Writing Killer Descriptions – First Impressions

The best images and the strongest impressions we get from stories are those we create in our own minds. No matter how well I describe something, my reader’s impression will never be exactly the same as mine.

As a writer, I’ve chosen to embrace this. Rather than sweating about making my descriptions as correct and detailed as possible, I try to give my reader the queues they need in order to create their own images.

One of my priorities for writing is to create a sense of life in the scenes I describe, and the best way of doing this is to let the reader fill in as much as possible on their own. That way, their impression of what I’m describing will be a lot stronger than if I’m trying to force my own image on them.

To achieve this it’s important to have an idea of how we, as human beings, process information – how the words on the page become images in our minds. In this series of articles I’ll go through a few different aspects of this, and I’ll start from the beginning, with the concept of first impressions.

For now, I’ll try and focus on the following three questions:

  • Why is it important to consider First Impression?
  • How long does it take to form a First Impression?
  • What do we notice first about a person?

Before we begin, I’d like to point out that most of this article is based on my own opinions and personal beliefs. What works for me may not work for you, but I hope to give you something to think about.

Why Are First Impressions Important?

You’ve probably heard the expression “first impressions last,” and it’s really that simple. It’s very easy to form a first impression of something, and it’s very difficult to change it once it’s been formed.

This applies in real life, when you meet real people, and there’s no reason to believe it should work any differently with imaginary people you read about. After all, you meet them in your mind. The only thing you have to go on is what the writer gives you – just like the only thing you have to go on in real life is the person’s appearance, and maybe their voice and handshake.

Recently I wrote a story about my character Toini. She’s a holy warrior fighting for the god of life and nature. I imagined her appearance to be a bit like a modern day hippie – colorful clothes in thin billowing fabrics, dreadlocks (blonde), likes to walk barefoot. She’s kind of short, and has a bit of an attitude.

By now, you’ve probably formed an opinion of your own about how she looks. It’s a bit vague, but it does the job. It worked for me. Then, when it became time to start writing the story I decided that she also had a magical tattoo on her face. Green vines climbing up her right cheek. Sometimes when she’s happy the vines blossom and flower, and if she’s angry they sprout thorns.

Sure, that’s cool addition to the character, but do you notice how difficult it is to try and modify the image you already formed? I still haven’t managed to do it, and I keep having to remind myself that the tattoo is there.

Now, why did I bring that up? What I want to show is that the order in which we describe something matters.

At its core, a description is a list of attributes of that which is described: size, shape, color, etc..

As soon as the description begins we start forming our impression of whatever is described – with the very first descriptive word. After that, each new attribute that’s added to the description will either add something new to our impression, or attempt to change it.

Notice how I wrote the word attempt there in italics? It’s really difficult to change an impression once formed, and the attempt to do so might fail. In my example with Toini above, you’ll know that Toini has a tattoo on her face, but when you picture her in your mind she will at first not have it. You’ll have to remind yourself it’s there and then you’ll see it.

Your knowledge of how Toini looks doesn’t match your impression of her.

The trick here is to arrange the attributes of your description in the right order. You’ll want each new attribute to only add information to the description, without changing the impression given by the previous attributes.

Start with the most important attribute, then the second most important one, and so on.

In my example above, if I wanted you to imagine Toini as having a tattoo on her face I’d have had to mention the tattoo much sooner. I’d probably have gone with something like this:

Toini is a short blonde woman with her hair in dreads and green vines tattooed on her right cheek.

This is where it gets tricky…

As you see, the tattoo comes at the end of the description. Is her hair and her height more important than the tattoo on her face? In my opinion, yes. There’s more to it than that, though. Forming a first impression is very easy and happens very quickly, but it’s not instant. You have a few precious moments to set things up before the first impression settles.

How Long Does It Take To Form A First Impression?

Short answer: 7 seconds.

Longer answer:

Research suggests it only takes about a tenth of a second to make judgements of someone based on their appearance. However, most guides on how to make a good first impression (for when interviewing for a job, etc.) mentions seven seconds as the time you have to make a good first impression.

For the purpose of this article I’ll pick seven seconds as the time limit. Reading about someone is more similar to meeting them in person than seeing a picture of them. To be completely and perfectly honest, I do not actually have any proof of this. I wasn’t able to find any research on it, so my ideas here are based purely on experience and intuition.

So, how do these seven seconds of meeting a person in real life translate into reading a description of something?

Most likely the time it takes to form a first impression from a written description is about the same as when meeting a new person, but I think that’s making it a little too easy, and it’s also not very useful. The fact that we have to put our image together ourselves in our minds complicates things a little.

When we meet a person in the real world, they’re all there, right away from the beginning. When reading, we get the description fed to us one attribute at a time. When does the impression start forming?

In the previous section I wrote that it starts with the very first descriptive words. To elaborate on that I’d say that it starts as soon as a description mentions something that we can identify as that which is being described.

The words large and green are descriptive words, but if I put them first in my description, they don’t contribute to the impression until I know what it is that’s large and green.

A large, green…

That doesn’t mean anything, but add in an object, like a dragon, or a car, or a scarf, and all of a sudden we have an image to build on.

