Figurative language refers to the color we use to amplify our writing. It takes an ordinary statement and dresses it up in an evocative frock. It gently alludes to something without directly stating it. Figurative language is a way to engage your readers, ushering them through your writing with a more creative tone.
Although it's often debated how many "types" of figurative language there are, it's safe to say there are at least five distinct categories. They are: metaphors, similes, personification, hyperbole, and symbolism.
In this article, we'll highlight the main branches of the tree, or "the big five." In truth, this is only scratching the surface. There are waves of other literary devices that color our writing, including alliteration, onomatopoeia, idioms, irony, oxymorons, puns, synecdoche, and more. As a starting point, let's have some fun with the ones you're most likely to come across in your daily readings.
Any time your writing goes beyond the actual meanings of your words, you're using figurative language. This allows the reader to gain new insights into your work.
One of the best ways to understand the concept of figurative language is to see it in action. Here are some examples:
Let’s dive deeper into "the big five." We’ll consider their place in your writing, and give some examples to paint a better picture for you.
When you use a metaphor, you make a statement that doesn’t literally make sense. For example, “Time is a thief.” Time is not actually stealing from you but this conveys the idea that hours or days sometimes seem to slip by without you noticing.
Metaphors only makes sense when the similarities between the two things being compared are apparent or readers understand the connection between the two words. Examples include:
A simile also compares two things. However, similes use the words “like” or “as.”
Personification gives human characteristics to inanimate objects, animals, or ideas. This can really affect the way the reader imagines things. Personification is often used in poetry, fiction, and children’s rhymes.
Hyperbole is an outrageous exaggeration that emphasizes a point. It tends toward the ridiculous or the funny. Hyperbole adds color and depth to a character.
Symbolism occurs when a word has its own meaning but is used to represent something entirely different.
Examples in everyday life include:
Symbolism examples in literature include:
“All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts.” - As You Like It, William Shakespeare
The “stage” here symbolizes the world and the “players” represent human beings.
“My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods. Time will change it; I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath a source of little visible delight, but necessary.” - Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte
Bronte uses imagery of the natural world to symbolize the wild nature and deep feelings of her characters.
So, that covers "the big five." But, we'd be remiss if we didn't briefly touch upon some literary sound devices that can hang with the best similes and metaphors.
Alliteration is a sound device. It is the repetition of the first consonant sounds in several words.
Onomatopoeia is also a sound device where the words sound like their meaning, or mimic sounds. They add a level of fun and reality to writing.
Here are some examples:
Regardless of the type of word you use, figurative language can make you look at the world differently; it can heighten your senses, add expression and emphasis, and help you feel like you're having the same experience as the author. With each brush stroke across the canvas a painter adds depth to their masterpiece. Figurative language adds the same kind of depth to our writing.
So, instead of hearing the wind blow against your window tonight, perhaps you'll hear the whisper of the wind as it calls out for you like a lover in the night (personification and simile, respectively). That blank page you're looking at is actually a blank canvas. It's up to you to add texture and depth. Have fun layering your literary devices, but remember not to go overboard with them!