Have you ever wondered why many compelling novels are written in such a simple, flat and straight out dull language?
Their storylines may be exciting, their plots might have a drive, but the words and sentences themselves sound very uninspired. Every word a wasted opportunity. Too bad!
How can you avoid that?
This post will take you by the hand and lead you, step-by-step, to a more colorful, more inspired writing voice, in order for you to not just mesmerize your reader with your story, but also with your words.
We will look at the answers to these questions:
- How is the best imagery created?
- Which mental processes should you apply to craft poetic, beautiful language?
- Is it all talent or can you learn it?
- How do you hold apart the good verbal images from the bad ones?
Before we answer these questions, let’s equip you with a highly useful tool:
Your Checklist for Easy Self-Editing
If you want a checklist to examine your entire story for plot/character/dialogue/etc. problems, you can download that list here for free. Answer these 44 questions, and you will know exactly which issues, if any, your story has:
And now, on to creating amazing images with the sheer power of your words.
How to Use Figures of Speech in Your Writing
Let’s get back for a moment to novels that are drafted in a language that makes them seem like written for toddlers.
Bestsellers are often written like this – because a significant part of the population does have the vocabulary of a toddler. Nevertheless, simple language doesn’t mean bad literature.
Take Orwell’s 1984, for example. It’s a book a 7-year-old could read – however, that kid will not comprehend its deeper layers. Some literature just focuses on subtext, some on plot, some on language, and some on other story elements – it all has the potential to be excellent!
So take your pick what you want to focus on. Maybe you don’t need beautiful language. But if language is important to you, then this article is for you.
The author who has kindly agreed to demonstrate enticing language for us is William Shakespeare, and the play of the day is, once again, Macbeth.
Take a look at this description of a lord sentenced to death, facing his execution in icy calm:
“… he died
As one that had been studied in his death
To throw away the dearest thing he owned
As ‘twere a careless trifle. “
(Act 1, Scene 4, Malcolm)
In case you are wondering, “As ‘twere a careless trifle” means approximately “As if it was useless junk.”
Do you see the beauty of this image? Giving one’s life is compared here to tidying out one’s attic. How much more extreme, but at the same time how much simpler can it get?
And could it be any more relatable to the reader? Throwing away useless junk is a mundane activity each and every one of us has performed a million times before.
Where does an image like that come from?
This question almost sounds like the age-old question that is jollily continuing to annoy every author: “Where do you take your ideas from?” To this question, some popular authors respond unnerved with the obvious answers: “From my grandmother’s kitchen cupboard.” Or: “I shake them out of the funny trees.”
However, a more down-to-earth answer would be: “Talent really helps.”
On the one hand, creating striking imagery is a skill that is hard to practice because it relies so much on association and intuition. These images come out of the subconscious.
Make no mistake though: It is possible to get better at creating imagery like that (more on this below).
But in order to improve, you have to be aware of what makes this figurative language so compelling. What ultimately draws readers towards it?
The elements that draw us in are their rhythm, their surprising elements, their beauty, their power – their capability to:
- Resemble the Known; and
- Touch on the Unimaginable
These pics are moving something inside of us – we just sometimes hardly know what it is. They work in a similar way as your fear of spiders: It’s a strong feeling, rooted in ancient parts of your brain, even though you are not aware of why you are feeling it.
Want a simple, boiled-down recipe of how to create great figures of speech?
Here it is:
1. Focus on what you want to express! Imagine yourself in the situation you are describing, or in front of the object you are describing. Feel it in your body. Grab the essence, the feeling of what it is all about – and make sure to turn off your brain and logical thinking.
2. Now take that emotion you are feeling and look where else you can find that very same emotion in totally different people, objects, situations, etc. Embrace that feeling, hone it, dwell on it, nurture it and endorse it… surf on it! Then start associating freely!
3. Feel big in your sentiments, feel not only what’s possible but also what’s hardly imaginable – feel the jungle, the sky…
4. Also listen to your inner voice: Which situations, people, objects make you feel that same feeling? Which completely unrelated topic gives you the same emotion? Remember any situation from your own life, whether it’s an everyday activity or a major event?
5. Then write it all down in a way that feels poetic to you. Just go ahead and pull that imagery out of your subconscious! For sure you are writing fiction because a part of your personality is very creative – and you can train putting that creative part of you to work.
6. Finally, you have to clean up: With your brainstorming approach, for sure bad images will come up too; it happens to every writer. The important thing is to weed them out. Scratch them, if they fall into one of the following categories, so you make sure to avoid these pitfalls:
- Incongruous Images (E.g. “His anger put up above him like a thick umbrella”)
- Cheesy Images (E.g. “Her kisses wrapped around him gently like velvet pillows and 1000 rose petals”)
- Obvious Images (E.g. “As dirty as a puddle of mud”)
- Overloaded Images (E.g. “The heavy chains of fear pulled him down into the deepest dungeons of his mind”)
- Plain boring Images (E.g. “Green as a frog”)
That’s it. You will be left with smooth and original images only.
But what if you need a more detailed instruction manual for the sequence above?
Let’s look at the specific process of how to do this:
How to Dig Deep Inside of You for the Right Imagery
The process you can use for coming up with great figures of speech is the good old brainstorming.
That means… you storm your brain like a SWAT team would storm a supermarket occupied by kidnappers…? (whoa, where did that come from?)
Or maybe it means a storm of ideas is blowing through your mind.
Brainstorming means everything is allowed to come out. There are no limits and no censorship to your imagination.
