Story Bite 28: Figurative Language

April is National Poetry Month, so here’s a writing tip that’s extremely useful in poetry as well as prose: figurative language.

Start by picking an object, feeling, or scene.

Right now, outside my window, it’s raining (and I mean serious rain). So I’m going to start with that. And with this simple statement:

It’s raining.

Figurative language expands the boundaries of a concept. So with that in  mind, how could you expand “It’s raining” to represent more than what you see outside?

The rain by my window is cold, bleak, and wet. Come up with your own list of what rain feels like (or sounds like, or looks like). Imagine what you see while rain splashes into a puddle. Think about language that implies movement. Use literal language (describe exactly what’s happening) if that helps.

Here’s my own list of gloomy rain words: cold, bleak, wet, sharp, slithering, sleek, drenching, bone-chilling, pinging, pounding, roaring, (and then, for the puddle) drops dropping, covering the surface; and then for a few common descriptions: buckets of rain, sheets of rain.

From that list, pick several words you’d like to work with (and feel free to go back and harvest any more that you like). Look for alliteration (words that begin with the same letter) if you’re having trouble starting (I have pinging and pounding and slithering and sleek).

Now think about what those words mean in isolation (forget about the rain for a minute). What do they make you think about?

To me, there’s music in “pinging” and “pounding”: chimes might ping, while a bass drum could pound. My figurative language would imply music. Here’s how I might write that in a very simple, quick, literal way:

It’s raining:
pinging and pounding, chimes and a bass drum,
wet music outside my window

Now pick something else from your list. I like “slithering” and “sleek” from mine, so I’ll go with that. I think of snakes with those words, but also river otters, and eels. I’ll need to pick one, and it might look like this:

It’s raining:
slithering and sleek, a rush of otters on my roof,
delighting in the wet

If you keep going back to your list, you could come up with many different images (I have buckets of rain and sheets of rain—maybe I could write “a whole barrel of rain rolling down the street”).

Come up with enough of these (even three), and you’ll have your own poem rich with figurative language.

The next step would be to revise, to tweak what you can, thinking about rhythm, and what kind of story you might be telling with your poem. But this is a wonderful start.

(And you may have noticed that I was quite literal with these examples. I’ve known students who struggle with figurative language, and I hope this will help them in particular feel good about using metaphors.)

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