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6 Types of Figurative Language to Lift Up your Writing

It’s a common misconception that imagery, or vivid descriptive language, is a kind of figurative language. In fact, writers can use figurative language as one tool to help create imagery, but imagery does not have to use figurative language.

As a fiction writer, it’s highly likely you will use figurative language in your stories and novels—probably more often than you think. The six main types of figurative language are used for different purposes, and understanding their strengths helps you to use each of them to the best effect in your writing.

6 Types of Figurative Language

#1 Simile

A simile compares two things using the words “like” or “as” to suggest that they are alike and are extremely common in everyday language and well-known figures of speech. Here are a few examples:

  • Busy as a bee.
  • They fought like cats and dogs.
  • “Kate inched over her own thoughts like a measuring worm.” —John Steinbeck in “East of Eden”
  • “Real G’s move silent like lasagna.” —Lil’ Wayne in  “6 Foot 7 Foot”

#2 Metaphor

Metaphors are direct comparisons between two things that, unlike similes, do not use the words “like” or “as.” The metaphor states a fact or draws a verbal picture by the use of comparison. A simile would say you are like something; a metaphor is more positive—it says you are something. To improve your metaphor-writing skills, study examples in everyday speech and in literature, learn about the dangers of mixed metaphors and create your own metaphors. Here are a couple examples of effective metaphors:

  • You are what you eat
  • “The apparition of these faces in the crowd: Petals on a wet, black bough.” —Ezra Point in “In the Station of the Metro”
  • “I am a rock, I am an island.” —Paul Simon in the song  “I Am a Rock”

#3 Synecdoche

In synecdoche, a part of something is used to refer to its whole. If you’ve ever called a businessman a “suit,” called 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.

  • The captain commands one hundred sails

#4 Hyperbole

Hyperbole is an exaggeration for the sake of emphasis, humor or effect. Hyperbole is commonly heard in everyday conversations. When used in fiction writing, hyperbole can be a powerful tool, allowing you to create a heightened sense of a feeling, action or quality.

  • A backpack weighs a ton.
  • “I’ve told you a million times to clean your room!”
  • “I forgot my lunch today and now I am starving!”

#5 Personification

When a writer uses personification, he is giving human qualities to something nonhuman. Personification is an effective way to add interest to your writing and can truly bring your descriptions to life. Here are some evocative examples of personification. The last of these examples is one of the most famous uses of personification in literature and is so widely quoted it has become a part of everyday language.

  • “I stared at it in the swinging light of the subway car, and in the faces and bodies of the people, and in my own face, trapped in the darkness which roared outside.” —James Baldwin in “Sonny’s Blues”
  • “These are the lips of the lake, on which no beard grows. It licks its chops from time to time.” —Henry David Thoreau in “Walden”
  • “April is the cruelest month.” —T.S. Eliot in “The Wasteland”

#6 Puns

A pun is a form of wordplay that takes advantage of words that have similar pronunciations or multiple meanings. Samuel Johnson, the 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 and inelegant or wildly amusing, puns are everywhere and, 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 in “Richard III”
  • “A little more than kin, and less than kind.” Shakespeare in “Hamlet”
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