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What Is Hyperbole?
Hyperbole is a rhetorical and literary technique where an author or speaker intentionally uses exaggeration and overstatement for emphasis and effect. The word hyperbole is derived from the greek word ‘huperbole’ meaning “to throw above.” When used in rhetoric, it’s also called ‘auxesis’ which comes from the greek word for “growth.” Hyperbole is a common literary device, but use of hyperbole also pops up in everyday storytelling and common figures of speech.
How Does Hyperbole Work?
Hyperbole can be used to great effect when employed judiciously—there’s a difference between using a hyperbolic figure of speech and misleading your reader. Hyperbole is effective when the audience understands that you are employing hyperbole. When using hyperbole, the intended effect isn’t to deceive the reader, it’s to emphasize the magnitude of something through exaggerated comparison.
How to Use Hyperbole in Writing
Hyperbole is a very effective tool for literary writers. Hyperbole can elevate your prose and unlock a greater diversity of descriptions and phrases.
- Decide on an image or character you think would be helped through use of hyperbole.
- Ask yourself what elements of an image or character you find most important or informative.
- Compile a list of illustrative comparisons.
- Decide which of these best complement the character or image you’re trying to describe.
- Use hyperbole in a natural way that fits into the flow of your larger piece.
With effective use of hyperbole, you can draw your reader’s attention to the traits of an image or character you’d like to highlight and emphasize their importance.
How to Use Hyperbole in Poetry
Poets engage in abstract thought and often use hyperbole to make exaggerated comparisons. Come up with a list of evocative images and comparisons that you can weave into your poetry to make the poem more powerful. You can be as abstract as you like, allowing yourself to free associate:
- Ask yourself what about your subject matter resonates with you and what images it brings to mind.
- Make a list of phrases or images you think might be resonant and powerful in a poem.
- Choose the most applicable and effective examples of hyperbole to use in your poetry.
How to Use Hyperbole in Satire
Satirists use hyperbole to demonstrate the extremity of an event or opinion they are attempting to critique through humor. Effective satire often starts with a central premise based on a real story and then expands it to absurd lengths in order to draw attention to elements of the story the writer is making fun of. When approaching a satirical piece, consider using the following steps to effectively use satire:
- Decide on a central premise or subject you’d like to satirize.
- List the elements of your target that stand out to you as particularly extreme.
- Make a list of hyperbolic comparisons that over-exaggerate the traits you are trying to satirize.
- Choose the most humorous and effective to include in your piece.
Hyperbole is a key component of satire and coming up with examples of hyperbole to include in your satirical piece can be a very fun brainstorming activity.
Examples of Hyperbole in Literature, Poetry, and Satire
Examples of hyperbole can be found throughout literature and poetry. Some famous examples include:
- Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger. Oftentimes first person novels with unreliable narrators will use hyperbole to demonstrate their narrator’s character deficiencies. In J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, the narrator, Holden Caulfield, is a cynical and pessimistic teenager who is dissatisfied with his life and goes AWOL from his New England prep school. Salinger emphasizes his negativity by using hyperbolic statements in Holden’s retelling of events and descriptions of other characters. Holden continuously displays extreme exaggeration in relaying the events of the book, which in turn displays Holden’s own insecurity and immaturity to the reader.
- Shakespeare’s sonnets. Shakespeare uses hyperbole in his sonnets to compare his unseen lovers to nature, for example, implying they gleam brighter than the sun or are more beautiful than a rose. Hyperbole is so common in Shakespeare’s sonnets that he even wrote a sonnet poking fun at his own penchant for exaggeration.
- A Modest Proposal, Jonathan Swift. One famous example of hyperbole from satire can be found in Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” In it, Swift argues for the sale and consumption of Irish children as food in order to ease the economic hardships in Ireland. Throughout the piece, Swift uses hyperbole and figurative language to satirize the prevailing attitudes of the British populace towards both the poor and the Irish. Swift’s implication was that if his essay offended, then England’s oppressive policies regarding Ireland and the poor at the time should as well.
Find more writing techniques in Neil Gaiman’s MasterClass.