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Figurative language in fiction: Putting words to work

Figurative language in fiction results in deeper meanings and poetic beauty.

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No story will make it off the page if story, character, setting – and a host of other elements – are not deftly handled. But there’s one important aspect of fiction writing that isn’t talked about as much as character or plot, but is just as essential to the story: the language itself. Language drives the work. Language makes everything happen. Language that falls flat makes characters fall flat.

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No matter the style, when the language really works, it charms us. It hooks us. Some writers find that figurative language in particular – language that works on a different level than a purely literal one – grabs the reader in ways unadorned writing never could. It functions, in part, to meet that old saw: Show, don’t tell.

Yet how does figurative language come to writers? Does it come naturally, or is it something we must work at? And what specifically does it contribute to a story?


Using figurative language in your fiction

What are some examples of figurative language? How is it used? How does it work in context with a scene or the whole story or novel?

Susan Tepper, poet as well as fiction writer, used figurative language as a structuring device for her novel dear Petrov. “Even the title is figurative,” she says, “since this is not a book of letters.” The novel is set in 19th-century Russia during wartime. Nearly every sentence – actually, they tend to be sentence fragments – is figurative, says Tepper. In one chapter, “White to Blue,” her unnamed female protagonist meditates:

From the parlor looking inward to the hall, when the winter sun is nearly over, the blue hall paper turns the ceiling white to blue. As if a sea had passed on through these walls. Pressed in such a way as I’m unable to, unaccountably…

Notice the imagery of white turning to blue and then the analogy of the sea. “I set this story in a cold, remote land, during a tumultuous time period. It lent itself quite naturally to the figurative style,” Tepper says.


For Stephanie Dickinson, author of The Emily Fables and Flashlight Girls Run, the use of figurative language is a natural tendency in Homo sapiens. “We are a meaning-making animal,” she says. As a writer, she finds herself drawn to making “comparisons between disparate entities and substances, between what is beautiful and what might be considered ugly.” Notice, for instance, this passage from “The Hermit,” part of her flash fiction collection The Emily Fables:

Beside the hut, rabbit skins hung drying. Why was the hermit’s mouth lost inside his beard forest, lips grey like a pitchfork handle? Standing, he was a blackjack oak, yet kneeling and frozen he was tall still.

A beard is not literally a forest, but it becomes a forest in this passage. Two disparate entities – lips and a pitchfork handle – are likened to each other in a simile. The hermit is not literally a blackjack oak, yet the passage metaphorically continues to place him in the context of nonhuman nature. The figurative language is compelling itself, but it also serves a function, says Dickinson. “Here I use both simile and metaphor to suggest the hermit’s physical body merging with the woods surrounding him,” she says. He is not separate from nature; he is nature.


For Rosalind Palermo Stevenson, author of several works of fiction, figurative language is important not only in description but also in developing thematic ideas. This is the case in her recently published novel, The Absent, set in the second half of the 19th century. Note this passage from the point of view of her narrator:


There was a wolf with us on the floor…Sprawled on its side like a dog sleeping, but it was a wolf that had been skinned and stuffed. I began petting it in the dream, though Lucie Beale refused to pet it, and as I was petting it,


it came back to life and leapt

up and ran away.


The visual experience of this passage is important to Stevenson, but also what the imagery suggests. The language works on at least two levels: The wolf in this dream stands, she says, for “the wilds,” for wilderness, for “the power and naturalness of the earth, [which are] important elements in this novel.” But since the wolf is “skinned and stuffed,” the imagery also suggests “the destruction of the wilds.” When the wolf leaps up and runs away, this action suggests “regeneration and a kind of redemption – an important thematic undercurrent,” says Stevenson, in a novel that deals, in part, with the violence of Westward expansion.

Sometimes one word can take on several meanings. Donna Baier Stein’s novel The Silver Baron’s Wife is written from the point of view of an 83-year-old woman facing death. Note the word “snarl” in the following passage: “There, by the bed, with its snarl of gray blankets.” Baier Stein chose the word “snarl” for two key reasons: “The woman who sleeps there sleeps restlessly, and the dreams and thoughts birthed there are tangled and uncomfortable.” But there’s also a third reason: “I also chose that word because the rest of the paragraph talks about intangible things, like the spirit of the character’s dead mother hanging nearby. I thought the sound of the word was a good, abrupt reminder that even if Lizzie may be seeing a spirit, she is still rooted in a physical environment.”

