Kids say the darndest things–often because their speech is littered with figurative language examples. “I could eat 1,000 burgers I’m so hungry!” “Your hair looks like a chicken sat on it!” “You’re the worst parent ever!” Lovely.
Indeed, kids don’t need a figurative language list with figurative language types and examples to liven up their language; it’s all there already. Why, then, do what students write oftentimes come off as dry, uninspiring, uninteresting? Why do students see figurative language in poetry, figurative language in songs, and figurative language in literature but not use it in their own compositions for an audience?
Perhaps it’s because they haven’t seen how figurative language can work in many genres of writing–from fiction to nonfiction–or haven’t been given permission from their audience to take big swings in their writing and aim for the fences. (Look right there in that last sentence–figurative language in a nonfiction blog post!)
Figurative Language Def(inition)
Let’s start with the definition of figurative language.
For a figurative language def, it might be helpful to think of the difference between literal and figurative (even though we oftentimes use “literally” incorrectly these days as, for example, if someone says after you borrow their socks they are “literally going to kill you,” that person is either a psychopath who needs to be locked up or the person doesn’t understand the definition of “literally” and the concept of figurative language).
Literal means “as is” or “as intended” or “in the most basic sense.” It’s surface-level and clear.
Figurative, on the other hand, is more of a representation of something. It’s not meant to be taken literally.
For example, if someone notes that something in the news is “another 9/11,” the person is using figurative language allusion, likening a tragic event happening now to a tragic event that happened before. The person doesn’t mean (likely), literally, that the same exact events of September 11, 2001 are occurring again.
Figurative Language Examples
Let’s see, then, how our understanding of literal and figurative helps us understand figurative language & literary devices in literature with some figurative language examples from literature and figurative language examples from poetry:
Figurative Language Great Gatsby
We see figurative language symbolism, for example, in the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock and the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg. Literally, they are a light and a billboard. Figuratively, the green light symbolizes Gatsby’s dreams and desires and the eyes represent judgment and moral decay in society. Note that those meanings–those interpretations–are under the surface, implied by the literal images and subjects.
Figurative Language Fahrenheit 451
We see figurative language personification and simile in this line, for instance: “The books jumped like live things and burned in the sudden heat.” Literally, the books are on fire. But add some figurative language and that moment takes on life, becoming more powerful as the books “jumped like live things.” With this personification, the burning books wring emotion from the reader and convey the idea that freedom of thought is being destroyed.
Figurative Language Romeo and Juliet
We see figurative language oxymoron in a line like “O brawling love! O Loving hate!” as Romeo deals with his unrequited love and family feud, showing the conflicts between his mind, body, and soul. This is much more interesting than Shakespeare having Romeo confess explicitly, “Confused and torn I am about feuds and love! Stucketh in the middle am I!”
Figurative Language Lord of the Flies
We see figurative language allusion right in the title of the book, which alludes to Beelzebub, a demon or the devil associated with chaos and evil. Literally, the book could have been called “Savagery Among Boys on an Island”–but figuratively . . . How does the title inform themes? How does the title connect to characters? How does it relate to conflicts? The figurative language allusion gives more weight to the story and more weight to our discovery, discussion, and analysis of it.
Figurative Language in “The Road Not Taken”
Like with Lord of the Flies above, we see figurative language in the title, which then carries through the poem. Literally, the road is a road–but figuratively, that’s figurative language metaphor where something is something else. It’s not just a road to travel on. It’s a choice. It’s a feeling. It’s an outcome.
With those figurative language types and examples above, we can see why we want to look out for figurative language when we read–it helps us think more critically and analytically about what we consume–and we can understand why we want to, as writers, use figurative language ourselves. It helps us communicate more powerfully, thoughtfully, and interestingly than we could otherwise.
So, then, how can we teach and encourage our students as writers to embrace the figurative and lean less into the literal? (Notice my figurative language alliteration at the end of that question?) Try this identification & writing activity!
Read on to find out how we can help students write with style and figurative language.
Imagery, Writing, and Style
Here are some ideas to help students develop their use of figurative language in all types of writing–from essays to stories:
- Create vivid imagery: Metaphors and similes can paint vivid pictures in the reader’s mind. Instead of using plain descriptions, have students compare their subjects to other relatable objects or ideas. This approach can add depth and sensory appeal to their writing, making it more immersive. If they, for instance, want to say something is red, you could have them consider all the different types of reds out there: the color of a stop sign, the color of blood, the color of a rose, etc. Which red best captures the image/emotion/feeling they want? They can then make the simile sing, creating vivid imagery, through specific comparisons.
- Evoke emotions: Figurative language can evoke strong emotions in readers, helping them connect emotionally with writing. Have students use personification, for instance, to attribute human qualities to inanimate objects or animals, making them relatable and emotionally charged. Try having students take something they normally dismiss or despise–like the houseflies we like to swat on summer days–and write about it like we would write about a person. Do we all of a sudden feel emotion for the fly as its life is ended in a swat, its family left to mourn in a garbage can somewhere?
- Add layers of meaning: Figurative language can add depth and complexity to writing by introducing subtle layers of meaning. This can create a more thought-provoking and multi-dimensional piece of work. Try to have students think about an iceberg when it comes to a subject of their writing. What’s on the surface (literal-level) that the reader can see, and what’s underneath that the student wants to hint at or get the reader thinking about?
- Develop a unique voice: The use of figurative language can help students develop a distinct writing voice. By using creative metaphors and similes that are unique to their style, they can create a memorable and recognizable voice that sets their writing apart. To do this, students might want to think about where they are “experts,” and that might drive their voice and comparisons. For example, if I’m an expert in Minecraft, perhaps I compare the green of my school’s disgusting Jell-O to the sickly green of a Minecraft Creeper inching toward me to steal away my life.
- Enhance storytelling: Figurative language can enhance storytelling by making characters and settings more vibrant and memorable. It can also convey abstract ideas and themes in a more engaging and accessible manner. Indeed, students can have big ideas and figurative language can help them develop those ideas. As a teacher, I know of few things worse than receiving page after page of narration that’s all literal. The character says this. The character does this. The character feels this. It’s oftentimes all explicit and literal. To enhance storytelling, we can ask students to peel back on what’s on the page, thinking about where they want to be literal and where they want to be figurative.
There are so many figurative language examples we can all learn from–from figurative language in literature to figurative language in songs to figurative language in our own writing in text messages, emails, and conversations.
It has been said that variety is the spice of life (a metaphor!), and what better way is there to spice up our lives and our writing than figurative language?
Erasing the English Teacher Status Quo