Conflict: Figurative Language

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Ask the Author: How much time of the day do you spend for yourself? No school, no writing, etc.? — John “Duke” O’Neil

Aaron: This really depends on the day. Am I on deadline? If so, very little. If not, a little more. Even when I’m on deadline, or when things are crazy at work, I try to protect my time at home with my family. This usually boils down to a few hours when I’m helping to prepare dinner, eating, and basically relaxing with my family. Of course, we’re busy, so we’re constantly going, which is why I try to protect the few hours we have together. Otherwise, if I’m up, I’m working. Over long breaks from teaching (Spring, Winter, Summer breaks), that number goes up. I’ll spend a few hours writing, and the rest of the day is catching up with other work, hanging with the family, housework, etc.

Al: Hmm, I think the question may come from a misunderstanding of writing. Writing is taking time for myself. At least when I’m writing my own projects. This is common to people in creative arts. They find meaning, fulfillment, and relaxation doing what they love. I do step away to rest my eyes and to fill my brain with interesting stuff. And nap. Can’t forget the napping.

CONFLICT: Using Figurative Language to Develop Conflict

Figurative Language Basics

  • Figurative language is any language that cannot be taken literally. It is a way of connecting ideas.
  • Common types include
    • Personification. Definition: The attribution of a personal nature or human characteristic to something nonhuman. (The cave yawned, the angry sea swallowed the sailor, etc.)
    • Simile. Definition: A figure of speech involving the comparison of one thing with another thing of a different kind. Simile and similar derive from the same Latin root.  (he was as blind as a bat, as angry as a bull, walked like a flamingo, clouds stretched like taffy)

      • Some writers think using a strict construction simile (like/as) weakens the prose. They believe the reader will know the writer is using figurative language. For example, instead of “The jet was like an eagle diving on its prey,” they prefer a direct statement, “The jet was an eagle diving on its prey.” (Technically, the second line is a metaphor.)
    • Metaphor. Definition: A figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable. From the Greek “to transfer.” (All the world’s a stage, words words words; how they gallop, how they lash their long manes and tails. “I had fallen through a trapdoor of depression.”)
  • There are more uncommon types (synechdoches, metonymys, eponmys, etc.), but those are a subject for another cast.

Figurative Language Develops Character

  • Your figurative language should come from the mind of your character. Compare things to things they’re familiar with.
    • A butcher will use the language of his job and compare things to meats, saws, cuts, etc. A baseball player might say to a public speaker: “Wow, you hit that out of the park.”
    • A great example of this is Stephen King’s Dreamcatcher. He has an ensemble cast with very different educational backgrounds, so they speak differently and even swear differently. Their figurative language is also different.
  • The comparisons you use will reveal something about how your character thinks and feels.
    • Get the tone right. Here are some BAD examples:
      • She had a genuine, throaty laugh, like the sound a dog makes before it throws up.
      • Her oval face was like a circle that had its sides gently compressed by a thigh master.
      • Her beauty caught his eye like a fish hook.

Figurative Language Develops Conflict

  • By developing your character, you develop the conflict.
  • When describing the conflict (another person, let’s say), your description will help develop the tone.
    • Make the bad guy more ominous, larger, stronger, a machine.
      • The “Popeye Principle”: The antagonist must, in some way, be bigger and badder than the protag. Popeye is a hero because he beats up Bluto who five times his size; Popeye would be a cad if he beat up Whimpy.
    • Make the romance tragic, a loss that creates a gaping vortex of emptiness (this may be melodramatic, but you get the point)
    • Make nature seem overwhelming (the tidal wave eclipsing skyscrapers)
  • By increasing the size of the antagonist, it ups the stakes. (He was a bear without fur but full of the same fury and power.)
  • While developing character, figurative language will also increase the stakes of internal conflicts (man v. himself).
    • I’m a mountain that has been moved, I’m a river that is all dried up, I’m an ocean nothing floats on, etc. (Simon and Garfunkel’s I Am a Rock. “I am a rock; I am an island.”
    • Fig. Lang. makes the intangible feelings tangible.
      • A loneliness that squeezed him like an orange.
      • A guilt that ate at him from the inside.
      • His heart galloped in the cage of his ribs
  • Find natural things your readers will understand for the sake of comparison.
  • Make sure they’re natural for your character to think of.
    • The Amish might describe something as “fascinating and dangerous as electricity.”
    • A fireman might describe his love for someone as “a five-alarmer” etc.
  • Don’t worry about figurative language during the first draft. If it comes to you, then great, otherwise added it has you edit. The more you write, the easier figurative language becomes.
  • Make a habit of noticing figurative language in the novels you read. If an author does a good job with it, then do more than read: study.

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