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The Basic Figurative Writing Categories

Updated on December 23, 2013

The Beauty of Figurative Writing

Have you ever found the dictionary to be lacking in just the right word to express your thoughts? An idea comes upon you, a beautiful, deep thought that you just must write down, but you can’t find the words to do so? You look at all the synonyms at your disposal and not one of them adequately conveys what you need?

Welcome to the world of figurative writing. Figurative writing allows the writer to move beyond literal meanings of words. It adds flair where flair is needed. It adds Technicolor where black and white simply will not do, and if you are paying attention you will notice that I just used some figurative writing.

But I can’t expect you to use these tools without first explaining to you how they are used. That just wouldn’t be kosher of me, would it? So let’s take a look at the different forms of figurative writing; let’s give you the building blocks necessary to construct your own ivory tower of writing….and yes, I just did it again. J

She is pretty like a picture....a simile.
She is pretty like a picture....a simile. | Source

SIMILE

A simile says something is like something else. It is a comparison and it comes right out and says so.

He was as crazy as a mad hatter. She was clumsy like a bull in a china shop. She was beautiful like a princess.

The purpose of a simile is to give the reader something visual to compare with, a frame of reference that is familiar to them. Saying that a child is as playful as a little puppy is an image we can all relate to, and that gives the statement so much more depth than simply saying the child was playful.

METAPHOR

A metaphor calls on the reader to do a little bit more work to understand the reference. Instead of just telling the reader that something was like something else, the writer uses a metaphor to say that something is something else, and trusts that the reader is intelligent enough to draw the parallel necessary to understand the image.

Metaphors are not nearly as easy to write as similes but they are so worth the effort.

I will let Shakespeare give you an example of a metaphor. This is from “As You Like It.”

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts.”

If Shakespeare had said that all the world is like a stage it would have been a simile. See the difference?

Helpful tips from the pros

The night tucked us all safely into our beds...personification.
The night tucked us all safely into our beds...personification. | Source

ANALOGY

Moving on to the next stage in figurative writing we find the analogy. An analogy points out several similarities between two items. Think in terms of a run-on metaphor or an extended simile. Try this one on for size:

There are plenty of fish in the sea. Some are flounders, lumbering along with a singular purpose. Some are sleek as barracudas, guided missiles honed in on a target. Some are tiny, some large, some graceful and some quite dangerous. Put on your swim fins and get back in the hunt.

The statement ‘there are plenty of fish in the sea” is usually said or written to convey that there are many people available for dating, but once we extend that phrase it becomes an analogy.

The most basic form of an analogy goes something like this: red is to green as blood is to life. Don’t try to understand that one; I just made it up to show the basic form.

PERSONIFICATION

Personification is one of my favorite figurative speech tools. With personification we give human characteristics to something that is not human. Here are a few examples:

The wind whispered softly in the night

The sun played hide and seek with the clouds.

Lightning dances across the sky.

The whole purpose of personification is to engage the imagination of the reader. In the examples listed above, most readers, dare I say all readers, would be able to see those images in their mind’s eye.

Allusions in a famous speech

The town prepared for a new day....metonymy
The town prepared for a new day....metonymy | Source

METONYMY

I know, I know, this is a strange word, and chances are many of you have never heard of it, and yet you see it in writing all the time. With a metonymy, the writer is using a part of an object or idea to stand for the whole object or idea. Metonymies take one particular quality and focus attention on it, and by doing so they give attention to the entire object. Perhaps some examples will help.

The White House will announce a decision soon.

The crown has much to answer for.

The library was very helpful to the students during their field trip.

The pen is mightier than the sword.

Now you recognize it, don’t you?

HYPERBOLE

I admit it; I am the king of hyperbole. On the other hand, my wife is very literal. You can imagine the problems we have while talking to each other.

Hyperbole uses exaggeration to describe something. It is not used to deceive the reader but rather to emphasize a point. “I’m so hungry I could eat a whole cow.” Of course that would be a bit difficult, but it does draw attention to a growing growl in my stomach as I type this.

