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Why Authors Use Figurative Language (Explained)

Figurative language is an important aspect of writing. It is used in every good piece of writing, regardless of whether it is fiction or non-fiction. It provides your work with a lot more depth, allowing you to be imaginative and creative.

What Is Figurative Language

Figurative language is a way that writers create a word picture, using figures of speech – specific types of figurative expressions that convey meanings different from the literal meanings of the words.

It allows authors to paint a vivid mental picture in their writing, in a way that non-figurative language – literal language – can struggle to do.

The inclusion of figures of speech in writing also can add depth, meaning, and color to the text. Figurative language helps writers make a point or describe an image that a normal sentence couldn’t.

It’s an essential skill to develop in creative writing.

Figurative language, deftly used, incites emotions in the reader, according to the intentions of the author. Extending the experience of the reader beyond the mere literal meaning. William Shakespeare was a master of this, among many other authors.

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?

William Shakespeare

Notice the mental image this verse elicits. ‘The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ bring to mind a multiplicity of woes and ones that cause harm.

Authors use various types of figurative language as literary devices to enhance their story and make it more interesting, including similes, metaphors, onomatopoeia, hyperbole, and personification. We’ll dig into these below.

Figurative language is present in most types of writing, including poems, screenplays, and even academic texts.

Examples of Figurative Language in Writing

Some examples of figurative language in sentences would be:

“The mountains soared like an eagle in the sky.”

“His eyes glistened like the stars in the sky.”

“The sun was like a red ball floating in the sky”

“Her eyes were like the sea at sunrise”

“I felt like a broken record”

“I can’t stop thinking about that girl.”

“The money was burning a hole in his pocket”

“She was a breath of fresh air”

“I was homesick.”

“You’re a dog.”

“The room is filled with warmth.”

“The sky is a sea of black ink with stars for driftwood.”

“This heat will kill me!”

The Role of Figurative Language in Writing

Most authors try to appeal to the reader and elicit emotion in multiple ways.

Authors use figurative language in their writing to help make the story more interesting, and more memorable, by giving it a deeper meaning than what is on the surface.

Figurative language makes the story more enjoyable to read while also allowing the reader to have a better understanding of what the author is trying to convey.

It does this by injecting emphasis, comparisons, and humor into your writing. It can even play a role in adding musicality and rhythm to a piece of writing.

Figurative language has the power to give writing flair so that you acquire and retain the reader’s attention.

Can you imagine if life was flat and literal? So too with writing: figurative writing gives the means to portray and intensify inner and outer worlds.

How Figurative Language Is Used In Storytelling

Figurative language is an important literary device for anyone who wants to make a point or tell a story. It adds color, depth, and understanding.

It provides a human element to storytelling. This can be especially important when a story is set in an unfamiliar setting because it helps the reader to relate to the characters or the plot.

For example, an author might use figurative language to explain an abstract idea by comparing it to a familiar scenario.

This helps the reader to understand and absorb the concepts better.

Figurative language helps people to learn, remember, and understand. This can be very powerful when using stories to help teach children, for example.

Familiar images and ideas can help the child to relate to the story and follow along.

Also with adults – as when using inspirational quotes in speeches.

Related: The Essential Elements of Storytelling

The Connection Between Figurative Writing and Imagery

Figurative writing can be used to create imagery in a piece of writing, but it is not an essential component.

Imagery means the way that you paint a picture for a reader. It’s what makes a reader feel like they can see what you’re describing and understand it as you’re describing it.

It allows the reader to see characters, places, and actions in their mind.

Figurative Language and Humor

One of the ways that figurative language can work well for a writer in humorous texts is by understating or grossly overstating the situation or setting.

So, for example, in Terry Pratchett’s The Light Fantastic we have:

Rincewind wasn’t certain about what happened to you after you really died, the authorities were a little unclear on the subject; a swarthy sailor from the Rimward lands had said that he was confident of going to a paradise where there was sherbet and houris. Rincewind wasn’t certain what a houri was, but after some thought he came to the conclusion that it was a little liquorice tube for sucking up the sherbet. Anyway, sherbet made him sneeze.


Bringing Characters Alive With Figurative Language

Hyperbole (exaggerated statements) can be used to good effect to give your characters an extra boost by giving color to their actions or traits.

