Writing about the Sense of Sight

Brown. My novel had turned to brown. At least, that’s what my freelance editor Sharyn Kopf told me when she read my novel. I had used “brown” far too may times. Most writers write by sight. And most readers think by sight, so writing about the sense of sight is the easiest way to connect with readers. It’s also the hardest to write about from a fresh perspective. While tackling all the browns that had invaded the story, I developed three ways to work color into my story.

Write About Color as Your Main Character Sees It

It was a no brainer for me to focus on color when writing about the sense of sight in my YA mystery A Shadow on the Snow. My main character, Rae Riley, is an amateur photographer. She should notice color, more than most people. But she wouldn’t describe everything that was brown with just that word. So I had to dig into my descriptions and decide …

Could I Use a Different Color?

In Chapter 8, I had used the word “brown” so many times that the scene was practically wallowing in a mud pit. So I examined all the brown things and decided if they really had to be brown. For example, Rae has come to her uncle’s farm for a riding lesson. The horse she’s going to ride is Pokey. Pokey started as a brown horse because it was based on the first horse I’d ever rode during a lesson. I changed Pokey to a palomino to get rid of a brown that wasn’t necessary. And I love a palominos. In another chapter, I changed a walk-on character’s eyes to hazel because there was no good reason to keep them brown.

Or I deleted any color name, such as when I described a third-grade girl who is having a riding lesson before Rae. The little girl’s father is watching her. I describe him “with his warm, brown eyes and brown hair”. Later, when I describe the girl, I wrote “Alli took off her helmet, only a few wisps of hair, the same shade as her father’s, escaping her French braid.” Readers know she has brown hair without me using the word.

If I couldn’t change the color, I looked …

For Synonyms

In a couple places, I wrote that characters had dark hair instead of brown. The horse Alli was riding was sorrel instead of brown. Rae could know this because her late mother worked at a stable when Rae was in middle school. So I eliminated a “brown” and made the new color work with my main character’s eye for photography and her backstory. Rae describes the hair of one of her cousins as “sepia-colored.”

Click here for my review of a short story that puts color to brilliant use. Here are more of my tips on writing about the senses.

How do you use the sense of sight in your writing? What tips do you have for writing about the sense of sight?

3 thoughts on “Writing about the Sense of Sight

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  1. I like honing in on a specific detail to describe, and letting that paint the image of the rest of the scene. But I fear that my next book will turn brown. I am writing a diverse cast and am spending so much time describing everyone’s skin tone! I did not spend so much time on appearances the first time around

  2. Those are good ideas! The main thing I’ve done to describe sights is to try to have the characters describe it as they would describe it rather than as I would describe it (I wouldn’t say I’ve mastered this, but I’m working on it!). Just like you had Rae describe the horse as sorrel since she has horse experience, and that color description lets readers know she is familiar with horses. If my narrator is a mountain loving hiker, she’ll describe things in comparison to a bear or a certain type of tree. Currently I’m writing a 19-year-old female MC who has a mom and sister that are artists. She says things like, “If his kids are anywhere near as brown as he is, I bet they never need sunscreen. Ava would probably describe his skin as smooth pastel umber or something descriptive and artsy. I call it Dark Enough to Not Burn.” My hope is that with a description like that, readers see things through the MC’s eyes. We get that she isn’t very artsy and just says things without much fluff.

    1. I do get a real sense of what your MC is like with just that short passage. I love the reference to umber. Reminds me of when my sisters would watch “The Joy of Painting.”

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