Not all writers use figurative language. It’s certainly possible to use nouns and verbs and to be strictly literal while still allowing the reader to “see” or “hear” from accumulated prose detail and voice intonation in dialogue. This is generally the case for Barry Kitterman, author of Baker’s Boy. Yet he admits that a given character may seem to call for a bit of figurative language. “The amount of figurative language depends on the relative eccentricity of the narrator,” he says. Consider the thoughts of this failing minister in “Wedding Day,” from Kitterman’s collection From the San Joaquin:


He had nothing new to say from the pulpit. It was difficult enough on a Sunday morning. By Sunday evening, the words he hoped to use felt as heavy as the air in the church, burdened with the scent of floor wax and old hymnals. Some days he thought about his future with sadness and uncertainty. Other days, like a middle-aged pitcher sent to the showers, he felt the sweet anticipation of release.

Notice the economy of language in the two similes: The first likens the “words he hoped to use” to the heaviness of the air in the church, “burdened with the scent of floor wax and old hymnals.” Captured here in succinct olfactory imagery is a sense of how terribly sluggish this minister feels, how uninspired. The second simile gives us a tactile image, the fresh shower water washing him clean of the futile past, giving him a “sweet anticipation of release” because the struggle’s over, finally, and he can move on.

Where figurative language comes from

Where do those good metaphors, similes, those clever analogies come from? Is it a native ability you’re just born with? Or do you just reason it out? Do you do a little planning here and there?


“I would say that my figurative language comes from that same place that all my writing comes from: that place of deeper consciousness,” says Stevenson. “When composing, I don’t write from a contrived idea of what I want to say. I don’t approach my work from the standpoint of ‘I’ll use this here or do that there to achieve some desired effect.’” What she does do is attune herself to her emotional, intuitive side: “An internal voice and rhythm are what tend to move the flow of words onto the page for me.”

“My use of the figurative style comes as naturally as breathing,” says Tepper. “I never control a story. First, I see a picture or a scene in my mind, and the resulting language and style come out of that. Any other style, for this particular book, would have failed the characters and what they are trying to convey. The writer has to listen to what the characters want.”

“When I was writing in Lizzie Tabor’s voice,” says Baier Stein, “the figurative language flowed naturally onto the page. I intentionally put myself in the mind of a woman who was either a very eccentric old woman or an American female mystic. I knew that this character would see things in ways others might not. Her perception, and thus her language, would be more fluid and surprising.”


But perhaps it’s not the characters that you listen to or are drawn to, but some sort of existential need, or perhaps an artistic one. “I write to order chaos, to survive,” says Dickinson. “I write to recreate calamity and beauty; I write to communicate my time on the planet to readers.” For Dickinson, figurative language is an “essential tool kit.” Much of her orientation toward thinking figuratively comes out of her roots in rural America. “I was raised on an Iowa farm, and the lushness of the fields and sloughs, the flourishing insect and bird life that enveloped me heightened my observation skills. I listened and I looked. I daydreamed. I read everything I could, and I loved the quicksilver words themselves – the metaphors and similes.”

Dickinson soon began honing her craft. “When I began writing, I found the connections came somewhat naturally, and I practiced them, sometimes losing myself in similes.” Yet there’s a risk with that, she says. One mustn’t overdo it.

“I have to discipline myself, as I am almost too drawn to figurative language,” she says. “Too many similes and too much metaphor-making can cancel out their power or surprise.”


If the appeal of figurative language for Dickinson comes out of her native appreciation of concrete, sensory detail, the same is true for Steve Sherrill, author of Joy, Pa and Ersatz Anatomy. “I have been drawn to, compelled by, sensory details for as long as I can remember,” he says. “Sounds, sights, smells, etc., capture my imagination. Sometimes for a brief fleeting instant, but other times these details lock into a story or poem, underway or brand new.”

Similes and metaphors have to come naturally out of these sensory details, says Sherrill. He doesn’t work at “forcing” them. Nor does Kitterman: “I would never strain to fill a story with figurative language. That strikes me as a way of showing off, of authorial intrusion. If I work at anything along these lines, it’s to keep the fancy language from getting the best of a story.”

But isn’t it likely that a stunning simile or metaphor, a just-right analogy, won’t always appear in early drafts – even when you give your imagination full rein? “I often wish startlingly beautiful metaphors and similes would always flow naturally, but sometimes I have to work at it,” Baier Stein says. Yet she saves this conscious effort for the revision stage, when she tends to “massage or play with the language more.” If the language doesn’t “magically appear on its own” in the first draft, she doesn’t worry about it. There’s always time in later drafts.


