Not to be dramatic, but hyperbole is the best figure of speech ever! It allows writers to exaggerate and amplify writing for greater emphasis. It turns a tasty meal into “the greatest thing you’ve ever eaten” and a loud clang into “a deafening racket that shook the whole house.”
What is hyperbole?
The definition of hyperbole is “exaggerated statements or claims not meant to be taken literally.” In practice, hyperbole is language that loads up on the drama. You’ll find hyperbole all over the place:
In speeches: A politician will state that they are campaigning in the “greatest city on earth.” While flattering, they are probably exaggerating in order to appeal to its citizens’ civic pride. They are speaking in hyperbole.
In sports: When one player brushes against another, it’s customary to tumble over and start grabbing at part of their body in pain. This is hyperbolic behavior, behavior that is exaggerated in order to produce an intended effect (in this case, a penalty on the other team).
In conversation: Have you ever heard someone say they are “so hungry I could eat a horse”? This expression is hyperbole, a dramatic overstatement that draws attention to a certain issue.
One of the best places to find hyperbole is in writing. Writers use hyperbole to enhance the qualities of their characters, to draw attention to a situation, or to diversify their descriptive imagery.
How to use hyperbole in writing
The main purpose of hyperbole is to amplify something. To work hyperbole into your writing, consider the following questions:
- Who or what is the most important element of this scene? Hyperbole shines a spotlight on someone or something, so decide ahead of time what you want your reader to pay attention to.
- Are there specific qualities that mean more than others? Say you have identified a character as the most important element. What about them do you want to emphasize? If a certain quality serves the story better at that moment, then that’s the one you’ll want to highlight with hyperbole.
- Are there any easy comparisons to make? Hyperbole should be easy to understand. If you want to demonstrate how hard it’s raining, you might turn to easy hyperbolic comparisons like a “waterfall,” a “deluge,” or a “sheet of water.” Hyperboles should be quick, dramatic, and obvious.
Hyperboles are not meant to trick your reader. It should be clear that the statement is exaggerated in order to emphasize something specific. To be clear, hyperbole is not lying, but it’s also not something to take literally. Speaking of literally . . .
Is literally hyperbole?
The word literally means exactly, or to be taken in an exact manner. But in modern language, literally has been adapted to emphasize or exaggerate any situation. I was literally freezing to death. She literally couldn’t stop talking. They were literally behaving like children. In these cases, the word literally is not meant to be understood, well, literally. It is being used hyperbolically.
Hyperbole vs. litotes vs. meiosis
There are other literary devices that rely on an understanding that the writer does not mean exactly what they say. Litotes and meiosis both play with this concept but are different from hyperbole in a few key ways.
Litotes are phrases that use a negative to express a positive. They are often used in writing to soften a difficult situation or to remain purposely vague. While they draw attention to a certain quality or situation, they do so by negating it. Hyperbole doesn’t necessarily use negation in its emphasis.
He’s not as young as he used to be.
Meiosis is a purposeful understatement intended to diminish or shrink the subject. It can be hyperbolic in the sense that something might be overly diminished (for example, calling a Great Dane a lapdog), but it has the opposite effect of hyperbole. Rather than blow something up for attention, it shrinks it down.
School was delayed because of a few snowflakes.
“My parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them.” —J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
The narrator, Holden Caulfield, wants to emphasize how much disapproval his parents would show if he told the reader anything about them. They would not actually be rushed to the doctor and diagnosed with “two hemorrhages apiece” if they made an appearance in the book.
“At that time Bogotá was a remote, lugubrious city where an insomniac rain had been falling since the beginning of the 16th century.” —Gabriel García Márquez, Living to Tell the Tale
Living to Tell the Tale is the memoir of García Márquez, spanning the years of 1927–50. Had the rain, by that time, been falling since 1500? Not really. But the image of a city completely saturated by rain is delivered in this imaginative hyperbole.
“A day was twenty-four hours long but seemed longer. There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County.” —Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
The narrator in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird uses the repetition of hyperbole—nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see—to emphasize the slow pace of life in her county. This hyperbole emphasizes not only how slowly the narrator perceives her time, but what it feels like (namely, boring) as a young girl.
What is hyperbole?
Hyperbole is a purposeful exaggeration not meant to be taken literally. It is used to emphasize or draw attention to a certain element in a story.
How is hyperbole used in writing?
Writers use hyperbole to emphasize a certain quality or draw attention to an issue by making it seem bigger or more dramatic.
What’s the difference between hyperbole, litotes, and meiosis?
Hyperbole is a purposeful exaggeration. Litotes is a vague statement that uses a negative to express a positive (for example, “he’s not wrong,” meaning he’s right). Meiosis is a strategic understatement that diminishes or downplays a subject (“ambulance chaser” instead of “personal injury attorney”).