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Figurative language: all those saying-something-we-don’t-means, the hyperbole and understatement, bread and butter of the writer, or maybe just the cherry on top, figurative language is a central tool to any writer’s toolbox. Today let’s pick some of it apart, separate its gears and plugs, reassemble, hope it runs–welcome to this Sunday’s Words like Trees!
This week, we’ll investigate the three most basic forms of figurative language. Then next week, we’ll delve into some more specific iterations, thus fleshing out our understanding of this indispensable and varied tool.
What is figurative language?
In broad strokes, figurative language refers to any statement not intended literally. This encompasses a great range of our speech and writing, from metaphor to symbolism, from hyperbole to irony. Boatloads of metaphor have embedded themselves in our everyday language, clichéd phrases sometimes called, metaphorically, “dead metaphors.”
All figurative language follows a basic pattern of function for the reader:
In the two examples above, we see the character’s voice being compared to two different objects. The voice then takes on the connotations (associations & feelings) of whatever object we choose to compare it to.
Why figurative language is so useful
The power of figurative language comes from this associative relationship. In fact, the denotation or literal meaning of the two similes above is almost identical: her voice was loud. However, choosing a precise term of comparison–loud like a trumpet verses loud like thunder–can result in vastly different connotations, thus aiding in characterization, tone, setting, and other kinds of description.
The use of figurative language is also a great shorthand. We can achieve much more vivid description by borrowing the connotations of other words than we could in the same space with only literal description. This ability to transfer ideas and feelings from one object to another is key to much of the work we do as writers.
Core forms of figurative language
There are many types of figurative language, but most are, upon analysis, specific variants of three core forms: simile, metaphor, and symbolism. Below, I’ll identify, explain, and push beyond the basics of these three types, discussing the advantages and challenges each brings to the writer and reader, naturally with plenty of examples along the way. Let’s see what these great tools have to offer us!
Similes are the most straightforward form of figurative language, although some of that simplicity is curiously deceptive. At its most basic level, the simile makes an indirect comparison between two unlike things. Most frequently, this uses the words “like” or “as,” but it’s a common misconception that these words are always present in similes. What really defines a simile is the idea that the comparison is softened, not insisted upon as true, this indirectness:
Tomatoes dripped like blood from his mouth.
As blood from a wound, the red juice dropped from his open mouth.
In these classic-style similes, with their “like” and “as,” the gruesome connotations of blood transfer to the tomatoes. But the comparison is indirect: there is really no blood here; we simply imagine blood.
Liquid more viscous than blood burst between his teeth, trailing tomato seeds down his chin.
This too is a simile, although the comparative word here is “than.” The comparison remains indirect.
The tomato juice running down Ronnie's chin reminded Carmen of blood.
The “reminded” in this version signals the simile. Any kind of internal imagination by a character can create this kind of indirect comparison for the reader.
Bloody tomato pulp seeped from the corners of my mouth.
Here, the comparison comes from the adjective “bloody.” It’s a bit subtler, perhaps verging on metaphor. I’d still class it as a simile.
"They're tomatoes, not vital organs," Dad said as we chomped on the red sacs.
The most unusual, here the comparison is made, in effect, by refusing to compare the objects. In a way, this is kind of a negative metaphor, but the effect is much more like a simile. We compare the two objects in our minds, and try as Dad might to dissuade us, the connotations transfer.
Similes are especially useful because they are quick, not requiring elaboration, yet their point is made clearly, inescapably, paradoxically more direct in a way than the metaphors we’ll examine below. Similes do not disrupt the flow of narrative as other, showier forms of figurative language might. Sometimes I think we scoff at the simile, because of its relative simplicity. Yet similes are often the workhorses of figurative language. The writer’s thought process is laid bare on the surface for the reader to trace. Similes are also less likely to confuse a reader than intricate metaphors that could leave readers mistaking figure of speech for literal reality. Like a candle in the dark, sometimes a simile is exactly what we need.
The more direct sibling of simile, metaphors insist not that one thing is like another but that it really is. The lake is made of glass. The child’s eyes are diamonds. Morning coffee is our nectar. Bed at four in the morning is a long-pined-for embrace.
Yet metaphors, at their best, are usually far subtler than this. Far more than a simile robbed of its “like” or “as,” a metaphor’s true brilliance is its ability to speak of one thing as if it were another. These are sometimes called “implied metaphors” to distinguish them from the more germane examples in the above paragraph. Let’s take a look at some examples of how metaphor can be achieved:
My gran's got a hawk's eyes.
