Category Archives: Figures of speech

Add details

Students write in generalities rather than with precise detail.  Yet it is detail that enhances writing.

Take, for example, this general sentence:  The dog barked at the cat.  See how it changes when we add details.

Adding numbers:  The dog barked at the single cat.

Adding dates, days, seasons:  Just as the sun was setting, the dog barked at the single cat.

Adding proper nouns, names:  Just as the sun was setting, Fang barked at the Fluffy.

Adding places:  Just as the sun was setting in the back yard, Fang barked at the Fluffy.

Adding stories:  Just as the sun was setting in the back yard, Fang barked at  Fluffy, the cat almost hit by the garbage truck this morning.

Sensory information, figures of speech:  Just as the hazy sun was setting in the back yard, grey-muzzled Fang barked at puny, calico-coated Fluffy, the cat almost hit by the careening garbage truck this morning.

Specific verbs:  Just as the hazy sun was setting in the back yard, grey-muzzled Fang growled at puny, calico-coated Fluffy, the cat almost crushed by the careening garbage truck this morning.

What are details?

  • numbers, %, time
  • dates, days, seasons, eras
  • proper nouns
  • names
  • places
  • stories
  • direct quotes
  • thoughts
  • facts
  • for examples
  • sensory information
  • description
  • specific verbs
  • figures of speech

Do you use metaphors? How about similes?

I don’t use metaphors or similes when I write fiction.  I’ve been aware of this for a couple of years, and so made a resolution to incorporate more metaphors and similes into my writing, especially my fiction writing.  But I have had little success.

Now I know why.

When I insert a metaphor or simile into narration, it reminds readers that an author is writing what they are reading.  A metaphor or simile draws readers away from the story line to consider a comparison.  A metaphor or simile interrupts the flow of writing and takes readers out of the story to consider the meaning of or the aptness of the figure of speech.

And I don’t want that.What I want, as an author, is for my readers to become “one” with my story, to find my story so real, so compelling, that they “live” in the story, unaware of the real world around them.  Metaphors and similes force the reader to leave the story—momentarily, true—and enter the real world to think about the figure of speech.  The flow is broken.

Two exceptions exist. One is that it is okay to include a metaphor or simile in either the spoken words of a character or in his or her thoughts.  Once your smile to me was wine, a character could think as she looks across the table to her long-time husband.  Or a mother beset with children’s demands, a ringing phone, and a dog’s whine could say, “My life is like a soap opera.”  In these situations—thinking and speaking—metaphors and similes still interrupt the flow of the story if the reader needs to think about the comparisons.  But they can seem organic if a character uses them.

Another exception is when the figure of speech is a cliché that is readily understood and needs no consideration.  When a character says, “That water is as cold as ice,” or when another character thinks, I smell a rat, we needn’t think about the comparison because we have heard it many times before and readily understand it.

Of course some writers do use metaphors and similes successfully, especially when a story is told in the first person.  If you have read any of Raymond Chandler’s stories about his famous detective, Philip Marlowe, you have encountered hundreds of figures of speech because the character of Marlow thinks in similes and metaphors.  Those stories are told in first person point of view, so the figures of speech form part of the personality of the narrator.

How about you?  Do you use similes and metaphors?  Do you agree with me that these figures of speech interrupt the flow of narration?

Writing metaphors

Metaphors are powerful figures of speech.  For example, take Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”  Of the last two identical lines, the first is literal but the second is metaphorical.  The first “And miles to go before I sleep” means just that, a long way to travel before the horse and buggy driver can drop into bed.   But the second “And miles to go before I sleep” means–perhaps–not a literal sleep but the “sleep” of death.  Frost could have ended his poem with, “And miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I die,” but how much more eloquent is his repetition of the word “sleep,” a metaphor for death.

EPSON MFP imageReading metaphors requires more of  readers than does reading literal words or even similes.  Readers must make a connection which is inferred but not stated directly.  Yet for their work, readers are rewarded, gaining satisfaction from discovering the meaning of the metaphor.

Metaphors are rarely written by adults and especially not by children.  They need to be taught, and need to be practiced.

Where to begin?  Here are three ways.

