Created By: Folamh3 on December 17, 2012 Last Edited By: Folamh3 on January 26, 2013

Audiovisual Sensory Limitation

Characters in a work of fiction experience limited sense data corresponding to the limitations of the medium

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Alice walks into Bob's office late at night when the lights are off. Bob is sitting at his desk facing away from the door. Alice starts telling him about the Ancient Conspiracy she's uncovered, and urges him to come and help her. When he doesn't respond, she walks up to his desk and turns his chair around - only to recoil in horror when she discovers that he's dead, and has been for several days.

But hold on - why didn't she notice the smell of his flesh rotting?

This trope is when the characters in visual media seem not to possess the traditional five senses (sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste), instead limited solely to sight and hearing - because, naturally, the audience is only experiencing the work through these senses. It is most obvious in the case of characters seeming to be oblivious to smells that should logically be there (such as rotting flesh, as above), but it is not unusual to see characters not seeming to notice certain gustatory or tactile sensations even though they should be obvious. It can even happen with senses beyond the traditional five, with characters appearing oblivious to extremes of temperature (see Convection Schmonvection) etc.

It is most commonly seen in film, television and video games, but other visual media such as theatre can be affected also (there is nothing stopping theatre directors simulating the smell of, for example, rotting bodies in their plays, but most do not, as the audience probably would not appreciate this dose of realism).

Subtrope of Rule of Perception. Sister Trope to Behind the Black (when characters in a work of fiction can't see something because the audience can't).



  • In the first Saw film, the ending reveals that the supposedly dead body in the middle of the bathroom was actually the killer, alive and well. One wonders why the characters didn't notice that they couldn't smell his body rotting. Could be justified by the fact that the bathroom already smelled fairly ghastly anyway, which might have helped to disguise the absence of the smell.

Music Videos

  • The music video for Bullet for My Valentine's song "Tears Don't Fall" culminates in a jilted woman breaking into her ex-boyfriend's motel room while he and his new lover are wide awake in bed together, and dousing them in liquid from a petrol can - only to reveal that it was actually water, not petrol. As many YouTube commenters noted, the ex-boyfriend and the other woman don't seem to notice that the liquid being poured on them is scentless and has the consistency and colour of water.

Community Feedback Replies: 5
  • December 18, 2012
    I've also seen many cases in visual media where someone's voice should give something away (e.g. a person's true gender, or that someone's impersonating someone else), but characters are just as incapable from telling one voice from another as the audience is: only a strong Funetik Aksent could tip them off. Is that included in this trope as well?
  • December 18, 2012
    If visual media characters' inability to discern voices counts, here are a couple examples:

    • When the Order Of The Stick first encounters Miko Miyazaki here, she's shrouded in a thick cloak, and Elan mistakes her for a "he". But this is after she has spoken, and there's no evidence that she would have disguised her voice to sound like a man.
    • When Jamie first meets Maxine here, she's wearing masculine gym clothes and her usual short hairstyle. He mistakes her for a dude, even after they've spoken to each other.
  • December 26, 2012
    That wouldn't be quite the same thing. That's more akin to a specific form of the Idiot Ball in which characters are oblivious to voices and accents because it's convenient to the plot. This trope is about characters only seeming to possess the relevant senses for the medium in question.
  • December 26, 2012
    The Battlestar Galactica remake has something of a meta example... one of the (robotic) characters laments that his creators have seen fit to limit his senses to the same ones that humans have.
  • December 29, 2012
    I have a bad feeling about this.