The grandmother is being compared to a hawk; she’s got the eyes to prove it.
Gran swooped down on us right when Ralph had the money in his hands. She got us up in her talons before we could scream.
There’s no direct reference to a hawk in this version; rather, the narrator speaks about the grandmother as if she is a hawk, swooping and talon-bearing.
Gran does her swoop and pounce and beady eye every time Ralph is over at the house.
The metaphor here is implied as in the previous example, but it is hidden, possible to read literally as much as metaphorically. The word “talons” was clearly metaphorical, but although grandmothers are relatively unlikely to “swoop,” “pounce,” and have that “beady eye,” these terms could be taken literally. I think the hawk is still there, however. Hiding just out of sight. Metaphors like this open new possibilities for interpretation by the reader, which can make the text more engaging and the implications deeper.
"Yeah, look, twenty-seven dollars!" Ralph raised up the money in his hand, so proud. And just then, Gran flew into the room. That beady eye she had got Ralph so quick, he froze up. Then Gran had him in her talons, ripped her purse out of his little paws. All Ralph or I could do was squeak. We hoped it would be fast.
One of metaphor’s great strengths is its ability to transform whole scenes and situations in ways a simile could not. What began as the grandmother’s comparison to a hawk ends with Ralph’s transformation to her squeaking, paws-up prey. This is a kind of extended metaphor, in which implications from one comparison generate more implications for other story elements. In this example, the hawk’s hunt is superimposed on the whole interaction of these characters. The connotations of the full scene are imbued with life-and-death struggle.
The third core form figurative language can take is symbolism. Even more so than metaphors, symbols are usually implied, requiring careful attention and interpretation from the reader. Correspondingly, their impact can be enormous. Whereas similes and even metaphors typically do all their work in a single moment, a burst of creative power, and then dissolve into obscurity, symbols’ great strength is their staying power throughout a text. Any symbol once developed can subtly shift our perceptions of character and theme, be reinvoked later on, moving the whole arc of stories towards our goal.
The key distinction between metaphor and symbol is symbols’ corporeal reality (at least in the story world) juxtaposed with metaphors’ inherently imaginativeness. To illustrate this, let’s start with an example from Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader (original title, in German, Der Vorleser):
When I was fifteen, I got hepatitis. It started in the autumn and lasted until spring. As the old year darkened and turned colder, I got weaker and weaker. Things didn't start to improve until the new year. January was warm, and my mother moved my bed out onto the balcony. I saw sky, sun, clouds, and heard the voices of children playing in the courtyard. As dusk came one evening in February, there was the sound of a blackbird singing.
This is the opening paragraph of the novel, and right away particular symbols are established:
|Object in the text||Compared to…||Connotations transferred|
|the new year||a new phase of life||transition, growing up, learning through suffering|
|the voices of children playing while the narrator is sick in bed||isolation||loneliness, difference|
|blackbird singing||springtime & health||joy, recovery, new life|
None of these comparisons is directly stated in the text. They are achieved sometimes, in the case of the illness and the birdsong, through close juxtaposition of one element with another; at other times, in the case of the more abstract significance of the new year and the children playing in the distance, only with the careful awareness of readers and, sometimes, only in retrospect, after we know what happens later in the story.
The reason these are symbols and not metaphors is that all of these items are really present in the story: there really is a blackbird, but it also has a deeper significance. The character really is lying in bed while his peers play outside, but the isolation of this situation is symbolic of deeper isolation in the character.
Similes and metaphors, as we have seen above, can be constructed in many ways; symbols even more so. In the case of symbolism, the comparison has become so real as to become physically part of the story itself, which gives symbolism some of the richest possibilities available in the figurative world.
Often symbols simply appear as we write, unplanned manifestations of the inner mind. We may not notice them ourselves until a later read-through, although they also can be consciously planned. But when we do become aware of symbols in our stories, it is useful to investigate them carefully to make sure they make the transfer of connotations that we want. We can hone and shape and guide them, with as much care as we shape our characters and scenes. The symbols are alive, it sometimes feels. That was a metaphor.
Figurative language is not only the property of poets. Prose writers weave symbol and metaphor and simile through paragraph and chapter, a grand metaphor itself, perhaps, for the symbolic nature of every little word we speak.
How do you like to use figurative language in your writing? What favorite comparisons have you come across in your reading? What tips and tricks do you have? I would love to hear.
Next week, we’ll look at some of the more specific varieties of figurative language: personification and zoomorphism, synecdoche and metonymy, hyperbole and understatement, and perhaps irony and sarcasm.
Thanks for reading. Enjoy this week.