Dress It Up

When was the last time you told someone, “My luve’s like a red, red rose”? Probably never, right? Perhaps you leave those sentiments to poets like Robert Burns (who penned those words) or Andy Murray. Or perhaps such language seems stilted to you in the every day. But chances are you use figurative language—similes, metaphors, personification, hyperbole, alliteration, onomatopoeia—quite often, even if you’re not overly conscious of doing so. Ever say, “Boom” or “Hush”? Onomatopoeia. “LOL, Loser”? Alliteration. “He is a panther, sleek and sly”? Metaphor.

Fig Lang

But you know all of that. And you also know how figurative language can dress up a line of prose or poetry. An apt phrase can replace miles and miles of exposition. For example, we all know how destructive fire can be. So instead of taking three paragraphs to describe how one character (Character A) is a bad influence on another (Character B), we might have Character B tell someone that Character A is “like fire.” (But we would remember that many cliché phrases involve fire and of course would try to avoid those.)


Back in my grad school days, I showed my advisor a scene from my Tolkienesque fantasy novel for teens, which involved a teen approaching his dying mother. The following paragraphs are from that scene. I mentioned that scene because I included some figurative language. I won’t keep you in suspense—my advisor hated this scene.

From the cottage doorway, she looked like a doll left on the bed: small and fragile. Even the hill of the child she carried seemed dwarfed by the faded patchwork quilt.

Though the lamps had been lit, the cottage was full of late afternoon shadows and a quiet beyond the absence of the others. . . .

He swallowed, trying to make his voice steady, trying to ask what he didn’t want to ask. “What did you see?” He could tell by her face that she’d had a vision. Though they could communicate mind to mind, he could never see what she saw. Her visions were random, virulent things.

After a vision her green eyes were like birds, restless, flitting until the touch of his father’s hand calmed her, brought her back from wherever the vision took her. This time, it didn’t look as if she would ever return.

Why did she hate this? Well, she knew something about me as a writer: I was not really paying attention to the characters in the scene. I was more concerned with the language of the scene—how “pretty” I could make it. That’s what she hated. She wanted to care about the characters—not my attempt to sound lyrical.

Lest you think she seemed overly harsh, please understand that she did me a favor. I could see why the scene didn’t work, and especially why a reader would feel emotionally manipulated (cue the violin music). I wound up rewriting the whole book anyway. (That scene was not included.)

So the use of figurative language has pros and cons. If you keep character foremost in your mind as you consider using figurative language, your writing will be wonderfully effective. And unlike me you’ll avoid giving a lyrical line of dialogue to a three-year-old, no matter how eloquently the sentiments are expressed. After all, since three-year-olds are learning to form sentences, they wouldn’t trot out a simile or a metaphor. But they might say, “Boom!”


She says his head is like an empty room. He says she is the wind beneath his wings. Can this relationship work? The beauty of figurative language.

Watch, if you dare, a blast from the past—a video by Bell Biv DeVoe featuring their 1990 hit, “Poison” (or just listen, if the video images bother you). Figurative language? Yup. It’s got it.

Figurative language image from gcps.desire2learn.com. Fire from losangelesawyersource.com.

45 thoughts on “Dress It Up

  1. So your character in that scene was a 3-year old? No wonder it didn’t work.

    I like words… I am guilty of being concerned with the language of the scene … Thanks for the very useful tip- care more about the characters.

    • No that character was a teen. As soon as I pushed publish, I wondered if someone would think I meant the character in the scene I mentioned. I meant a different story. 🙂 I’m glad you brought that up though, so that I could clarify.

      • Probably wouldn’t. That was the problem. 🙂 Oh well. You live and learn. I wish I could say that I learned my lesson perfectly. Nope. I’m having to rewrite another novel for the same reason.

  2. I try for both, but I’ll admit to getting into the language a lot when trying to set a scene. Also having characters do stuff while talking. Keep thinking they’re just standing there like mannequins during dialogue if I don’t say they’re doing anything. Anyway, I now have that song stuck in my head. 🙂

  3. Thank you for mentioning me in the same breath as Robert Burns 🙂 Maybe your readers will think you are acknowledging that tennis player as a fellow Scot! 🙂

    • Good, Jill. Unfortunately, that is a lesson I’ve been slow to learn. 🙂 I have plotted my way through many stories. Someone asked me what my main character wanted. I had no idea. But I knew what I wanted–for him to get to the next plot point. 🙂 Obviously, that novel never went anywhere.

