Figurative Language in Literature and How It Is Used

A Fiction Writer's Definition of Figurative Langauge

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Figurative language is a word or phrase that departs from everyday literal language for the sake of comparison, emphasis, clarity, or freshness. Metaphor and simile are the two most commonly used figures of speech, but hyperbole, synecdoche, and personification are also figures of speech:

  • Metaphor compares two things by suggesting that one thing is another ("the United States is a melting pot")
  • Simile compares two things by saying that one thing is like another ("my love is like a red, red rose")
  • Hyperbole is a form of exaggeration ("I would die without you")
  • Synecdoche is a literary device that uses the part to refer to the whole ("the crown has declared war" rather than "the king has declared war")
  • Personification involves giving non-living things the attributes of a living thing ("the car is feeling cranky today")

Used well, figurative language enhances your fiction and can be an economical way of getting an image or a point across. Used incorrectly, however, figurative language can be confusing or downright silly. Figurative speech may also be described as a figure of speech, rhetorical figure, or metaphorical language.

Why Figurative Language Is Used in Literature

Figurative language can transform ordinary descriptions into evocative events, enhance the emotional significance of passages, and turn prose into a form of poetry. It can also help the reader to understand the underlying symbolism of a scene or more fully recognize a literary theme.

Figurative language is the tool that turns ordinary writing into literature.

How to Use Figurative Language Effectively

There is no one right way to use figurative language. That said, there are many ways to use figurative language poorly. A few rules to bear in mind when making use of metaphor, simile, and other literary devices:

  1. Always know why you are using figurative language. Why say "our love is dead" rather than "I don't love you anymore?" Does the expression sound right in your character's mouth? Does it fit your tone and style? If not, don't use it.
  2. Choose your figures of speech carefully. Yes, you can write "her beauty hit me in the eye like a squirt of juice from a grapefruit," but how would such a simile enhance your fiction or expand upon the meaning of your work? Perhaps you have a character with serious communication issues for whom it would be appropriate; otherwise, skip it.
  3. Use figurative language sparingly. A paragraph that is loaded with similes and metaphors can be dense and difficult to understand. Select the figures of speech that serve your purpose (enhancing mood, meaning, theme, etc.), but don't use figurative speech simply because you can.
  4. If you are putting figurative speech into a character's mouth, be sure it is appropriate for that character. Avoid putting flowery phrases into the mouths of characters who speak plainly.

    One very good way to explore figurative language is to read it as written by some of the great literary figures. As you pick up a book by a Dickens, Hemingway, or Woolf, use a highlighter to mark the use of different forms of figurative language. This technique will help you to understand how and why it is used.

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