Figuring Prose

William Faulkner's Underwood Universal Portabl...Folks who write poetry do it well.

All great writer’s are masters at it.

And folks like me often have no idea what they are talking about.

What am I talking about?

21. Figurative Language
Figurative language can enrich our writing, adding nuance and depth, like the addition of a harmony line to a melody. The right metaphor can enlarge our subject and offer our readers new ways of perceiving it. The risk involved, like adding a heavy sauce to your delicately flavored meal, is that the language can distract the reader and obscure your meaning rather than developing it. Figurative language calls attention to itself, can easily descend to cliché, and asks for the reader’s complicity, all of which could break your reader’s focus.
My advice, therefore, is to use figurative language sparingly, strive to make it fresh, and understand the implications of the comparisons you’re making (directly or indirectly). Make sure it’s serving the piece. In creating an effective metaphor, trust your subconscious, which makes connections our conscious minds cannot readily make. Don’t reach for the quick, easy one. Instead, take the time to plumb the depths of your imagination. Risk a reach toward an unlikely comparison rather than a safe one. You might be surprised at one you find, and your reader will be delighted.

Mr. Heffron didn’t really give a definition of figurative language, so I’ll provide one.

Figurative language refers to words, and groups of words, that exaggerate or alter the usual meanings of the component words. Figurative language may involve analogy to similar concepts or other contexts, and may involve exaggerations. ~Wikipedia

I tend to avoid using figurative language.  I’m not particularly good at it, so I’m taking Mr. Heffron’s advice of using it sparingly – like throughout my writing career.  I know, it probably means my prose is boring and plain, but maybe that’s okay.  It’s all about baby steps at the moment, and in due time I’ll try my hand at fanciful embellishments.  If you want some good examples, read Shakespeare.

With that said, it is a good idea to know all the different ways you might use figurative speech.  Hell, you might even do it by accident.

  1. Simile – this is when you use ‘like’ or ‘as’ to compare two objects or ideas.  A classic one: Dumb as a doorknob.
  2. With a metaphor, you make that comparison in a more direct and visual manner. In keeping with our theme: His brain is a doorknob. (Remember, I said I wasn’t good at this.)
  3. Personification – this is where you apply human characteristics to something that isn’t – a human, I mean.  For example: That doorknob was reaching for the stars.
  4. If you like to lump similar words or sounds together, you are using alliteration.  Doorknobs drown in dour diction.  (Somebody help me!)
  5. Now if you or the doorknob decided to thump to the floor or swoosh open, then you are employing onomatopoeia. Onomatopoeia means you use a word to describe or imitate a sound.
  6. When that doorknob gets tired of me using it to sweep up the floor and serve dinner too, then you might accuse me of using hyperbole, or making an exaggeration so profound you can’t possibly believe it.

Idioms and clichés also fall into figurative language, but I’ll save the former for another post, and the latter I’ve talked about enough in this post.

I hope that was helpful.  Stay well, Write well.


4 thoughts on “Figuring Prose

    1. Every time I read that list it cracks me up. There are some winners in there. I should write a story and include all of those…

      I completely forgot about it when putting this post together. Thanks for providing the link. Now the post is complete. 🙂

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