This can be the case for Stevenson, too. “Once all of that ‘material’ is on the page, then the critical phase of the process for me begins,” she says. “So it is in this phase that I have to ‘work at it’ to make certain that all the language, both figurative and literal, is organically true to the work as a whole.”

Benefits of using figurative language 

First, it should be noted that the use of figurative language, like any tool in fiction writing, has to be appropriate – it must serve a useful function. In some stories, it may not. It can depend on the narrator or the nature of the protagonist.

“I’ve been writing a series of stories with children narrators,” says Kitterman, “and they tend to see the world in a straightforward, if naïve, way.” Consider this example from “The King of Okietown,” which will appear in The Green Hills Literary Lantern this summer:



He rode the bus home that afternoon, and he learned the bus driver’s name, Mr. Harry. In the days that followed, Davey saw Mr. Harry take care of other tasks, sweeping and mowing and raking the schoolyard leaves in his brown shirt and brown pants. That was being a custodian.


It’s a simple, ordinary style, yet concrete, creating images in our minds. It reflects the consciousness of the young point-of-view protagonist. “The language paints a picture,” says Kitterman, “but not through the use of the poet’s metaphors and similes.” For this particular character, the simple, straight-forward language is authentic.


But when it’s appropriate, figurative language can have a decidedly positive impact on the reader. “For me as a reader, figurative language excites me almost as much or more as the story being told,” Baier Stein says. “Since words are the tools of writers, anything a writer does to manipulate those words brilliantly simply adds to the pleasure of the reader.” The language becomes something to dwell on and savor: “Well-done figurative language makes the reading experience, for me, multi-dimensional. I’m not just following the plot to see what happens next but also relishing the visceral experience of being in the hands of a masterful writer. The language itself brings enjoyment moment to moment.”

Figurative language can be truly poetic. “The link between figurative writing and poetry is pretty intense,” says Tepper. “Figurative writing is also generally musical. It ebbs and flows, rises and falls, crashes, offers periods of silence.” These periods of silence are significant, says Tepper, since they are openings into the text: “I believe it’s the silence, a bit of the dark unknown, that snags the reader, invites the reader to step in. To become a character or even part of the narrative landscape. After the flood of language, the silence worms its way into the reader’s unconscious.”

Knowing when to create those moments of silence takes insight, she says: “When a writer can pull that off, knowing exactly where to drop silence into a piece, where the reader can become introspective, well, that’s the ultimate: granting permission to join in the story. Where the really personal stuff lives and dreams. Because what the author offers, and how the reader absorbs, is the crux of storytelling. The greats, Tolstoy, for instance, knew how to make this happen instinctually.”


As we’ve already seen, figurative language is also used for its capacity to point to something larger than the literal, or specific.

“I love the larger context for using figurative language, which frames it as a way of enabling one’s writing to go beyond the meaning of the words themselves, and by doing so to deepen or enhance both the language and meaning of the work, as well as the reader’s insight and appreciation of what is being said,” says Stevenson.

“Whether it is personification, hyperbole, or understatement, whether an allusion or a simile, figurative language is the life raft that carries the writer’s voice, the whole work itself,” says Dickinson. In her story “Jesusita,” from Flashlight Girls Run, “A girl-child of three is let out of a car next to a closed gas station and abandoned,” Dickinson explains. “Alone, she waits for the car’s return. The reader is not enlightened as to the girl’s identity or where she comes from. ‘The night surrounds her like hunger’ is a simile I chose to use in this particular context, as its placement colors the text around it. The elaboration suggests a child’s confusion of the senses and is immediately followed by, ‘She licks the bottom of her shoe, where leftover motor oil clings.’” Through the simile combined with the incongruous action that follows, Dickinson steers her reader “toward the story’s thematic significance or unifying element, its message.” Modern readers no longer seek a story’s moral, she points out, but they do “look for the subject that dominates the writing.” Similes and metaphors can function, then, to “illuminate and enrich what is of consequence in a text and are often central to the overarching framework.”

A few final words

Language is what makes writing – it makes story. It’s the words themselves that mysteriously create character, plot, setting; in short, everything. To create interesting writing, you don’t have to use figurative language. But it does have its appeal. It can suggest larger ideas beyond the literal. It can create beauty, poetic beauty. It can help put your reader into the world you imagine in your head, the world of the five senses, creating the very pleasure of sensation.



Jack Smith is the author of four novels, two books of nonfiction, and numerous articles and interviews.

Originally Published