  • Suppose a child is writing a story with two or three characters. The child could use ordinary names for his characters, or he could use names as metaphors, the way J. K. Rowling does in her Harry Potter books.  (Malfoy means bad faith; Snape sounds like snake; the “mort” of Voldemort means death.)  A child could create a metaphorical name to reveal something about a character’s nature.  You and the student could brainstorm about a name which indicates bossiness, for example.  It could be a word which means boss (Lord, Lady, King, Rex, Regis, Mayor, Bishop, Majors) or a word which sounds like a word which means boss, even if it is made up (Empor, Captin, Sarge, Leder).
  • Suppose a character is doing something, such as running fast, and the child writes a simile, such as “runs like a cheetah.” Show the child that he could also write that the character “runs on cheetah legs.”  Many similes are easily turned into metaphors.  “as fast as lightning” could be “lightning fast” or “races with lightning steps.”  “Runs as fast as a rocket” could be “blasts on rocket feet.”
  • Ask the child to picture someone’s hands not as hands, but as something else:  scissors, pencils, chopsticks, or hooks.  Now turn that image into a metaphor.  He ate with chopstick fingers.  She arranged her hair with finger combs.  Mom smoothed her dress with finger irons.


“Never let a fool kiss you, or a kiss fool you.”

Do you like this quote by comedian Joey Adams?  It’s an example of an elegant and clever figure of speech,  the chiasmus (pronounced ki-AZ-mus).  You might not have heard the word, but you have heard other examples, such as

  •  “Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.” (John F. Kennedy)
  • “Do I love you because you’re beautiful? Or are you beautiful because I love you?” (Oscar Hammerstein)
  • People the world over have always been more impressed by the power of our example than by the example of our power.”
    (Bill Clinton)

A chiasmus (also called inverted parallelism) inverses the original grammatical structure or idea in a sentence using a particular pattern.  First comes an idea or structure in two parts, such as A (Let us never negotiate) and B (out of fear).  Then comes the inversion, starting with part of B (but let us never fear) followed by part of A (to negotiate).

This inversion can be shown in a diagram as


A chiasmus can sound formal because its structure is symmetrical.  For example, take JFK’s famous “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”  Its structure can be shown as

your country you you your country


But a chiasmus can also sound informal, as by English comedian Chris Addison who said, “The right to bear arms is slightly less ridiculous than the right to arm bears.”

bear arms arm bears


Using chiasmi in literature goes back thousands of years when it was popular in Greek writing and in the Bible to underscore order.  Socrates wrote, “Bad men live that they may eat and drink, whereas good men eat and drink that they may live.”  Shakespeare often used chiasmi, such as “Fair is foul and foul is fair” in Macbeth.

Plots can use chiasmi.  At the start of A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens has Dr. Manette curse all the members of the Darnay family; later Manette’s son-in-law, Charles Darnay, is sentenced to the guillotine because of Dr. Manette’s curse.

Chiasmi tend to slow down writing because the reader wants time to understand the logic, and then to marvel at its cleverness.  Used appropriately, chiasmi can add style to your writing.

Six rules for clear thinking and writing by George Orwell

One excellent yet pithy set of rules for writing well comes from 70 years ago by the British writer, George Orwell, author of 1984 and Animal Farm as well as numerous essays.  The rules are part of an essay called “Politics and the English Language” in which he argues that poorly written English results from bad habits of thought.  Get rid of the bad habits and clearer thinking emerges in the mind of the writer and on paper.

His six rules are

  • “Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  • “Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  • “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  • “Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  • “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  • “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”

Add metaphors and allusion to add sensory details and style

We talked about how adding alliteration, simile and hyperbole can improve the number of details and style of writing. These three figures of speech are usually the easiest for children to fit into their writing, but with practice, other kinds, including metaphor and allusions, can become easy.

Metaphors are indirect comparisons. “Like” and “as” are not used, causing children to wonder how to incorporate metaphors into their writing. Start by using “is” and say something is something else, especially if the something else seems odd or far-fetched. For example, “My dog is my guardian angel.” Or, “My cat is a mouse exterminator.” Or, “My dog is my alarm clock.”

a mountain of books to read

A mountain of books to read.

