Making Figurative Language Work for You

A-Storm-Over-New-Orleans-LOne of the hardest elements to master in writing is figurative language. But it is the very life-blood of poetry. I’d argue that, it can also be the life blood of fiction as well. And while it will always play a subservient role to character and plot, there are few techniques more impactful than a well spun metaphor, a well said simile.  But the subject is so much deeper than that. While at Blue Ridge, we took a much closer look at figurative language.

What I said then, as as I tell all my students, is that figurative language is, simply put, a way to marry the abstract and the concrete, a way of making the unimaginable imaginable. As such, it demands the making of the familiar strange, and of the strange familiar. The above photo comes from my friends over at They do HDR photos of the Disneyland Resort in Southern California. What I love about their site is this: While I’ve been to Disneyland several times, both as a child and as an adult, they always bring pictures of things I’m familiar with from a new perspective. They’ve made it strange enough that it no longer feels familiar. It feels new. The best figurative language does exactly that. And, when done properly, it is an image that sits deep in us. It affects us profoundly.

Though I could take several weeks on this topic, I’ll try to hit a few of the highlights about how to make figurative language work for you. The first thing to keep in mind is not to allow clichés to creep in. It makes your writing feel lazy. So how do you keep it fresh? Keep in mind that figurative language, more than anything else, reflects an aspect of our personality and character. Use figurative language in your fiction to establish your character, their history and experiences, their likes and dislikes. What would they liken this experience, this feeling to? Their love is not like a rose (BORING!). Their love is like an earthquake. Better yet, let’s take it to metaphor. He loved like an earthquake—powerfully and suddenly and destructively.

Why does that work? Because it’s unique. It’s not the same metaphor we’ve heard about love from the lips of long dead poets. It’s a different take on love, one that is not gentle, but dangerous. That contrast makes the image more powerful. At the basest level, it still likens an abstract concept (love) to something tangible and concrete (an earthquake).

When writing, be fresh and original, and use the opportunity of being stuck for a simile to better explore the background and experiences of your characters. And, as always, good writing.

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