6 Types of Figurative Language That Enhance Your Writing
Add sparkle and style to the written word
Figurative language, such as metaphors and personification, deviates from the literal meaning of words for the sake of 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" means something that actually happened.
As a fiction writer, you probably already use figurative language in your stories and novels. The six 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 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"
- "I'm cooler than a polar bear's toenails..." —Big Boi from Outkast's "ATLiens"
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.
- "10 Downing Street": The British prime minister's residential address
- "Boots on the ground": Soldiers
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."
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 humor, 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"
As these examples illustrate, figurative language brings the written word to life. Learning to use it well will keep your writing from becoming bland or dull, and open up new possibilities for you as a writer.