My mother-in-law, many, many years ago, when my boys were preteens, grew what was billed as “the world’s hottest pepper.” Carl broke off a pod, took a bite and swallowed it whole, and then pretended to chew it.
Of course, both my boys, being the competitors they were, wanted a bite of the pepper. For a second or two, they chewed their bites. And then they raced for the faucet and gulped several glasses of water before their mouths cooled. It was just too much.
Only a tiny bit of that pepper is needed to season food. We don't need to bite off big chunks.
The same way, only a few select words can 'season' our writing. We do not need big chunks of description. When reading, most readers conjure up their own images. And that’s a good thing.
If they picture their Aunt Sally as the kindly old woman, the story becomes more personal.
We need to make each word count if we limit the details. Vivid nouns and strong verbs describing our characters bring them to life.
The best descriptions are those that compare and contrast by using similes and metaphors. Even if the Bible were not the word of God, it would still be the greatest piece of literature ever written, and it gives us many examples of comparing and contrasting. For fun, let's look at a few examples from the Song of Solomon. (I know many believe this is a description of Christ and the church. The Bible is filled with symbolism and thus it may well be. We'll look at it simply as descriptions of actual people.)
Like a lily among thorns is my darling among the maidens. 2:2
A comparison: his darling is like a lily; and a contrast: a lily among thorns. We're used to hearing such comparisons today, but, when this was first written, the vivid imagery was fresh, as ours should be.
Your eyes behind your veil are doves. Your hair is like a flock of goats descending from Mount Gilead. Your teeth are like a flock of sheep just shorn, coming up from the washing. Each has its twin; not one of them is alone. 4:1-2
If we used a description like this today, readers would be pulled out of the story. One simple reason is because we're not used to seeing flocks of goats and sheep. If we were raised in the culture of the Old Testament, this descriptions would produce vivid pictures. (And it does even today, although it makes us giggle.)
Let's end with a description of the man:
His head is purest gold; his hair is wavy and black as a raven. His eyes are like doves by the water streams, washed in milk, mounted like jewels. 5:11-12
To modern ears this description is over the top. However, it does conjure up images in our minds of a very handsome man.
Our descriptions should be like "The World's Hottest Pepper," creating sensations our readers will never forget. However, we need to remember a little goes a long way and the best way to describe is by comparing and contrasting.
Just as the coolness of the water contrasted with the hotness of the pepper, our vivid images should flow like a flock of goats on a hill.