Monday, October 8, 2018

Using Figurative Language in Prose


by
Jessica Nelson


Although we generally associate figurative language with poetry, we use figurative language in prose and everyday speech. Like, when we come home from a bad day at work and say our coworker stamped around the office like a rampaging bull. Or when we’re describing our son’s game-winning goal (“He shot that ball from the opposite end of the field!” or, more accurately, from fifteen yards away). Or in our prose, as we describe anger like molten iron—weighing us down even as it burns us up. 

Here are the main types of figurative language: 

• Simile — a comparison between unlike things using “like” or “as” 
• Metaphor — a comparison between unlike things not using “like” or “as”; an analogy. Merriam-Webster uses “drowning in money” as their example. 
• Personification — giving human attributes/traits to non-human objects or animals, such as suggesting a ticking clock is mocking you or that a dark forest is watching you. 
• Symbolism — expressing the invisible or intangible by means of the visual or sensual (Merriam-Webster definition). 
• Hyperbole — exaggeration to create a humorous or emotional impact, such as “My backpack weighs a ton” or “We’ve had this conversation a million times.” 
• Imagery — using words to produce a visual image in the reader’s mind. I often talk about figurative language revolving around a central image. 
• Oxymoron — a combination of contradictory or incongruous words (Merriam-Webster). Google’s favorite examples are “seriously funny,” “deafening silence,” “jumbo shrimp,” and “act naturally.” 
• Onomatopoeia — sound effect words such as pop, bang, boom, thud. 
• Apostrophe — narrator speaks directly to a person who is not there or dead or to an inanimate object (https://literarydevices.net/apostrophe/) 
• Synecdoche — using a part to represent a whole, such as “the crown” to refer to the monarchy or a “suit” to refer to a business man. 
• Pun — a play on words. 

But figurative language can be more subtle, too, like the following: 

• Alliteration — beginning successive words with the same consonant or consonant sound 
• Assonance — repeated vowel sounds 
• Consonance — repeated consonant sounds, usually at the ends of words, such as “short and sweet” or “odds and ends.” 
• Anaphora — beginning each element in a series with the same word or words. A famous example is Charles Dicken’s “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.” 

Figurative language is a great way to elevate prose, to create vivid descriptions that seem to move and breathe across the page. (See what I did there? That was personification.) In poetry, we can get away with some more outlandish images, but in prose, we need to keep our figurative language grounded in the world of our story. 

I’ve a had a few fiction manuscripts come across my metaphorical desk whose figurative language didn’t make sense in the context of the story. I never want to discourage prose writers from using figurative language, because it adds flavor and dynamism. But there are some things to consider when using figurative language: 

• Voice — If the story has largely been written in a no-frills style, then an effusive description of a sunset is going to seem out of place. A voice that uses plain, accessible language shouldn’t suddenly spout Shakespeare-level similes or use symbol-heavy metaphors. Figurative language should match the style and tone of the writing. For example, a description like, “the pale fingers of dawn scratched at the cloak of night, caressing the tops of the mountains and limning them in soft gold as midnight purple gave way to pastel pinks and blues” might sound out of place in a piece whose voice isn’t normally so poetic. 

• Point of View — Point of view is related to voice, but with a narrower focus. I’ve seen writers employ some truly spectacular metaphors or similes that ultimately made no sense because they were based on images or details the point of view character wouldn’t use or know about. Here’s where I’ll rat myself out: I wrote a kick-ass metaphor about a character getting angry and then having his bubble burst, and I’ll have to delete and replace it. 

“Anger spilled like molten iron through his veins, heating him from the inside, making his heart pump harder. . . . The molten iron that had coursed through him cooled and solidified, leaving him heavy and tired.” 

