Figurative Language Adds Dimension and Color to Writing

Learn How, Why and When to Use Figures of Speech

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Figurative language, also called a figure of speech, is a word or phrase that departs from literal language to express comparison, add emphasis or clarity, or make the writing more interesting with the addition of color or freshness. Metaphors and similes are the two most commonly used figures of speech, but hyperbole, synecdoche and personification are also figures of speech that are in a good writer's toolbox.

  • 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 (or the government) has declared war."
  • Personification involves giving non-living things the attributes of a living thing: "The car is feeling cranky today."

Figurative language enhances your fiction if it's used competently and can be an economical way of getting an image or a point across. But if it's used incorrectly, figurative language can be confusing or downright silly -- a true mark of an amateur writer. Figurative language can also be described as rhetorical figures or metaphorical language; whichever term you use, these are called literary devices.

Why Figurative Language Is Important to Good Writing

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 in the hands of a talented writer is one of the tools that turn 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. Bear a few rules in mind when use metaphors, similes and other literary devices:

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 or theme), but don't use figurative language simply because you can.
  • If you are using figurative language as dialogue, 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 Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway or Thomas Wolfe, for instance, use a highlighter to mark how these writers used different forms of figurative language and note how it fit with their writing style as a whole. This technique will help you to understand how and why it is used and learn how to better integrate it into your own writing.

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