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’s, This House of Sky was nominated for the National Book Award and James Lee Burke has had a string of New York Times Best Sellers.
Imagine a world so literal we wouldn’t read lines like ‘The pitcher’s mound at Wrigley Field swelled from the infield grass like the back of a giant turtle swimming in a dark green sea-and atop it, I was throwing as teeterily as if the turtle had caught the hiccups.” This comes from Doig’s This House of Sky. The simile breathes energy into what otherwise could have been a flat description.
Although I do not live by this rule while writing rough drafts, during revisions I set a goal to include figurative language in my work as often as possible. I keep an eye out looking for the best spots to slip something in.
Lucky 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 the repetition of a single letter of the alphabet like ‘Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers’.
Metaphors compare two unlike things. A simile is like a metaphor. The only difference is that similes use like, as and resembles and metaphors do not. ‘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 the thing it refers to like ‘the air hissed out of the tire’.
When you make something that is not human seem as if it has human abilities and reactions, it is personification. ‘The trees were dancing to the wind’s music.’ Trees do not dance. The wind does not make music.
‘An apple a day keeps the doctor away’ is an example of hyperbole, where a point is emphasized by using 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 get a point across in an interesting and powerful way.
‘He watched her car disappear inside the leafy shade of the grove, the leaves flickering like thousand of green butterflies in the breeze.” This is a simile from James Lee Burke’s Swan Peak.
We grow up with figures of speech, so our heads are stuffed like a Thanksgiving turkey with tasteless 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 it becomes boring because too many people have heard it or used it. In fact, if you use a well known, worn out cliché on the first page of your novel, your book could have a half-life numbered in seconds as the rejection slip jets into the mail.
In My Splendid Concubine’s, I used figurative language in a flashback to help describe Robert Hart when he is an old man long after the love story that takes place in the novel. ‘Robert looked in the glass and saw the reflection of a man who resembled a giant sea turtle with his head protruding from its protective shell. The eyes had deep lines of sadness etched around them like a parched alluvial plain scared from ancient catastrophes.’
If you are not familiar with clichés, one way to avoid writing them is to use a program like Editor by Serenity Software to check your rough draft during revisions. Although Editor does more, it also recognizes worn out language. After that, it is up to you.
To write powerful figurative language requires a strong imagination. The best way to build an imagination is to read. Studies and brain scans show that people who watch too much television or spend too much time surfing the virtual world, have pebbles for imaginations instead of mighty old-growth redwoods.