Again, from Terry Pratchett:

Galder Weatherwax, Supreme Grand Conjuror of the Order of the Silver Star, Lord Imperial of the Sacred Staff, Eighth Level Ipsissimus and 304th Chancellor of Unseen University, wasn’t simply an impressive sight even in his red nightshirt with the hand-embroidered mystic runes, even in his long cap with the bobble on, even with the Wee Willie Winkie candlestick in his hand. He even managed to very nearly pull it off in fluffy pompom slippers as well.


Creating a Compelling Setting Using Similes and Metaphors

Here’s how Dan Brown describes the Guggenheim Museum:

The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, looked like something out of an alien hallucination-a swirling collage of warped metallic forms that appeared to have been propped up against one another in an almost random way. Stretching into the distance, the chaotic mass of shapes was draped in more than thirty thousand titanium tiles that glinted like fish scales and gave the structure a simultaneously organic and extraterrestrial feel, as if some futuristic leviathan had crawled out of the water to sun herself on the riverbank.


See how the line ‘glinted like fish scales’ and the idea of an alien leviathan brings images to mind, and makes the setting more vivid?

How Figurative Language Works in Poetry

In poetry, the effect of figurative language is to expand the range of emotions expressed by the poet. It adds more color, depth, and vividness to the poem.

Poets often exhibit a greater sensibility to beauty and a deeper appreciation of art and nature. Their use of figurative language illustrates these qualities.

Figurative language is used by poets to is used to enhance the music and rhythm of their poetry, as well as the imagery.

Importantly, it provides layers of meaning to the poem.

Good examples would be:

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,…
And dances with the daffodils.

William Wordsworth

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round;
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.


Types and Examples of Figurative Language

There are many types of figurative language used in writing and in everyday speech.

Some common types that authors use, and examples of them, include:


Hyperbole is a figure of speech that is an intentional exaggeration to a humorous or emphatic effect. It is a commonly used method of humor and is often found in satirical and comedic writing.

Hyperboles are usually positive, but can also be negative, to the effect of poking fun at something or someone.

It is a way to emphasize something by being extreme. An example would be: “This book weighs a ton!!”

Metaphors and Similes

A metaphor is a figure of speech where one thing is used to describe or illustrate another.

It can be used to describe a characteristic or quality of something by comparing it to something else.

For example, “Life is a roller coaster” or “He is a rock.”

A simile, on the other hand, is when an interstitial word is used to illustrate the comparison. For example, “The tree swayed in the breeze like it was dancing.”


A synecdoche is a figure of speech that uses a part of something to represent the whole thing. It can be used in a number of ways, including naming a specific part of something to represent the whole thing.

For example, “Seat of power” or “All hands on deck.”


A metonymy is a figure of speech where a thing or concept is not named directly but is instead referred to by another name associated with that thing or concept.

For example, “The crown” or “The pen is mightier than the sword,” the word “pen” is used to represent writing, and “sword” is used to represent fighting.


Alliteration is a figure of speech, in which the initial consonants of consecutive words are repeated.

It is a way to help the reader remember and associate names or phrases with something else.

It can be used to create a musical flow or rhythm to the writing.

For example, “Day by day, dollar by dollar,” or “The bee buzzed with the busyness of bees.”


Assonance is a figure of speech, in which words with similar vowel sounds are used near one another.

For example, “I am sick of this silly hat” or “She could not stop the sigh that rose up in her throat.”


An oxymoron is a figure of speech in which two normally contradictory terms are put together in a sentence.

For example, “Pretty ugly,” “Bitter sweet” or “Deafening silence.”


Personification is a figure of speech where something that is non-human is given human characteristics.

For example, “The air was pregnant with expectation.”

It’s especially effective in storytelling because it allows the reader to relate to the inanimate object by dint of its ascribed human qualities, which can make the story more interesting.


Onomatopoeia is a figure of speech that describes a person, place, thing, or sound, in a way that imitates the way it sounds – usually for dramatic effect.

Onomatopoeia can be used to add rhythm, emphasis, and humor to a text.

Examples of onomatopoeia would be: “The music goes thrum-thrum-thrum”, “The birds cheeped in the wood” or The squeak of the chalk as the teacher writes on the board.”