The Writers Block: Figures of Speech

A column on craft by Linda Triegel

Figures of speech, or figurative language, are the sound effects added to writing to make it richer and more colorful.  The most common figures of speech are:


A comparison of two different things, introduced by like (“My luve’s like a red, red rose”) or as (“Her dress was as plain as an umbrella cover”). Similes that are around for a while tend to become clichés (“mad as a hatter”, “fit as a fiddle”, “drunk as a lord”).


A comparison of unlike things by stating that one is the other (“You are love”) or by giving one the other’s name and letting the reader make the connection “(You are Polaris, the one trustworthy star”).  Sometimes both things are mentioned (“All the arts are sisters”), sometimes only the “other,” or non-literal thing (“Green Buddhas/On the fruit stand./We eat the smile/And spit out the teeth”), leaving the reader to figure out what literal thing is meant.


Related to metaphor, personification gives human form, powers, or feelings to non-human beings or things. (Keats calls his Grecian urn “a sylvan historian.”)


The use of a word for another with which it is closely associated, as “crown” with the monarchy, an author for her work (I am reading Austen again), or brand names (Kleenex) for the product (tissues).
Read good writers in a variety of genres. Learn how the masters have handled figures of speech. Train your ear to hear literary language just as you train it to help you write more realistic dialogue. Eventually you will be able to “hear” when a metaphor sings—as well as when it clangs.

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