One warning when using hyperbole: the reader must be aware of the exaggeration. Otherwise you are just asking for trouble.

ALLUSION

An allusion (not an illusion) is a reference to something of the recent or distant past. They are rarely long but rather a brief association that highlights a detail. Again, a few examples might help.

There was a bit of the Tigger in him….refers, of course, to the Winnie the Pooh character and that particular type of personality.

In a world of mental midgets, he had a Paul Bunyan mind.

Again, these are handy little tools that will help the reader to associate with the thoughts being expressed by the writer. Have fun with this one; it is one of my favorites. One word of caution regarding allusions: make sure that the allusion is something your readers will understand. If I were to use an allusion from the 60’s, there is a decent chance many of my younger readers would have no clue what I was referring to, so I need to remember who I am writing to.

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Now All You Need Do Is Practice

So there you have it, seven figures of speech that are certain to add spice to your writing. Practice with them the next time you write a story or article. Try inserting one occasionally to give emphasis to a particular point. I would not recommend using them too often or your writing will seem like a bad acid trip, or a trip along the Yellow Brick Road, but used sparingly they will give that extra oomph to whatever it is you are trying to express…..and if you were paying attention you will notice a few of these items sprinkled throughout this article.

As always, take what you need and leave the rest for the next reader that stumbles over this article. I’m just tossing this stuff out like a noodle against the wall, seeing if it will stick.

That’s all; I’m done with the random examples.

2013 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)

“Helping writers to spread their wings and fly.”

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    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Beth, thanks...oh those annoying comments, eh? LOL Seriously, I am very blessed with a loyal following and great online friends. I'm glad you like the personal touches; I'm not sure I could write any other way. :)

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      Beth37 3 years ago

      Do you have any hubs that do not already have 400 comments on them? This is a very good, helpful hub and once again, I like the pic of your wife. I like the personal touches. :)

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      DDE, you are doing a lot of catching up. Thanks for being here so often today.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 3 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      billybuc you have written and taught us many lessons this is one of your best.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Deb, you are very welcome, and thank you for the loving affirmation.

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      Deb Hirt 3 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Superbly done, so well illustrated,in more ways than one. Thanks, Billy, for the constant love in your heart.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      drbj, you might be right. Now that you mentioned it, it does seem like I remember him saying that. Thanks for the memories.

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      drbj and sherry 3 years ago from south Florida

      That soggy cat comment reminded me, Bill, of one of my favorite similes: as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. I think it was Ernie Ford who said that.

      Hope you are enjoying the holiday and have a Happy New Year.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Jo, I'm glad you found your gift buried underneath that big pile in the corner. Use it well my friend; there is no expiration date on it. :)

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you vkwok and Merry Christmas to you.

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      Jo Alexis-Hagues 3 years ago from Bedfordshire, U.K

      Bill, some very useful tips, I'll be popping in and out of this little box of goodies often. Thank you for this gift. :)

    • vkwok profile image

      Victor W. Kwok 3 years ago from Hawaii

      Interesting grammar lesson, Bill. Thanks for sharing!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Zing indeed Lizzy. I can't sneak anything by you my clever friend. :)

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Dora, you aren't alone; most people know it and yet have never heard of it. :) Thank you and blessings always.

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      Liz Davis 3 years ago from Hudson, FL

      The king of hyperbole? That's a bit of an overstatement.

      Zing!

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Isaac Weithers 3 years ago from The Caribbean

      If I ever saw the word "METONYMY" I forgot it. Thanks for including it along with all the other useful definition of metaphorical types.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Joelle, the lesson is over and you passed with flying colors. :) Thank you my Canadian friend and Merry Christmas to you.

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      kidscrafts 3 years ago from Ottawa, Canada

      Lend me your ears for a moment, Bill. You write with a fine hand! Your words leapt off the screen as I was reading your hub! You are a Solomon when it comes to writing! You are as good as gold!