I was so proud of this image! I thought I had found the perfect way to describe that hot, simultaneously energizing and burdening feeling of being pissed off and the subsequent heavy, gravity-has-increased-by-one-hundred-fold sensation when someone takes the wind out of your sails*. Here’s the problem: my narrator in this scene is a twenty-year-old male whose primary interests are music and swimming. The forge-centered imagery of the molten iron heating and cooling doesn’t fit my narrator’s characterization. He doesn’t know anything about iron working. He might remember a little about lava-flow from his high-school physical science class, but I doubt that’s what he’s thinking about in this particular situation. (*metaphor and cliché) 

By using figurative language centered around an image beyond my narrator’s knowledge, I’ve drawn attention to myself as the writer. It’s like I’m standing in the middle of the prose waving a red flag and yelling, “Look at me! Am I not a fantastic writer? Look at that great metaphor!” 

Think about who is narrating your story/scene. What does he/she know? The answer can be based on where they are from or where they live now, what they like to do for fun, what they do for work, and/or their special interests. It can be based on past experiences or memories. The key is to use what the narrator already knows to craft figurative language that is relevant to the story. 

Let’s go back to my example above. For that particular scene, based on this narrator, I would write: Anger rang through his body like a cymbal crash. His heart pounded like a bass drum against his ribs, loud and staccato. His pulse thundered in his ears like a timpani’s roll. (Not as great as my molten iron image—yet. I’m still working on it.) 

• World of the story — This is a problem more for fantasy, sci-fi, or historical fiction pieces. The images we use have to make sense in the world of the story. A historical fiction tale set in the early 1600s can’t compare two horseback riders racing to NASCAR. A fantasy story set in a newly-invented world can’t use an image based on modern Earth technology. A sci-fi novel set on an alien planet can’t make allusions to Earthly objects/animals. These are very generic examples, but the point is to take note of what does and does not exist already in the world of your story. 

Here’s the catch-22. We still want to find familiar images that our readers can connect with. Let’s say we’ve set our sci-fi story on an ice-planet inhabited by enormous spider-like creatures, but our characters wouldn’t know what a spider is because spiders don’t exist in the world of the story. What do we do? We break the images down further: multiple eyes, eight spindly legs, sharp fangs that can inject venom. Those are all details that are familiar to us because we know what spiders look like, but we never had to say the word “spider.” 

Subtle ways to incorporate figurative language: 

At the 2018 West Virginia Writer’s conference, I attended Belinda Anderson’s workshop, “Poetic Devices in Prose,” and it’s from her lecture that I composed the short list of “subtle” figurative language devices seen at the top of this blog. She gave us an opening line and then gave us poetic devices to incorporate into our little stories. Here is my little story. 

The music came from somewhere in the woods . . . 

High and clear and haunting like rainfall and cricket chirps. I halted on the dirt path, my backpack slamming against my shoulder blades. The melody seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere, like the earth itself was singing.

After a spellbound moment, the music faded. But as haunting and strange as the tune had been, this silence was stranger. The usual sounds of the forest did not return. Birdsong stayed silent, rustling remained quiet. The usual sounds of dusk disappeared.2 The hoots of owls, the howls of wolves, the shush and rustle of wind in the leaves—gone.3 I prayed for the return of the tweet and twitter of the cardinals and robins, for the scratch and scratch of burrowing critters, for the crunch of deer traipsing on dead leaves.4 

The last of the light faded as the sun set behind the trees, and it struck me just how long I’d stood here. I forced myself to move, but the strangest thing happened. As the woods darkened, the path grew light. Thunder rumbled and the music returned, the crisp notes of the wood flute growing frantic and harried as the melody soared, and the path grew light.5 

1. Simile and personification 
2. Alliteration 
3. Assonance 
4. Consonance and onomatopoeia 
5. Epistrophe (the opposite of anaphora) 

Note: this passage is jam-packed with figurative language because it’s a writing exercise. But look at the way the figurative language adds extra oomph to the prose. When used correctly, figurative language can add life and vitality to our prose, but we must walk the fine line between figures of speech that sound good and ones that make sense.

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