Figurative Language: 5 Tools to Spice Up Your Writing

Figurative Language: 5 Tools to Spice Up Your Writing
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Updated on 7 February 2015

A cardinal axiom of good writing, “show, don’t tell” reminds authors that language is infinitely more vivid and poignant when it appeals to the senses. Writing that does this has an amnesic effect on readers, ensconcing them so deeply in the story that they forget they’re reading a story at all. Perhaps the most apt tool to cast this spell on readers is figurative language, which employs various devices that imply meaning rather than plainly stating it. Here are five figurative devices that will breathe new life into your writing by compelling the reader to look beyond the obvious.

The Double Epithet

Image via Flickr by tonynetone

An epithet is an adjective or phrase that expresses attributes of a person or thing, such as “Alexander the Great.” Considered a device of poetic diction, epithets abound in famous poetry, especially Homer’s. For example, he coined phrases like “the rosy-fingered dawn” and “the wine-dark sea.” Epithets have even more figurative force in pairs, known as double epithets. Shakespeare was especially fond of this tool, penning classics like “mad mustachio purple-hued maltworms,” “beslubbering swag-bellied ratsbane,” and “roguish tickle-brained fustilarian.”

Anaphora

Used as both a rhetorical and poetic device, anaphora refers to parallelism created by successive lines or phrases beginning with the same words. Poetically, the recurring sounds produce a driving rhythm that can intensify the language’s emotionality. Rhetorically, anaphora lends emphasis to concepts. Anaphora appears frequently in the work of Charles Dickens (e.g., “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”) and also figures prominently in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech (King repeats the phrase “I have a dream” eight times in the closing paragraphs of the address).

Alliteration

This literary device repeats consonant sounds in a sentence or verse, typically, but not always, at the beginning of a word. Alliteration can give writing character and add an element of whimsy. Strategically, alliterative devices draw the reader’s attention to a particular passage, set a mood and rhythm, and can suggest certain connotations. For instance, a recurring “S” sound connotes a serpent-like quality, suggesting treachery and peril. Poe’s line “And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain” from The Raven uses alliteration, as does Beowulf‘s “Hot-hearted Beowulf was bent upon battle.”

Onomatopoeia

Appealing to the aural senses, onomatopoeia uses words imitative of sounds, such as quack, boom, whoosh, whir, hiss, crunch, crack, and swish. Paradoxically, onomatopoeia can add both frivolity and reality to writing, as it quirkily yet accurately mimics common sounds. The Alka Seltzer slogan “pop, pop, fizz, fizz, oh, what a relief it is” uses this device, as does Poe’s line from the poem The Bells “How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle in the icy air of night!”

Hyperbole

When authors intentionally overstate for effect, they employ hyperbole. These exaggerations can be ludicrous or funny and help the author make a salient point. An excerpt from Monty Python’s “Four Yorkshiremen rel=”nofollow”” skit illustrates this device perfectly as used for comedic effect. In describing how poor he was, one of the characters says, “I had to get up in the morning at 10 o’clock at night, half an hour before I went to bed, eat a lump of cold poison, work 29 hours a day down mill, and pay mill owner for permission to come to work, and when we got home, our dad would kill us, and dance about on our graves singing ‘Hallelujah’.”

If variety is the spice of life, figurative language is the cayenne pepper of prose, figuratively speaking. So what are your most clever or creative uses of figurative language?

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