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.