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Jagged arrow attack!

Due to the fact that most entertainment is experienced exclusively through vision and sound, anything that a fictional character perceives by other means (such as smell) cannot be conveyed directly; when it's important for the audience to sense it, the artist must find a way to visually portray whatever it is the character is sensing.

This is especially common in printed media such as comics, which (unlike television and video games) must rely on their visuals exclusively.

Sub Tropes include:

Named after Synaesthesia/Synesthesia, a condition where sensory areas in a person's mind overlap/interconnect, so they may see sound, taste letters and so on. (see the book The Man Who Tasted Shapes by Richard Cytowic [1]).

See also Rule of Perception.

Examples of Editorial Synaesthesia include:

Visual smell/Taste (possible sister trope to Audible Sharpness)

  • Stink lines are ubiquitous in any visual medium, and are invariably green, except in anime, where they're often yellow.

Anime & Manga

  • The character 'Honey' in Ouran High School Host Club always has floating flowers around him.
  • One arc in Mononoke depicted smell with colors, whereas almost everything else was Deliberately Monochrome.
  • In Saint Seiya, the background switches to a wireframe and a background color scheme themed to the character firing up his aura. Hyoga for instance gets a white/blue-ish background when using his cold-based powers, and as he senses the presence of a fellow cold powers user, to give the audience the visual cue that he is somewhat familiar with it, the background changes to this. Also counts in some ways as Aura Vision, but it's mainly there to give the audience an insight on the surnatural perceptions that the Saints possess.


  • In the "Dancer" commercial for Kellogg's Pop-Tarts, the pastries in the toaster give off a visible vapor. Ten percent of the vapor is strawberries, representing the ten percent fruit in the filling.


  • In Disney's Fantasia, every scene is a representation of the images that the music invokes in the artists' minds. These range from abstract shapes to complicated animated sequences like Mickey's famous performance as the Sorcerer's Apprentice.
  • In Ratatouille, there are scenes where taste is represented by abstract shapes dancing to jazz.
  • In the film version of Anonymous Rex scents carried by particular dinosaurs are often displayed by the main character talking about the scent as well as vivid visual depictions of the scent items. For example, one dinosaur smells of peaches and cream and, as the main character talks about it, images of brightly lit peach slices falling into cream appear on the screen.
  • Averted by Polyester, in which audience members were given "Smell-O-Rama" scratch and sniff cards.


  • Stephen King's novel Eyes of the Dragon has a passage written from a dog's point of view, in which scents are described as lines of various colors.
  • Walter Moers does the same thing for Wolpertings in Rumo & His Miraculous Adventures.
  • As does Terry Pratchett, for werewolves, in some Discworld books.
    • Also used when Granny Weatherwax experiences the sensations of animals she's Borrowed.

Newspaper Comics

  • In Rose Is Rose, garlic breath is represented by skulls surrounding the person with it, while flowers, rainbows, and smiling suns represents peppermint breath.
  • In Footrot Flats, when Jess is in heat she exudes little hearts.

Video Games

  • If a video game will allow you to drink outside of a cut scene, it will often portray drunkenness by either continuously skewing your view, or by changing the configuration of your movement slightly, so by going forwards normally you end up tilting your character slightly to the left or right. Mass Effect 2 does this. See also Interface Screw.
    • Played with brilliant simplicity in the old, slightly crazy 2D platformer Mission Elevator, which offered many ways to "spend money" (lose points from your score!) in between running around shooting baddies (or flipping light switches, letting off fire extinguishers, bothering nuns...). Besides prostitutes (!) and dice tables, you could buy drinks from the many bars littering the spy-ridden hotel's floors. Cheap milk or soda did nothing. One beer, also. Subsequent beers completely reversed your controls for a short while. A double whiskey did you for much of the rest of the level. Given how you knew it would happen, the game-pause offered by the drink-buying process, and the easy way of working around the problem in the late 80s by simply turning your joystick 180 degrees, the semi-random point at which you sobered up some time later was FAR more troublesome than the initial reverse, typically ending with your pixelly avatar suddenly getting bored of ducking bullets and leaping right into them instead. That's some bad whiskey right there.
  • In Far Cry: Instincts smell is shown as a coloured aura and trail.
  • In the third Discworld computer game (Discworld Noir), while playing as a werewolf you can indeed see scents as patches of coloured mist. They can be 'collected' like items and you have to match the patterns to ones you've encountered before to track where characters have been.
  • The xenomorph from Alien VS Predator series of games sees smell as a coloured aura around other players, even through walls.
  • In Pokémon Mystery Dungeon Explorers, Skuntank and Koffing's stink is portrayed visually as a purple cloud.
  • In The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, while Wolf Link's senses are activated he can "see" smells as clouds and spirits as their true forms.
  • Sveta's Track Psynergy in Golden Sun Dark Dawn allows her to find scent trails, which appear as a streak of white vapor close to the ground. This is used all of twice in the game.

