Figurative language, such as metaphors and personification, deviates from the literal meaning of words in order to produce more interesting writing. It evokes comparison, heightens emphasis, and clarifies a new way of stating an idea or description.
The term "figuratively speaking" derives from figurative language, just as "literally speaking" refers to talking about something that actually happened.
As a fiction writer, you probably already use figurative language in your stories and novels.
Types of Figurative Language
The main types of figurative language are used for different purposes, and understanding their strengths helps you to use each one to its greatest possible effect. Examples follow each explanation.
A simile compares two things using the words “like” or “as." Similes are extremely common in everyday language, both as well-known figures of speech and as a literary device.
- "The late afternoon sky bloomed in the window for a moment like the blue honey of the Mediterranean.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald, "The Great Gatsby"
- “Kate inched over her own thoughts like a measuring worm.” —John Steinbeck, "East of Eden"
Metaphors are direct comparisons between two things that, unlike similes, do not use the words "like" or "as.” To improve your metaphor-writing skills, study examples in everyday speech and literature. Learn about the dangers of mixed metaphors and practice creating your own.
- “The apparition of these faces in the crowd: Petals on a wet, black bough.” —Ezra Pound, "In the Station of the Metro"
- "All the world’s a stage" —William Shakespeare, “As You Like It”
Metonymy and Synecdoche
Metonymy and synecdoche are similar in that both devices describe a person, place, or object using an image that is commonly associated with it.
Metonymy is a broader device than synecdoche: it describes something using a related term.
- "10 Downing Street": The office and residence of Britain’s Prime Minister.
- "The White House": Like “10 Downing Street,” the residence of a world leader is here used to signify the office itself.
Synecdoche is more narrow in scope, and is often categorized as a type of metonymy. If you've ever called a businessman a "suit," named someone's car a "set of wheels," or referred to a "hired hand," you've used synecdoche, a literary device that uses one part to refer to the whole.
- "Boots on the ground": Soldiers
- "Private eye": A hired detective
Hyperbole is an exaggeration for the sake of emphasis, humor, or effect. This type of figurative speech is common in everyday conversations, often when people want to state their position without seeming too direct.
When used in fiction writing, hyperbole can be a powerful tool, allowing you to heighten a feeling, action, or quality.
- "I'm so hungry I could eat a horse."
- "I've told you a million times."
- "If I hear that one more time, I'm going to die."
The opposite of hyperbole, understatement is when a speaker deliberately downplays the importance of something in his or her speech.
- "It’s only a scratch."
- "I’m a little strapped right now."
A writer using personification gives human qualities to something nonhuman. Personification is an effective way to add interest to your writing and can truly bring your descriptions to life. The last of these examples is one of the most famous uses of personification in literature.
- "Because I could not stop for Death—He kindly stopped for me." —Emily Dickinson, "Because I could not stop for Death"
- “These are the lips of the lake, on which no beard grows. It licks its chops from time to time.” —Henry David Thoreau, "Walden"
- “April is the cruelest month.” —T.S. Eliot, "The Waste Land"
A pun is a form of wordplay that takes advantage of words that have similar pronunciations or multiple meanings. Samuel Johnson, a witty and renowned British literary figure of the 18th century, called puns the lowest form of wit, while director Alfred Hitchcock praised them as the highest form of literature.
Whether you find them tacky, inelegant, or wildly amusing, puns are everywhere.
When used sparingly, they can add whimsy and wit to your stories. Shakespeare is the undisputed master of the literary pun.
- “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York.” —William Shakespeare. "Richard III."
- "A little more than kin, and less than kind." —William Shakespeare, "Hamlet"
In irony, the subtle meaning that the words convey is not what readers would have expected from the real meaning of the words themselves. Verbal irony is when a narrator or character says one thing in a text, but means another.
- "That’s clear as mud."
- "Well, bless her heart." (regional verbal irony in the southern U.S.)
Sarcasm is verbal irony that is meant to sting in its delivery; it deliberately mocks or criticizes its object.
- "Good luck with that."
- "How’s that working for you?"
Allusion is when an author or character refers to a well-known event, person, place, or thing. It is often used to establish a sense of authority or to provide context.
- “Fourscore and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation …” Abraham Lincoln—“The Gettysburg Address”
- “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Charles Dickens—A Tale of Two Cities
As these examples illustrate, figurative language brings the written word to life.
Most memorable writing is created by authors who know how to “turn a phrase” in a unique way.
Learning to use it well will keep your writing from becoming bland or dull and will open up new possibilities for you as a writer.