Skill 4.14: Figurative Language

Think of Figurative Language as another colored pencil in your writer’s bag of tools. They add color, variety, and draw comparisons.

What is figurative language? There are two uses of language—literal and figurative. If I say it’s raining “cats and dogs,” I do not literally mean that cats and dogs are falling from the sky. It is figurative language. Cats and dogs fight and the sound would be like a storm. It’s raining cats and dogs, means it’s raining a lot and it’s a squall.

Why is it important to learn and use these: a well-crafted simile or metaphor draws a comparison between two things, and it forces the reader to consider them side by side. That can add multiple layers of meaning to a few words.

Key—draw a comparison that is not just “physically” alike, but one that denotes anger, softness, harshness, etc. If your character is strong, use positive words in the figurative language; otherwise, use negative words. Even the bars of a cell can be described in positive or negative terms.

The three main forms of figurative writing are simile, metaphor and personification:

1. Simile (pronounced sim-i-lee): a statement that uses “like,” “as,” or “seems”

Example: As hard as a rock. As stubborn as a mule. As green as grass.

The above examples are also cliché—do not use clichés. Come up with your own unique, vital similes. The simile should also invoke emotion or emulate the POV character–if sinister, it’s a dark simile; if happy, it’s a joyful comparison. See examples below of green eyes (described two ways):

Her eyes were as green as a summer pasture after the first spring shower. (this compares a girls eyes to a landscape that is new, verdant, growing, lush and young)

His eyes were as green as the pernicious scum that creeps a litter farther across the pond each year. (this suggests the boy is a usurper, creepy, and unstoppable)

He was untested, like the deadly Inland Taipan snake, fresh out of its egg. (although untested, this simile suggest the opponent is as deadly as a newly-hatched poisonous snake)

She planted her feet like the roots of a hundred year old Redwood and towered above the mob.

 

2. Metaphor: still a comparison, like a simile, but it is direct—one thing is another.

Example: He is a rock. She is a mule.

John rose from his seat, a mountain born of crashing tectonic plates. (he is a mountain)

With talons of steel, she clutched the back of her son’s neck and lifted him off of his feet and away from the bully in the sandbox. (her talons are not “like” steel—they are steel)

 

Extended Metaphor: Metaphors may be extended, carried through an entire paragraph. Using the sentence above, we could carry on as such:

John rose from his seat, a mountain born of crashing tectonic plates. His glacier blue eyes narrowed; his fists curled into boulders, and an avalanche of words tumbled out of his mouth and buried his boss. “I’ve had enough! I quit.”

 

Mixed Metaphor (bad—do not do it!):You cannot start with a metaphor about a mountain and switch to one about the ocean. This is a “mixed metaphor” and it’s a disaster.

Example (bad): John rose from his seat, a mountain born of crashing tectonic plates. His fists coiled into snakes ready to strike. A tsunami of words tumbled out of his mouth, drowning his boss.

 

3. Personification: This is when an inanimate (non-living) object takes on living characteristics. This is extremely useful at times. One of my favorite short stories is Sarah Orne Jewett’s “A White Heron,” where a little girl climbs an old tree. Jewett uses personification throughout the story to establish a living connection between the old tree and the little climber.

Example #1 : The gentle limbs of the wise old oak lifted me upward and rocked me in its embrace. Together, we watched the world below us.

 

Example #2: The gnarled fingers of the dead trees clutched at my arms, snatched at my ankles and darted out to impede my escape from the forest.

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Others forms of figurative language include the following (less used, but they have their place):

a. Allegory: This is personification taken to the next level. Death, Beauty, etc. are written about as if they are living beings

Example: Love sat next to me, sheltered me in her arms and warned, “I’m not for everybody. Just for some.”

b. Metonymy: This is where a word is used that draws a close relation to the thing itself.

Example #1: The pen is mightier than the sword. (instead of “words,” the object of writing is used or “pen”)

Example #2: The Oval Office will render a decision this week. (Instead of The President, his office is used as the subject)

Example #3: Can I lend a hand?

c. Synecdoche (pronounced sin-ek-dough-kee): This is where a part represents a whole or the whole represents a part.

Example #1: The suits filled the boardroom. (We mean the men in suits)

Example #2: The world treated him unkindly. (We mean people around him or in his world)

Example #3: All hands on deck. (We mean all “sailors” but we use a part only)

d. Litotes: a fancy word for understatement, which creates irony

Example #1: Julia Child was not a bad cook. (meaning she was awesome)

Example #2: William Shakespeare was an ordinary writer. (not!)

e. Hyperbole (pronounced high-purr-bowl-ee): a fancy world for an overstatement, which also creates irony

Example #1: It would take ten armies to move her.

Example #2: He could eat a thousand pies in one sitting.

 

There you have it–more tools to stuff in your writing war chest. Have fun with these.

Go to Skill 4.15: Poetic Techniques for Fiction Writers (This is not for beginners, but if you’re ready for advanced writing techniques or simply want to blow your mind as to how poets–and fiction writers–can use language, then take a peek).

 

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