Western Animation

  • In old Merrie Melodies cartoons a smell was often depicted as a ribbon which snaked through the air toward a character, and (if pleasant) would even lift the character into the air and carry him toward the source of the smell.
    • Other times, WB cartoons depicted it as a coloured aura or mist instead (as per Far Cry, above) - notably, Pepe Le Pew's... er, unique body odour was a murky green fog, which other characters only smelt on visibly inhaling it (ie they could not "see" it themselves, unlike the way your player character can in games using this idea). Similarly perfume as a pink one or delicious food blue-grey, though these did often cross the stylistic line into "ribbons". Either way, it's a surprisingly powerful and identifiable representation of how smells curl through the air...
  • To match the Merrie Melodies example, bad odors would usually take that ribbon and form a boxing glove to hit characters.
  • "Stink lines", often accompanied by hovering insects in cartoons
  • In Avatar: The Last Airbender, the vision of an animal which uses its sense of smell to 'see' is represented in streams of different colours, each representing a different scent.
  • A Magic School Bus episode had goggles that let the kids see sound with "The Producer" later explaining that seeing sound is impossible and was just done for the episode.
  • In Camp Lazlo other campers were unwilling to take a bath after getting extremely dirty. So they hide from Lazo behind a bush. Unfortunately for them, Lazlo saw their stink lines above the bush.
  • In the Classic Disney Short "R'coon Dawg", Pluto's ability to track down prey is shown by having whatever he was smelling appear before him, with the narrator explaining that it was as if he could see with his nose. The raccoon chasing him takes advantage of this and uses a fish, a frog and a horseshoe to lose his scent, causing poor Pluto to see bizzare raccoon/fish/frog/horse hybrids.
  • Lampshaded in the Phineas and Ferb episode "Misperceived Monotreme", when Major Monogram sees Carl the intern eating a peanut butter, banana, and sardine sandwich (complete with stink lines), and claims "I can see the smell from here!"

Live Action TV

  • CSI: Bloodhound-O-Vision - the visible world was shown in black and white smells were colourful spots on it. Actually, dogs don't see in black and white but compared to us they have a reduced number of colours they can see, dogs have colour vision equivalent to red-green colour blindness in humans (deuteranopia). See discussion for further info.

Real Life

  • Inversion: There have been a handful of attempts at creating "Smell-O-Vision", but none of them have sold very well. Probably for the best. Imagine a typical episode of Dirty Jobs with one of those. On second thought, don't.


Anime and Manga

  • In Texhnolyze excessive pain from mutilation is depicted with the entire picture going purple monochrome, and all the sounds except the gasps of pain getting muted. In a scene where a man is shot in the genitals its taken even further with rapidly expanding disortion of both the visual and audio tracks.
  • In Pokémon bright flashes of light are used to indicate pain, especially from electricity or blunt force trauma.
  • Happens in the first episode of Neon Genesis Evangelion, when Sachiel breaks Unit 01's (and, by extension, Shinji's) arm. The sensation of pain is rendered with a still outline of Shinji panning against a bright-red, almost psychedelic background.


  • Commercials for painkillers and other pharmaceuticals typically illustrate pain as an animated red circle that fades out towards the edges. The growing and shrinking circle is reminiscent of the throbbing nature of some kinds of pain.