      I was just trying to use figure writing in my comments.... just playing around :-)

      Have a great day!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Well thank you Wiccan; I appreciate you stopping by.

    • WiccanSage profile image

      Mackenzie Sage Wright 3 years ago

      This is a really useful little guide. Great job!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Flourish and Merry Christmas to you and your family as well.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 3 years ago from USA

      I learned a new word. Thanks for the schooling, Bill. Merry Christmas to you and yours.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Brian and a very Merry Christmas my friend.

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      Brian Leekley 3 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

      Excellent.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thanks Alicia. I love to play with word combinations; it is part of the fun of writing for me.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Jackie, sometimes slowing down is a good thing. I hope you enjoy the slower pace. Thank you and Merry Christmas to you.

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      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      This is an interesting hub, Bill. Personification is one of my favorite figurative speech tools, too!

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      Jackie Lynnley 3 years ago from The Beautiful South

      I will have to watch Faith learning new words from you...lol.

      I plan to slow things down some after Christmas and come see what all you have going on. Might do me good. ^+

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      It's my pleasure, Ruby; it truly is, and I know you understand that with your giving heart. Merry Christmas to you my friend.

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Fuller 3 years ago from Southern Illinois

      This was very helpful Bill. Thank you for all you do to help your readers..Merry Christmas!!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Nadine and Happy Holidays to you as well. I would be honored to have this shared on your website. Again, thank you!

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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      dragonflycolor, it is my pleasure. Thank you and Happy Holidays to you in idaho.

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      dragonflycolor 3 years ago

      Getting back to basics refreshes me! Thanks for the hub, bub!

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      Nadine May 3 years ago from Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa

      I so enjoyed this hub. You have explained it so well. This is a hub I must soon share on our new website ( when it is up and running) Many thanks again for this. Always love reading your hubs...Have a great holiday time with your friends and family.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      My pleasure Dr.Bill, and thank you for another visit. Happy Holidays to you and yours.

    • DrBill-WmL-Smith profile image

      William Leverne Smith 3 years ago from Hollister, MO

      Practice, indeed! Thanks for this additional set of reminders. ;-)

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Bill, I learn something new everyday too and that's the beauty of HubPages....well, that and the great friendships. Thank you my friend and Merry Christmas to you and yours.

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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Genna, it is easy, and there is some overlap between many of them....just think creativity and you'll be fine. :) Thank you and Merry Christmas.

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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      DJ, the perfect comment...coon dog at the raccoon races....I love it! LOL

    • Genna East profile image

      Genna East 3 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

      Hi Billy;

      It’s easy to get these confused; for example, the difference between metaphor and simile. Thanks for this helpful guideline. :-)

    • bdegiulio profile image

      Bill De Giulio 3 years ago from Massachusetts

      I learn something new here everyday, and it's most often from your hubs. Thanks for the lesson, God know I needs it. Really Bill, this was an excellent summary of figurative writing, I can't imagine this being explained in any simpler terms.

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      DJ Anderson 3 years ago

      Just think----I could have gone the rest of my life not knowing what a "metonymy" was. But, because of you, I am feeling smarter than a

      coon dog at the raccoon races!!

      Thanks for a great hub, Bill.

      DJ.

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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Melissa, you are so far from being an old dog....now me on the other hand. :) Merry Christmas to you and your family my friend, and thank you.

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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Heidi...you are appreciated. Merry Christmas!

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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Donna, exactly, they are tools, or toys, for us to play with. i love metaphors and similes...heck, I like all of these toys. :) Thank you and Merry Christmas.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Faith and thank you for your friendship. Merry Christmas to you and yours and blessings always.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Sheila, thank you. I am always happy when I can give a writer something new to work with. Go have fun with these; I think they add so much to our writing....and Merry Christmas my friend.

