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How to Use Figurative Language in Your Writing

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 8, 2020 • 3 min read

The purpose of figurative language is to go beyond the literal meaning of words to create vivid images in your readers’ minds. In Emily Dickinson’s “Hope Is a Thing With Feathers,” Dickinson famously compares hope to an endlessly singing bird that “perches in the soul.” Most examples of figurative language include literary devices like similes, metaphors, and hyperbole in order to express meaning, evoke emotion, and make direct comparisons with your words.



Why Do Writers Use Figurative Language?

Sometimes literal language isn’t enough to convey a message or intent, and more vivid imagery is necessary to help readers understand the scope of your narrative. This is where the use of figurative language comes in. When writers use figurative language (or a figure of speech), they are able to express a clearer picture with their words, creating more of an impact with their creative writing.

5 Ways to Use Figurative Language

There are many common types of figurative language that come in a variety of different forms. You can use these different figures of speech to describe a setting, convey a specific point of view, or reveal a character trait. There are no real limits to how you can make use of figurative language, as long as it fits into your writing and enhances your text, rather than bogging it down.

  1. To reveal character traits: Hyperbole is an example of a figurative language that can be used to express the way a character thinks or behaves. For example, “I’ve called you, like, a million times” is something a young, dramatic character would say, but probably not a doctor or senator. Hyperbole can also be used to express the intensity of a character’s traits—“His sharp, grating voice was literally the worst thing she had ever heard.” Although it’s an exaggeration, it conveys just how the character feels about another in a vivid way.
  2. To describe a setting: Similes and metaphors are both strong ways to describe the way an environment looks and behaves. “The sky was angry like a vengeful god” denotes not only that a storm is imminent, but that it could be as large as those described in the Bible. The reader understands just how intense the storm will be because the writer has gone further to describe the scene than saying that the sky was “dark gray.” An example of a metaphor to describe setting would be “The ocean was a dark abyss.” The reader immediately knows this is not a tropical beach setting—this is an ominous stretch of water that denotes a feeling of uneasiness and uncertainty.
  3. To describe a sound: Onomatopoeia can be used to help your audience envision the noise of a particular scene. “He screeched to a halt” is an example. “The clanging of the bells woke up the town square” gives another layer of immersion to your text by including the additional sensory detail of sound. Alliteration (the repetition of consonant sounds) is also a way writers can give more rhythm to their writing, creating memorable imagery through repetitive sound. For example, an airline might say that they, “fly from Berlin to Bogotá.”
  4. To amplify humor: While hyperbole can be used as a humor device, so can understatement. For example, if a character is in frigid temperatures but only expresses they are “a little bit chilly,” they’re speaking in understatement. Another example: In Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the Black Knight gets his limbs cut off only to declare, “It’s just a flesh wound.” Understatements can deemphasize the magnitude of a particular event for humor, creating a sense of irony that audiences find funny.
  5. To heighten contrast: An oxymoron is another figurative language example that can be used for effect by putting two opposite things in direct comparison. For instance, in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Juliet claims her parting with Romeo is “such sweet sorrow,” conveying a sense of inner conflict in how she ultimately feels about their interactions. Romeo also uses phrases like “brawling love” and “loving hate,” two oxymorons that set up the emotional contradictions Romeo feels in his life by falling in love with Juliet.
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