Overview of Basic Figures of Speech for Writers—Brian Wasko
“You are driving me up a wall!”
My mom used to say that to me a lot when I was a kid. I remember being confused about what she meant. I would get a mental picture of the two of us in a tiny taxi-cab. I was the driver, she was in the back seat, and we were riding vertically up a wall like a spider. It was a weird picture, and I didn’t know what it had to do with my mom being irritated at me (I might have been trying out my new pocket knife on the coffee table or shaving the heads of my sister’s dolls).
Mom was using a figure of speech. Figures of speech are expressions not meant to be taken literally. Literally means precisely as the words indicate; to the letter. In other words, figures of speech mean something, but not exactly what they might seem to mean. Driving someone up a wall, of course, means causing them to be bothered or making them angry.
Kids sometimes have a hard time understanding figures of speech. Have you ever heard a conversation like this among kids?
Ed: I love pizza!
Ted: You love it? Do you want to marry it?
Ted may understand what Ed means, which is not literal, but to be funny, he intentionally takes his words literally.
People use figures of speech all the time (in fact, I just used one — I didn’t mean literally “all the time.” I just mean often).
Good descriptive writers are masters of figurative language. Figures of speech allow writers to make comparisons that bring scenes to life in ways literal writing cannot.
There are several common kinds of figures of speech you should learn so you can use them in your writing:
A simile is a comparison of two things using the words like or as. Similes help your reader make connections to things they are familiar with. Sometimes they reveal an aspect of what you are describing that wouldn’t be apparent otherwise. Similes help communicate subtle impressions and emotions that literal description sometimes can’t.
- The sun rose like a helium balloon into the red morning sky.
- Shaking his cold, damp hand was like grasping a lake trout.
- The house was quiet as a cemetery.
Metaphors are like similes, except they leave out the words like or as. They also compare things, but by saying one thing is another thing, rather than saying it is like another thing. Simple metaphors normally come in the form A is B.
- Her eyes are radiant sapphires.
- His bedroom is a museum of things old, decrepit and worthless.
- After the fight, his fists were throbbing weights dragging at the end of his wrists.
When a metaphor isn’t stated directly (A is B), it’s called an implied metaphor. The comparison is clear, but more subtly stated.
- The rabid sergeant barked his orders. (sergeant = dog)
- When she removed her hat, her golden hair cascaded over her shoulders. (Her hair = waterfall)
Personification is giving human characteristics to non-human things. It’s another way to reveal impressions and create atmosphere.
- The church steeple rose until it tickled the belly of the clouds.
- The waves slapped the shore and dragged away everything not anchored down.
- The sun peeked into her bedroom window and summoned the princess from her dreams.
Hyperbole (pronounced hi-per-bull-lee, not hyper-bowl) is using exaggeration to make a point.
- The song was so lovely that people all over town paused to hear just a note carried by the wind.
- I laughed so hard I ripped open some internal organs.
Be careful not to fall into the habit of repeating dry and dusty old figures of speech that have become cliché. All clichés were creative and original at one time but have lost their zing through overuse. Do the hard work of coming up with your own fresh figures of speech.