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      Melissa Propp 3 years ago from Minnesota

      This was a great review of the different types of figurative writing. I honestly didn't think I would learn anything new, but I will just admit that I was not familiar with the metonymy. So, it was more than a review for me...and they say you can't teach an old dog new tricks!

      Have a very Merry Christmas and Stay Warm!

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 3 years ago from Chicago Area

      Thanks, professor! Great review of these awesome tools we have at our disposal. Voted up & shared!

    • cygnetbrown profile image

      Donna Brown 3 years ago from Alton, Missouri

      I see these basic figurative writing tools as toys in my writing toy box. I love playing with them. I also like seeing them all described all on the same page. I'll be referencing this often.

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      Faith Reaper 3 years ago from southern USA

      Learned a new word and some great tips too as always! Thanks for keeping us on our toes! Merry Christmas and peace to you and yours dear Bill, Faith Reaper

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      sheilamyers 3 years ago

      I can't thank you enough for this advice. There are so many times I can't find the right word and sit around wasting time trying to think of the word I need to write in order to get the point across. Next time that happens, I'll definitely be thinking about other ways to say the same thing and try using one of your suggested alternatives.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Harishprasad, thank you so much for your kind words. If you found any of this useful then I am a very happy writer and teacher.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Sha, you are very welcome. Metonymies are used by many writers and yet few know what they are. I'm glad you found this interesting.

    • Harishprasad profile image

      Harish Mamgain 3 years ago from India

      I will not say- you have written a hub,rather you have created a character that speaks about seven beautiful colors of the spectrum that we know as writing. So useful is this stuff and said in such a simple language that it is for everyone to grasp and improve his/her writing style. And yes, metonymy is a word that I got to know here in this hub. Really enjoyed reading it and got learning, of course. Thank you, Bill for bringing forth such a useful stuff. You are not only a fine writer but a wonderful teacher too.

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      Shauna L Bowling 3 years ago from Central Florida

      This is very informative, Bill. Honestly, I've never heard the word "metonymy", but recognize the use. I'd also forgotten the names of some of the terms you cite in this article. Thanx for the refresher course!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Lifegate, thank you. That is a wonderful compliment for this old teacher. Have a blessed and very happy week my friend.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Eric for sure, that is a word you can win some bets with. I would say easily 75% of the populace has never heard of it.

      Have a great day buddy and thank you.

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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Ann...LOL...you literally had me laughing out loud this morning. A soggy cat??? Way too funny. We are a bit damp ourselves here today. I think you would feel right at home here in Olympia; our weather is quite similar to yours unfortunately. LOL

      Thank you and I'm glad you liked the noodle. :) That just sounds wrong somehow.

      Merry Christmas my friend and thank you.

      bill

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      William Kovacic 3 years ago from Pleasant Gap, PA

      Thanks Bill. More tools for the toolbox. All I need to do is apply these to my writing. I'm getting quite an education from reading you. Even though some things can be rather technical (they really are), you bring them to a level where we can understand and use the tools you,ve give us. thanks again.

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      Eric Dierker 3 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      This is just an awesome lesson. Really now "metonymy"? I will make over five bucks on that word. I can hardly wait to throw it around and get called on it and then bet it is word.

      But this is just really good stuff to help me be a better writer -- Thank you.

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      Ann Carr 3 years ago from SW England

      I like the noodle against the wall! Writing is so much more colourful when one uses all these, in moderation of course. Gives us more power to the old elbow, doesn't it?!

      Wishing you a great Monday from a Somerset as wild and wet as a soggy cat. Ann

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Janine, good morning on this busy week. I hope you are catching up on the to do list. Find time for you today my friend, and thank you.

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      Janine Huldie 3 years ago from New York, New York

      Bill, you always tell it to us straight and for that I seriously cannot thank you enough. Seriously wonderful tips here to use all types of figurative language in our writing and will definitely refer back to this often enough now. Thank you and Happy Monday now, too my friend!