You always want your writing to be clear, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be creative, too.
Figurative language is a way to add flavor to your work and break away from bland and formulaic text. It can also be a useful tool for world-building and developing more authentic characters, as well as for simplifying big ideas for your audience.
Of course, as with any literary device, you’ll want to have a full grasp of how to use figurative language in writing before putting it to work. That includes having at least a basic knowledge of the various figurative language types and how they can enhance your stories, poems, and essays.
Keep reading for a quick overview of everything you need to know, including some best practice tips on how to write figurative language effectively.
What Is Figurative Language?
The definition of figurative language, or a figure of speech, is when words are used in a non-literal way to express certain ideas or add a flourish to speech or writing. Most of us rely on figurative language heavily in everyday conversation to get our point across, telling friends to “break a leg” before a big presentation or lamenting that we feel “under the weather” when a cold starts to kick in.
Because figures of speech are often firmly rooted in specific languages, they don’t always translate from one region to another. So while an American might say “don’t judge a book by its cover” to express that you shouldn’t rely too heavily on first impressions, an Italian would express the same thought by saying l’abito non fa il monaco, which translates to “the dress does not make the priest”—and neither speaker would be likely to fully grasp the point that the other is making.
Benefits of Using Figurative Language in Your Writing
There are plenty of reasons to use figurative language in writing. Done well, these types of phrases can help you achieve things like:
- Clearer expressions of ideas
- More impactful comparisons
- More realistic dialogue
- Easier-to-understand foreign concepts
- More vivid and creative imagery
- Enhanced word flow and rhythm
Different figurative language types will help you accomplish different things in your writing. As you familiarize yourself with them, try to think about how you use various figures of speech in conversation to get a feel for how they might translate into text. The more you understand the function of each type, the more confident (and more productive) you’ll be when using figurative language in your written work.
12 Types of Figurative Language
A broad figurative language definition is one thing, but when it comes to how to write figurative language, it’s much more helpful to look at specific figures of speech and their purpose. Here are the 12 types of figurative language, plus examples of each.
A metaphor makes a direct comparison between two things to point out how they are similar. The comparison serves as a way to strengthen the image you’re trying to create and leave a more lasting impression with readers. It can also be a way to make the unfamiliar familiar by comparing a difficult or foreign concept to something that your audience will readily understand.
- It was a rollercoaster of emotion.
- He’s a night owl.
- She has a heart of gold.
A simile is also a direct comparison; however, in this case, the two things being compared are linked together by “like” or “as.” These signifiers make a more implicit connection without the need for further context or stretch of the imagination.
- The dress fits like a glove.
- It was like watching a pot boil.
- They were cool as a cucumber.
An idiom is a turn of phrase that is unique to a language, culture, or region. In these types of phrases, the literal meaning and figurative meaning are different, so if you aren’t a native speaker or otherwise familiar with the phrase, you probably won’t know what’s actually being expressed.
- It was a piece of cake. (It was easy.)
- Don’t let the cat out of the bag. (Don’t tell this secret.)
- Did I miss the boat? (Is it too late?)
When you make an obvious reference to a concept by referring to it as one of its attributes, you’re using a metonymy. This is another comparison-based figure of speech; however, instead of making a direct connection, you are simply letting one word or phrase stand in for another as a synonym.
- Saying “Wall Street” to refer to the American financial industry.
- Saying “give me a hand” to ask for help.
- Saying “grab me a plate” to tell someone to get you some food.
In a similar vein, a synecdoche is when you refer to something either by using part of it to describe the whole thing or using the whole thing to describe part of it.
- I’m getting my hair cut (when you’re technically getting all of your hairs cut).
- They bought new wheels (to refer to someone buying a new car).
- She has an impressive green thumb (to refer to someone’s skill as a gardener).
A hyperbole is an intentional exaggeration, where the exaggeration serves to deepen the meaning of what you’re saying. The statement itself might be absurd, but it’s this absurdity that further stresses your point.
- I had to tell him a million times.
