In this post, we’re gonna talk about figurative language and how writers can use it to tell better stories.
When people say, “it’s a figure of speech,” they’re referring to one of the many types of figurative language shown here. What they all have in common is their use can be very stimulating to a reader’s brain if cliché is avoided. When readers praise “good writing,” a lot of times, they’re talking about this stuff.
Figurative language really is stimulating to readers. In a study conducted by the University of Ontario, participants read a story, some of which included metaphors and some that didn’t, and then evaluated photographs of eyes to identify true emotional state. Those who read the stories that included metaphors were significantly better at identifying the emotional state.
In a second experiment, participants listened to stories being read and then rated the speaker. Speakers who used metaphors were judged to be friendlier and more intimate. This makes figurative language powerful stuff for a writer.
Let’s look at a few of the more popular forms.
A metaphor describes something as being like something else even though they’re not literally equivalent. Usually, the comparison is between something abstract or unfamiliar with something familiar, such as, “All the world’s a stage” or “life is a burning candle.” The result can express symbolism or be generally stimulating.
The metaphor can be explicit, making it a metaphor, or implied, as in the example, “It was another day playing my part with the same old script.”
Another type of metaphor is a simile, in which one thing is compared to a different thing with a similar characteristic to make a point or enhance a description. “Life is like a box of chocolates.” Similes are easily recognizable as they use the word “as” or “like” to make the comparison.
On a final note, the comparison is usually similar in a simile. If the comparison is between two things that are very different, it’s called a conceit. An example is “fit as a fiddle,” though conceits don’t always use “as” or “like.”
Using Metaphor and Simile
The first bit of advice is obvious, which is to avoid mixing metaphors and similes in proximity in the text. And to avoid mixing incongruous metaphors, and mixing similes together. You can write, “This truck is a rock, it forges ahead no matter what,” and the reader will understand the meaning of the sum, but it just doesn’t sound right because the individual ideas don’t mesh in a congruent way. In dialogue, of course, you can do anything if it serves the character, but in narrative, not so much. Personally, I subscribe to the theory that the best writing goes unnoticed so that the reader becomes more immersed in the story. If you’re going to call attention to your writing, however, you always want the reader to go, “Nice,” rather than, “Oh, that’s right, I’m reading a book.” For me, that’s my primary guide.
Otherwise, avoid cliches unless you’re going for an intentional effect. Be provocative but clear, functional, relatable to the point of view, and supportive of the tone or theme. When possible, try to arouse the reader’s senses such as taste, touch, and so on.
One clever way to use metaphor or simile in a science fiction or fantasy novel is to make up new ones for a specific world or culture. While it may be tempting to say, “solid as a gloobnorb” for color, it would probably work better if the reader was informed previously what a gloobnorb is.
Here’s a bunch of examples. As you can see, simile can go a long way to add color, stimulate the reader, and aid immersion.
An analogy uses a metaphor, simile, or conceit to make a larger point. It’s not a figure or speech but instead a type of argument. When Forest Gump says, “Life is like a box of chocolates,” that’s a simile. When he adds, “You never know what you’re gonna get,” he’s making an analogy. By explaining how life is like a box of chocolates, we learn something about both.
Other Figures of Speech
And that’s it! Thanks for checking out this little series on theme, symbolism, and figurative language. I hope you find out it useful.