  • In Mad Max, when one of the bikers headbutts a guy they splice in a single frame of pure white. Maybe conveys "impact" more than "pain," but it's rad as hell in any case.
  • Done slightly differently in Transformers: The Movie, where Sludge (the Brontosaurus) is smacked down so hard at one point, his eyes get momentarily left behind before telescoping back into place. Ouch.

Video Games

  • Physical pain in FPS's is often represented with an "ow" sound and usually red-bars in the direction you were hit from (in older FPS's, the whole screen flashes red instead). This is to give players knowledge of where the damage is coming from, which they would have in real life but not in a game.
    • Similarly, asphyxiating underwater is almost universally represented by the screen flashing blue and your view jerking slightly.
  • Many if not most recent gen first person games introduce various synaesthesia when your character is close to death. Popular tropes used to represent near death include your visuals turning black and white or bleaching of color, the sound of your heart in your ears, visuals fading red or black at the edges of your screen, and either more dramatic music playing or the game music fading entirely. Some games use the vibration function to communicate near-death status to the player.
    • Fallout 3 takes this further with your ears ringing and vision blurring if you head is crippled and a your heart beat getting louder as you get closer to death.
    • The James Bond games do this. Some of them even use the "blood runs down the screen" effect used in the "gunbarrel" sequence.
  • Third person action games too.
  • Followers in Populous the Beginning have white circles appear above there heads and an electronic tweeting sound when they were badly injured.
  • In Bioshock your heart stopping for a moment in response to the 'code yellow' trigger phrase is shown as blue mesh across your vision, similar to seeing the blood vessels in your eyes. Your character also stumbles in pain.
  • Receiving a powerful shock or hit, or experiencing earth shaking explosions (etc) will cause the player "camera" to violently shake in many titles... even 2D ones... and often even an overlaid control GUI will rattle around in sync just to rub in how much you - or the game world - have/has been shook by the force of that blast/impact. See also Screen Shake.

Web Comics

Western Animation

  • See Circling Birdies.
  • Also, parodied in an episode of Rocko's Modern Life, when Rocko has an attack of appendicitis. The doctor points out the pain stars on Rocko's chart and says that all they have to do is replace them with wavy lines of relief.

Heat, noise and hazards

Sequential Art

Stand Up Comedy

  • Played with in a Demetri Martin sketch on lines... he drew a cup of coffee with wavy lines. "That means this coffee is hot". He flips to another sheet with a drawing of a coffee cup but with the wavy lines straightened out. "Now it's loud."

Real Life

  • A lot of signs and guides use this to illustrate such things as Noise, Electricity, Radiation and Pain. This is a frequent source of humour, as the caption above demonstrates.
    • The most famous example is the illustrations on bathroom hand dryers. Also known as Press Button, Receive Bacon.
    • Justified in the case of the example image itself, as it is using the "lightning strike" representation of arcing electricity - which is exactly what would visibly occur should you be struck, only bright blue-white rather than black, in most situations where such signs are necessary.
    • Also justified when wavy lines are used to depict heat. Cool air and hot air have different refractive indices, so the light passing through heat is distorted and we see a wavy image.

General sensation (e.g. touch)

  • Wind is sometimes represented as moving white lines.


The "tingly sensation" Spider-Man gets when his Spider Sense buzzes is usally depicted as a series of lines around his head.


  • Though it barely flirts with the idea of character-POV or game-style 3rd person view (odd, considering the name and the story's central concepts, and missing a massive opportunity to go all Miyazaki on us during the dragon-ride sections), and otherwise plays an entirely straight camera view, Avatar has a nice moment when (paraplegic) Jake first jacks into his Na'vi body and goes for an unscheduled run... curling his toes through the alien soil on coming to a halt as pretty much the only properly telegraphed Sense Freak moment in a movie that should have been full of them (the taste of fruit poisonous to humans? adapting to having a tail? cutting room floor). Feel-o-vision and Simstim may be a long way off, but damn if that piece of 3D motion picture didn't have you momentarily imagining the dirt beneath your feet and the simple joy of being able to walk and feel pressure, temperature and texture again.
    • You can also see the foodgasm on his face when he bites into that fruit... appropriate for someone who's been eating artificially processed food his whole life.