A large, green eye looked straight into his as he peered through the key hole.

There we go. Description.

So how long do you actually have to make the first impression in writing? The rule of thumb I try to stick with is that you have until you give your reader a chance to stop and breathe – usually one paragraph.

While you’re reading you’re absorbing information and that keeps your impression from solidifying. As soon as you reach a pause your mind settles on the information you’ve received, and your first impression is formed. It’s now difficult to change.

This doesn’t mean your descriptions should only ever be one paragraph long. I also don’t believe you can extend the time it takes to form a first impression by writing longer paragraphs.

In the end, there are no hard and fast rules for this kind of thing, but it’s something that I believe is important, and which is worth considering. Think about it, keep it in mind, but go with what works for you.

Now, for some actual science…

What Do We Notice First About A Person?

According to research (study paper, article) the first thing we notice about someone is their race and their gender. According to the study, this applies to everyone, so it’s probably related to how we’re wired genetically.

What comes next? This varies depending on who you ask.

While researching this article, I found one study that showed how the first thing men notice about women is their hair. I then found another study that showed how the eyes were the first thing men noticed in a woman. It also turned out that the hair study had been commissioned by a company that produced hair care products, and the eye study by a company that produced makeup.

In other words, go with what works for you. What do you notice first in a person? Stick with that.

Me, I’m partially colorblind, and I have a hard time determining what color someone’s eyes are. As a consequence I don’t often include eyes when describing a person. When I do include them I use words like shining, alert, or curios rather than actual colors.

This works for me, as it’s how I notice people in the real world, and it gives my descriptions a kind of consistency.

Another thing that’s worth mentioning is that we notice exceptions very quickly. If there’s something about someone that we find odd or out of the ordinary, we’ll notice that right away. Like, say, for example, if someone has tattoos on their face.

Recap

In this article I’ve written about how and why first impressions matter when it comes to writing descriptions.

I’ve claimed that it’s important to organize your descriptions in such a way that any new attribute you introduce only adds to the impression without changing it, and I’ve claimed that you have about a paragraph’s worth of words before your reader has finished forming their first impression of that which you describe. I also mentioned how race and gender are what we notice first about other people, but that what we notice next is likely to vary from observer to observer.

Further Discussion

Do you agree that first impressions are important to consider in writing, or do you feel I’m just splitting hairs worrying about it?

What’s your own experience with first impressions in writing? Do you remember a character that you know has certain attributes but you’re never quite able to picture them as such?

How about stories – have you read a story where the story itself didn’t at all match with the first impression you got of it?

Most of all, do you have any questions for me? I’ll try my best to answer in the comments.

Nils Ödlund is a writing and fantasy enthusiast. He's currently chipping away at a couple of shorter stories while waiting for a novel to mature enough to get started on a second draft. Ödlund lives in Cork, Ireland. When not writing, he enjoys exploring the countryside on foot, and when the weather gets too bad he'll stay home and play games on the computer (or write some more). You can follow Ödlund on his blog [s v r t n s s e ? Making stuff up. Drinking beer and coffee. Walking around.] where he mostly posts pictures of coffee, beer, and the Irish countryside.

3 Responses to Writing Killer Descriptions – First Impressions

  1. When I meet a person for the first time, the first thing I would pay attention is his or her face, the general facial expression. And one look can show person’s outlook or intentions. The happy-in-life kind, depressed-in-life kind, I-just-want-your-money kind, the indifferent kind… Our conversation and relationship will develop based on what I first think the person is portraying. I don’t know how long it takes exactly to form my first impression, but it critically determines opportunities to be presented or eliminated.

     
  2. I have a character in my current project who is a woman of color. What is the best way to convey this when introducing her?

    I know that issues of race are sensitive, and I want to handle this tactfully. Thank you.

     
    • Good question. Race can indeed be a very sensitive issue. It’s something that regularly causes a fair bit of discussion on the forums here on Mythic Scribes.
      In the article I mention how race is one of the two things we notice first about a person, so if a character’s skin color has to be mentioned, I would do that as soon as possible – within the first sentence.

      As for tactfully…
      I’m going to chicken out of that part of the question and instead redirect you to someone who’s answered it better: http://writingwithcolor.tumblr.com/post/95955707903/skin-writing-with-color-has-received-several
      That article, and the second part of it, goes into a lot of detail on the topic – way beyond the scope of what’s reasonable to get into here in the comments. Feel free to start a thread about it on the forums though. That way more people will be able to weigh in with their own experiences and thoughts as well. Beware though, it can be a touchy subject.

      I’ll not leave you completely empty handed though. Here’s an example from a story I wrote a while back:

      “There had been some guys at the bar. A bunch of local lads. They’d been so fascinated with her brown skin and her big red hair. Clearly, not many people from her part of the world came through here. It had almost been a bit cute.”

      Now, this isn’t much of a description of the character, but it’s a way of alerting/reminding the reader of the character’s skin color.
      I’m keeping the description itself neutral, just using the names of the colors (brown skin, red hair), and I’m not putting any value into it – they’re just facts.

      I hope this gives you at least a starting point to finding out more about your question, and best of luck with the story.

       

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