  4. Wading through descriptive prose that sounds poetic but makes no sense is like trying to climb over a pile of jello. :mrgreen:

    When the poetic tone adds to the depth of the writing, without detracting from the story line, a lovely flow is relaxing and peaceful. In contrast, when writing causes readers to get mired down deciphering images that don’t make sense . . . it’s just distracting.

    E.g., “I am hypnotized by keys, thick fistfuls of them, I can taste their acid galvanization, more precious than wisdom.” ~ White Oleander, Janet Finch


    Should I forge ahead through dreck to see if some unseen destination is worth the trek?
    Nah! :mrgreen:

    Thanks for a fun post, Linda!

    • I couldn’t have put it better myself, Nancy. Thank you for that! See, this is why I read your blog. 🙂
      Pretty words might win awards. But they don’t cause me to finish a book. 😦 I heard of White Oleander. Never read it though, nor did I see the movie.

  5. I think every new writer starts with focusing on the sentences and not on the story and characters. We want it to read so flawlessly. We try pretty words and pretty metaphors, only to find out it doesn’t keep anyone’s interest, or worse, becomes purple prose that makes readers roll their eyes. Eventually we learn that some of the best writing is writing that is easy to read. Which means the author probably put a lot of work into achieving that!

  6. A very appropriate start to your post since tonight is Burns Night! Hehe! I fear I did think you meant the tennis player but discovered my mistake on clicking through. Well, you know I’m obsessed with tennis… 😉

    • I have to laugh, because I was about to comment on Andy’s comment that you would appreciate the mention of the tennis star. 🙂 So I’m glad you commented. 🙂
      Every now and then, I think of Robert Burns. I don’t know why. I studied a bunch of different poets in college. For some reason, I always revert to him or Yeats. My mind is a weird place sometimes.

  7. I like your scene. It would make a pretty flash fiction if you gave the observer more internal. 🙂

    Focusing on the characters is something I had (am having) to learn to do, too. I have to pay special attention to make sure I’m giving the POV character enough thinky time. I love flowery language, though. I don’t use a ton of it, but when I do, it feels natural to me.

    • And you do it so well. 🙂

      Thank you. 😀 I cut that scene altogether when I changed the focus of the novel. Even that teen character is barely in the book. I cut him in favor of an antagonist I like much better, though he does some terrible things.

  8. I strive for balance, but I’m sure I don’t always achieve it. I want my sentences to be pretty, but too much pretty can blind the poor reader. In my view, that’s where literary fiction’s gone wrong. It’s been spit-shined until it sears most eyes. But I’m also tired of slogging through books with loathsome characters. Looking forward to seeing you this week!!!

    • I totally agree. But your writing is always accessible, Andra. It’s pretty but not blinding. And I agree that some books are over polished. Probably for the awards committee.

      Yes! Can’t wait to see you! 😀

  9. All cliches began as a fresh way of looking at something: What goes around comes around. Cat got your tongue? A rose by any other name … If writers don’t come up with new, clever phrases to replace the old ones, who will? Obviously, we have to be careful not to overdo it. Character and plot come first, and the pretty phrase has to fit with the story and the character and add something to the reader’s understanding and pleasure.

    • Watching movies and TV shows, I hear the same clichés over and over and see the same scenes. 😦 So yes, we have to work harder to avoid them. But some attempts are so esoteric. I made my advisor angry, because I forgot the characters and sought to stroke my own ego with my words. Ugh. 😦

  10. I think the figurative language can be used when it is useful . Well dosed it brings some salt to a prose that would be too much ordinary . But as always this has to sound true and not artificial .
    Thanks for your visit and comments, L.Marie , during my absence
    In friendship

  11. I have just finished re-reading James Joyce’s Ulysses. It’s all figurative language and the language is definitely primary, but somehow I’m not cheated about the characters. In fact I know them better than some of my best friends. Unfortunately I can’t explain how Joyce pulled it off. I suppose if you are that good, who cares?

  12. Pingback: Piles of Poetic Jello | Spirit Lights The Way

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