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The Necessity of Figurative Language

A common problem I’ve noticed in the modern writing world is the idea of figurative language. Figurative language is essentially writing in a such a way where the words mean something more than their actual meanings. It’s an art form; it requires subtlety, craftsmanship, and knowing word meanings to truly master. It is an essential part of great writing, and authors too often leave them out. Yet it’s one of the cornerstones of writing: it’s what separates the wheat from the chaff for writers.

The secret to figurative language is imagination. There are limitless ways to write a thought. The English language has thousands upon thousands of words: use them! Even well-worn cliches like “he’s on fire!” are still technically figurative language. But we can do better than that! Let’s take a simple phrase that would sure to trigger a lot of emotion in its writer or speaker:

My girlfriend cheated on me. I hate her.

Both of those sentences could very well be true. If I was having a conversation with my therapist or had to state the facts for some legal thing, I’d probably say it like that. If I wanted to turn it into art, I’d hope to say it with a lot more emotion. That’s where the figurative language comes into play. Here are some examples of phrases with the same meaning, but in figurative language.

I was slain by that vicious harpy I used to call my girlfriend.

That heartless black widow I used to date devoured my soul.

The angel-turned-vampire put a stake through my heart.

Each one of those phrases elicits a more emotional response, drawing from the imagery to hammer the emotion home. You can feel the pain in the lines. Now, is the woman literally a harpy or a black widow? Is she really a seraph that contracted vampirism? No. Did she literally drive a piece of wood through his heart? Probably not. But the feel is “she might as well be” or “she might as well have.”

A great way to practice figurative language is finding an idea, emotion, or thought, then attempting to find words or phrases that mean the same thing. It’s like a model changing her clothes. She’s still the same beautiful woman each time, but each outfit evokes a different reaction. Likewise, great prose writers can change the color of their words to make them fit the situation. For example, the word “happy”. If you sit down to write a 50,000-word story, I bet you’ll have the opportunity to use “happy” probably 50 times (probably 100 if it’s chick-lit or a feel-good romance). But just using happy 50-100 times would be both lazy and uninteresting. There are dozens of words that can be used for happy, each one with its own color. (Color meaning things like tone, rhythm, imagery, etc.) Here’s twelve I came up with on the spot (it took me 5 minutes):

Sunny, glad, overjoyed, excited, giddy, contented, pumped, fun, delightful, wonderful, gleeful, satisfied.

If you’re writing a story (especially a short story), after you write it the first time, I’d recommend going back and writing each sentence two additional ways. Once you have three versions of every sentence, try putting the versions together in different ways.

Great figurative language is about finding your voice. Any writer can write a sentence. Figurative language is finding an interesting way to do it.

Written by Readers’ Favorite Reviewer Adam Mann