- I’m so hungry I could eat an elephant.
- It was so quiet you could hear a pin drop.
When you use personification in your writing, you attribute human qualities to a non-human subject. It’s a good way to deepen your imagery and paint a clearer picture for your audience. It can also help introduce emotion and empathy into a scene.
- The moon hid behind the clouds.
- This dish is screaming for salt.
- My computer is being so stubborn today.
Assonance is the intentional juxtaposition of similar sounding vowels. It’s like rhyming in that it creates an echo of sorts throughout a sentence, except a rhyme juxtaposes similarities between vowels and consonants while this is only vowels.
- The squeaky wheel gets the grease.
- Try to fly the kite.
- Drift off to sleep, my sweet.
Another figurative sound device is onomatopoeia, which is when you call something by the sound that it makes.
- I could hear the birds chirping.
- People oohed and aahed at the firework display.
- Get ready to rev your engines.
One last sound device that also functions as a figurative device is alliteration. This literary technique uses the juxtaposition of like-sounding consonants to create more powerful and more memorable sentences, making it a great way to grab your reader’s attention.
- He was busy as a bee back there.
- Jack jumped just in time.
- Do you prefer pink or purple peonies?
If you want to elicit a collective groan from your audience, then use a cliché. These are overused turns of phrase that fail to pack much punch because they’re so unoriginal (but that could be used to explain certain concepts to beginners since they’re so widely understood).
- They were joined at the hip.
- Let’s bury the hatchet.
- It cost me an arm and a leg.
Last up is symbolism, which is when one object or concept stands in for another, usually as a means to “show, not tell” with your writing.
- The color red to symbolize danger.
- A four-leaf clover to symbolize luck.
- A swan to symbolize beauty.
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Figurative Language Examples in Writing
Figurative language is used all the time in published works. And if you want to improve your own usage, it helps to look at examples of figurative language in poetry and literature and see how other writers have put these literary techniques into action.
Figurative Language in Poetry
- “The Bight” by Elizabeth Bishop: Black-and-white man-of-war birds soar / on impalpable drafts / and open their tails like scissors on the curves / or tense them like wishbones, till they tremble.
- “Fog” by Carl Sandburg: The fog comes / on little cat feet; It sits looking / over harbor and city / on silent haunches /and then moves on.
Figurative Language in Literature
- The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
- As You Like It by William Shakespeare: All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.
How to Use Figurative Language
Whether it’s poetic figurative language or figures of speech in a story, speech, or personal essay, if you want your words to be meaningful, then you have to use them wisely. That means choosing the right type of figurative language for the job, as well as following a few simple rules for ensuring that your use of these literary techniques brings real value to your work.
Here are some of the rules that you’ll want to keep in mind.
Less Is More
Figurative language works best when it’s not overdone. Even if you’re mixing it up with different types, use figurative language sparingly so that it’s more impactful when your readers come across it.
Have a Purpose in Mind
Don’t use figures of speech just for the sake of it. If you’re going to include figurative language, it should be because it enhances your text in some clear and direct way, such as helping you create more powerful imagery or providing readers with a fuller understanding of a character’s personality or motivations.
Use it Humorously
Over-exaggerations, comparisons, turns of phrase, and even some well-placed clichés can bring a lot of humor to your work. A great example of this is from Steve Martin, who uses a humorous overstatement in his book Cruel Shoes when he states that, “The problem with the diets of today is that most women who do achieve that magic weight, seventy-six pounds, are still fat.”
Identifying Examples of Figurative Language
You probably already know that one of the best ways to improve your writing is by reading. And the same goes for learning how to use figurative language. Some distinct signs to look out for when trying to spot figurative language in literature and poetry include:
- Direct or implicit comparisons
- “Like” or “as” statements
- Common turns of phrase
- Clear exaggerations
Once you start to watch out for figurative language, you’ll see it everywhere. Make a point of trying to identify instances of it the next time you’re reading, using context clues and the descriptions of the various types above to clue you in on when—and why—the author has included a particular figure of speech.
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