Next, try leaving out “is.” “My guardian angel, Buster, smelled the fire before I did.” “On the farm, Angel transformed from a sweet, purring friend into a mouse-pouncing exterminator.” “Buster, my alarm clock, keeps me on time for the school bus.”

Metaphors usually require more practice than similes, but they are powerful sensory comparisons, capable of bringing more style than similes do to writing.

Allusions are references to commonly understood myths, stories, people or works of art. The Bible and Shakespeare’s writing are commonly used as allusions in the West. But there is no reason Harry Potter, Percy Jackson or Goldilocks can’t be used. For example, if a child is writing about an annoyed mother, who is telling her son to come out of his room, the mother could say, “You better come out or I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your door down.” Notice that in this example, the big, bad wolf from the Three Little Pigs is alluded to but not named. Or in describing a big sister, a young writer could say, “She has the looks of Sleeping Beauty and the brains of Hermione Granger.”

To make an allusion work, the writer must know his audience well enough to believe that his readers are familiar with the reference he is making; if not, the allusion is lost. Even if every reader isn’t in on the allusion, child writers should be encouraged to try them. J. K. Rowling used allusions when naming some of the characters in her books. For example, by naming Professor Snape with a name that sounds so much like snake, J. K. Rowling intends readers to think of bad, snake associations.

Most rubrics for student writing include figures of speech as desirable elements to improve the style of a student’s writing. But on their own, most students don’t think to include figures of speech in their writing. These elements must be practiced and pointed out to make the student comfortable with them.

Add figurative language to not only increase sensory details but style.

Many students forget to use figurative language in their writing even though on most of the rubrics used to evaluate student writing, figurative language is included in the section marked “style.”

What kinds of figurative language are easy to insert?

Alliteration means the repetition of a particular consonant sound as in “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.” Students can be intimidated by alliteration because they think they need to use every word beginning with the same sound. Two words beginning with the same consonant sound is usually enough, and those words don’t need to be consecutive. For example,

My little brother, Fred, was nearly frozen with fear.

I dreamed about a dreary day in December.

My mother made mashed potatoes on Monday.

After a student has written a rough draft, and after he has examined his writing for clarity, verbs and sentence openings, I help him introduce alliteration. I find words beginning with consonants that might be easy to modify with an adjective or with a prepositional phrase. Together we think up adjectives that begin with the same letter as the noun, such as a large linden tree or a cherry-flavored chocolate bar. Or, if the writing is fiction, we might change names (John F. Kennedy School becomes John Jefferson School). Or we might add to a name to provide alliteration (Mary becomes Mary Margaret).

Similes are comparisons using like (my cat seems like a tiger) or as. . .as (my cat is as fierce as a tiger). Students come up with similes easily when they are reminded to do so, but many times the similes they choose have nothing to do with the ideas being expressed.

For example, a student might describe his sticky buns “as sticky as a stamp on an envelope.” True, both are sticky, but the buns are a delicious food and the stamp is a piece of paper. Instead, I ask the student to identify another delicious food that is sticky. “My sticky buns are as sticky as peanut butter on my teeth.” Or, “My sticky buns are as sticky as taffy on my braces.” These provide closer analogies and so they work better as similes.

Poor example:  He ate as fast as a rollercoaster.

Better example:  He ate as fast as a steam shovel.

Even better:  He ate as fast as an out-of-control fire.

You might think hyperbole would be easy for a student to use, but it is not. Hyperbole is the extreme exaggeration of an idea to the point of absurdity. “I ate three large pizzas last night” could be hyperbole if eating three large pizzas is clearly impossible for that child, but “I ate 23 large pizzas last night” is clearly hyperbole. “I had five hours of homework last night” might not be hyperbole, but “I have enough homework to last me until I am 70 years old” is clearly hyperbole.

Poor example:  My great-grandmother can remember the Great Depression.

Better example:  My great-grandmother voted for George Washington.

Usually students don’t exaggerate enough. They might write, “I ate a whole pizza last night,” or “I studied for four hours for that test.” Together we strategize about what is possible but unlikely (not hyperbole) and what is clearly impossible (hyperbole).

We also talk about the tone of the student’s writing. Hyperbole works well in humorous writing but it sometimes changes the mood of a more serious piece. If that is the case, I suggest the student use another form of figurative speech.

More on other figures of speech in the next blog.