This post first appeared on March 19, 2013.
Textbook discussions of figurative language tend to insist that similes and metaphors deepen a reader’s understanding of what they are describing. But if you look at how most writers employ similes and metaphors, they don’t so much deepen the meaning of what is being described as they change it. Much like you wouldn’t use an adjective or an adverb unless it changed the meaning of a given noun or verb, you wouldn’t use figurative language to say the same thing your literal language is saying.
Instead, figurative language is one of the best tools for writers who want to add emotional connotations, tone, and atmosphere, to a thing that might not otherwise have these features. Take Michael Ondaatje’s poem “Sweet Like a Crow.”
We understand that his niece’s voice does not literally sound “like a scorpion being pushed through a glass tube” or “like 8 sharks being carried on the back of a bicycle”. But this long list of humorous and horrific imaginary sounds sets the tone for the poem, a comedy right up until the pay-off of the lovely final simile “like the sound I heard when having an afternoon sleep/and someone walked through my room in ankle bracelets.” If readers took similes literally, the poem couldn’t work—this list of contradictory sounds could not all illustrate the same sound. But in this case, the figurative language sets a tone for the poem and then skillfully changes it, so that the reader understands the literal image (his eight-year-old niece Hetti Corea’s voice) differently by the end of the poem.
Likewise, in “The Staying Freight,” the amazing opening story to his collection, Volt, Alan Heathcock employs figurative language to describe a young boy’s dead body–not because it creates a better picture of what the boy literally looks like, but because it changes how the reader sees his death:
“Dusk burned the ridgeline and dust churned from the tiller discs set a fog over the field. He blinked, could not stop blinking. There was not a clean part on him with which to wipe his eyes. Tomorrow he’d reserved for the sowing of winter wheat and so much was yet to be done. Thirty-eight and well respected, always brought dry grain to store, as sure a thing as a farmer could be. This was Winslow Nettles.
“Winslow simply didn’t see his boy running across the field. He didn’t see Rodney climb onto the back of the tractor, hands filled with meatloaf and sweet corn wrapped in foil. Didn’t see Rodney’s boot slide off the hitch.
“Winslow dabbed his eyes with a filthy handkerchief. The tiller discs hopped. He whirled to see what he’d plowed, and back there lay a boy like something fallen from the sky.”
(You can read more of Heathcock’s story at The Nervous Breakdown. )
Try to imagine writing that moment with literal language—a man looking at the body of his son, who he has just accidentally killed. It’s hard to figure how one could do it without melodrama or sentimentality. Or simply too much gore. And so Heathcock turns to simile, and while the simile in no way gives the reader a clear picture of what the boy’s body looks like, it attaches an emotion to the sight, it changes the tone of the event entirely. Winslow’s son becomes a fallen bird, a tragic and yet somehow beautiful sight. With, inevitably, a dose of Icarus thrown in.
This is a useful trick in creative nonfiction as well. The nonfiction writer is tied to the truth of what has really happened, and yet often the truth of what has happened doesn’t adequately convey the emotional truth of what happened. Being able to employ figurative language that moves beyond describing the literal to applying an emotional atmosphere can go a long way toward achieving greater truth.
When student writers first start using figurative language they tend to make one of two mistakes: they apply metaphors and similes too randomly or they use clichés. Pointing out that figurative language is often more an act of point of view than an act of description—that it is grounded in the language and world of the narrator and brings in the feelings of that narrator—can lead them away from those mistakes.