Arts Entertainments

The power of figurative language to enhance fiction

Ivan Doig and James Lee Burke are two great authors. One reason is the way they use figurative language to enhance their stories, which probably explains why Ivan Doig, This House of Sky, was nominated for the National Book Award and James Lee Burke has had a series of Best Sellers of the New York Times.

Imagine a world so literal that we wouldn’t read lines like ‘The pitcher’s mound at Wrigley Field swelled up from the grass of the box like the back of a giant tortoise swimming in a dark green sea, and on top of it, he was pitching just as wobbly as if the turtle had caught the hiccups. “This comes from Doig’s This House in the Sky. The simile energizes what might otherwise have been a flat description.

Although I don’t follow this rule while writing drafts, during revisions I made it a goal to include figurative language in my work as often as possible. I’m on the lookout for the best places to slide something.

Luckily for us, the figurative language family is large. The characters that populate this family are alliteration, metaphors, similes, onomatopoeia, personification, hyperbole and idioms.

Alliteration is repeating a single letter of the alphabet like “Peter Piper picked a bell pepper from pickled peppers.”

Metaphors compares two different things. A simile is like a metaphor. The only difference is that similes use like, like, and look alike and metaphors don’t. “His elephant smile was blinding” is a metaphor. “He had a bright smile like an elephant” is a simile.

Onomatopoeia uses a word or words that sound like what it refers to, such as “the air came hissing out of the tire.”

When you make something that is not human appear to have human abilities and reactions, it is an embodiment. “The trees danced to the music of the wind.” The trees don’t dance. The wind doesn’t make music.

‘An apple a day keeps the doctor away’ is an example of hyperbole, where a point is emphasized using an exaggeration that is sometimes funny.

An idiom is a group of words that are different from the ordinary way of saying things like “a picture is worth a thousand words.”

Used correctly, figurative language adds to your fiction and can be a way to create an image or convey a point in an interesting and powerful way.

“He watched his car disappear into the lush shade of the grove, the leaves flickering like thousands of green butterflies in the breeze.” This is a simile of Swan Peak by James Lee Burke.

We grow up with figures of speech, so our heads fill like a Thanksgiving turkey with tacky language, which English teachers call clichés. The challenge for most authors is to stay away from those worn-out clichés. This language has been used so many times that it becomes boring because too many people have heard or used it. In fact, if you use a well-known and worn cliche on the first page of your novel, your book could have a half-life numbered in seconds as the rejection slides into the mail.

In My Splendid Concubine’s, I used figurative language in a flashback to help describe Robert Hart as an old man long after the love story that takes place in the novel. Robert looked into the glass and saw the reflection of a man who resembled a giant sea turtle with its head protruding from its protective shell. The eyes had deep lines of sadness etched around them, like a parched floodplain frightened by ancient catastrophes.

If you are unfamiliar with cliches, one way to avoid writing them is to use a program like Serenity Software Editor to verify your draft during reviews. Although Editor does more, it also recognizes worn-out language. After that, it’s up to you.

Writing powerful figurative language requires great imagination. The best way to create imagination is to read. Studies and brain scans show that people who watch too much television or spend too much time browsing the virtual world have pebbles for the imagination instead of mighty ancient redwoods.

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