, there is a tiny voice whispering in the back of your head and it is saying: But…but…but…
Of course, what you see is, in fact, there. But – and there it is – but what you see and how you see it depends on many factors. And if all your stories are full of factual descriptions of what is seen, you are not using this sense to your best advantage.
This post is not about description; rather, it’s an exploration of how to use the sense of sight to bring layers and interest into your writing.
To begin, our ability to see is found in the eye’s ability to reflect all the light in our field of vision. For example, if a gorgeous red cardinal sat outside my office window, I see that bird because its body reflects the existing light. My brain “sees” what reaches my eye’s retina then travels through an electronic signal to my brain where it interprets the signal to be an image.
All sight is a form of interpretation
Miriam-Webster definition reminds us that sight is what we construct into a representation of the position, shape, brightness, and usually color of objects.
How we construct the interpretation of what we see is shaped by an accumulation of our individual experiences from infancy to the present. Think about that when your characters act and react to their surroundings.
- How do they truly “see” their world?
- What colours, shapes, shadows and light would they notice first?
- And does that change as their experiences in the story accumulate?
Perception is all
Remember that red cardinal? Could it be a robin? What if my family always said those all-red cardinals were male robins and the ones with the red breasts were female robins? The family belief would go on to ingrain a kind of logic – why do they sound different? “Because males sing a different sound from the females”, and so on.
Of course, that’s not what I grew up thinking. But – and there it is again – but I might have.
In the Young Adult novel, The Giver, a community creates a peaceful and stress-free life for all citizens by removing all emotions and creative stimulation. No one sees in colour in this bland and predictable place.
Until 12-year-old Jacob begins to have flashes of colour and discovers there is so much he and the others have been missing. This sets him off on an incredible journey of discovery.
“I” witness accounts
With our sight, we see what we see and, accordingly, should all be seeing the same thing even if we might call it something different. Except when we are affected physically (like with Jacob’s story) or emotionally, like when high levels of stress and the release of adrenaline puts pressure on a person’s vision resulting in blurred vision. Or skewed vision. Or fragments of vision. Or a vision of something that isn’t even present.
Consider an accident scene and the statements of a number of witnesses. They all “saw” the same thing but – here is that whisper again – but they don’t necessarily see the same thing in the same way.
It used to be that criminal cases were deemed to be watertight if the prosecution had an eyewitness to the crime, a believable person who could identify the criminal. But – yup, once more – but, we humans are fallible and what we are certain we “saw with out own eyes” has increasingly been of less value without lots of corroborating evidence.
Add into the mix the explosion of video evidence with more and more cell phones and CCTV surveillance in public places. A reliance on individual witness accounts is even more problematic.
But – are you tired of that one yet? – but grainy images, unclear shadows and the possibility of “doctoring” those images add the possibility of errors of perception — or even just the power of suggestion to change what is “seen”. And this suggests great ideas for writers, especially those who write thrillers and mysteries.
Finally, let’s consider the possibilities when sight is altered or has the power to alter someone’s life. Many myths, fables and stories include strange abilities with sight or complete blindness. In Greek mythology, to look upon the face of the snake-haired Medusa would turn you to stone.
Sight has also long been connected to our hearts. From the Greek myth of Odysseus and Penelope to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and beyond, love at first sight is a recurring theme throughout the ages of storytelling. In more modern times, sight continues to take centre stage in fiction. Even in comics, Superman’s x-ray vision proves useful to battle evildoers.
The absence of sight is key to some spectacular fiction. Portuguese author José Saramago’s novel Blindness explores what happens when a virus renders a population sightless. In the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel All the Light We Cannot See, a young blind girl in WWII occupied France and a German boy soldier connect through secret broadcasts of her reading from a braille copy of a Jules Verne novel.
Can you see the possibilities?
There are many more examples of sight as a tool for writing. The inability to “see” can be a metaphor for other kinds of “blindness.” An unreliable narrator may not see the truth around her but a character with limited vision might be the first one to see what needs to be done.
Playing with sight and perception can be a powerful tool in your toolkit. Discover where you might bring it into your story. Try using the “but, what if” approach to perception or view, and maybe you’ll see what difference it can make in a scene or a character.