First, write down as many ideas as possible, you can sort the good ones out later. I really want to encourage you to fail, to go over the top, to be crazy – allow yourself to pull out all of the conditioned filters society spent decades establishing in your mind.
Be free, be wild, let loose – that’s what art is all about. And be ashamed of absolutely nothing: That’s creativity!
In the end, weed out all of the images that seem incongruous, cheesy, obvious, overloaded or boring to you. You will now hopefully be left with that shiny gem of an image.
A Useful Exercise to Create Figures of Speech
Here is an exercise for learning to associate without filters, and, if you will, to condition yourself to think free of conditioning: Take a random word and then say the first thing that pops up in your mind, your first association.
Now, even if it feels odd or not appropriate – don’t censor it! Really just put the first thing out there. Then continue with your first association to that new word, and so on and on… (Example: “Apple tree” —> my aunt has an apple tree in her garden; aunt, I love my aunt; love, I also love basketball; basketball, how will the Lakers do this year; Lakers, sex in a lake was great… get the system?).
You can ask somebody to give you a random word to start with and do the exercise in front of them. This will put more social pressure on you and therefore make the exercise more difficult and more effective.
If you are able to do this exercise in front of an audience, then you are becoming really good at freely associating.
If you apply the guidelines above, creating imagery will become easier and easier the more often you try it, until finally it will almost be an automated process for you. Like with writing in general and also with everything else in life, it’s extremely important you just stick to the process and practice, practice, practice!
A Couple of Damn Good Examples for Metaphors, Similes and Other Imagery
Now enough with all of the guidelines – let’s put this into practice! The author who has kindly agreed to demonstrate it for us is Mr. William Shakespeare, and the play of the day is Macbeth.
In the following scene, Macbeth is feeling a little uneasy because the witches just predicted that he will be the future king of Scotland. Look how Banquo comments on it:
“Nothing in love: now does he feel his title
Hang loose about him, like a giant’s robe
Upon a dwarfish thief”
(Act 1, Scene 3, Banquo)
Good stuff, isn’t it?
How do you describe the inhibiting feeling of high status and responsibility imposed on the character by the outside world? How the awe and uneasiness of hearing the prediction that you will rule the kingdom one day, coupled with a certain flavor of you not deserving the honor?
Everybody knows the feeling of wearing a (heavy) piece of clothing that’s much too big for them. What an amazing and very poetic figure of speech!
These lines translate a purely psychological feeling into a physical sensation and therefore make it more palpable and relatable. Well done, Will!
Maybe Shakespeare got to this metaphor subconsciously, and the entire process just took him seconds, or maybe he had to think about it and it took minutes… who knows.
In any case, his mind seems to get back to the subject of clothing a lot, because he uses imagery about clothing several times in Macbeth.
The next figure of speech is from the final act. Here, Macbeth tries to put his finger on the pulse of his country, whose people in his view have conspired against him and are betraying him (whereas in fact, they just want to get rid of the tyrant that he is):
“Come, Sir, dispatch. If thou couldst, doctor, cast
The water of my land, find her disease,
And purge it to a sound and pristine health”
(Act 5, Scene 3, Macbeth)
Not only does water nourish the soil like blood here, but also do rivers and streams flow through the land like veins, so this is a beautiful metaphor. It also paints the feeling of helplessness about a disease, and the try to cure it by a useless and dangerously misguided measure like blood-letting.
In the end, the condition isn’t even a disease, but all to the contrary the cure to the people. The true and dangerous antibody is Macbeth himself.
Water and blood both stand for life, and the biggest part of blood even is made up of water. This entire thought, this entire feeling is wrapped up beautifully within two lines.
Now, a metaphor like this one might be laying it on too thick for your purposes, but of course feel free to tone it down, so it fits the language and the spirit of your novel, and also your genre.
In the next one, Macbeth is about to murder the king, who is established as a wise and kind man. Macbeth is only committing this murder to become the new king – but he is haunted by remorse already:
“Now o’er the one halfworld
Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse
The curtain’d sleep: witchcraft celebrates
Pale Hecate’s offerings, and wither’d murder,
Alarum’d by his sentinel, the wolf”
(Act 2, Scene 1, Macbeth)
Shakespeare is creating a haunted atmosphere, apparently for no logical reason – it’s just a feeling creeping in…
Let me direct your attention to my favorite figure of speech in the entire play, the “withered murder”: What makes this “illogical” term so eerily fitting here?
Macbeth is about to commit an atrocious crime, to kill his noble lord, solely out of greed for power. So maybe “withered” means he is stretching his branches out widely, but with no healthy emotional or moral roots behind them to back them up.
Maybe it means bloodless, lifeless, devoid of health and sanity. Maybe it means deprived of joy and reason. Starving for water/liquid and blood. What effect does this language have on you?
By the way, again, there is another “withered feeling” in Act 5, Scene 3; this time it appears in the form of a “yellow leaf,” mentioned by a desperate Macbeth (“I have lived long enough: my way of life/ Is fall’n into the sear, the yellow leaf”). The word “withered” apparently triggered rich associations in Shakespeare, and rightfully so.
“Clothes” and “withered” – you can see that an author’s subconscious oftentimes circles around the same feelings and associations, and gets back to them time and time again like the tongue returns to a sick tooth. You can see this with many authors.
I also love the metaphor of the “curtained sleep.” What more is our sleep than a thick curtain drawn in front of our eyes?
Everybody sleeps; every single person in the world can relate to that image. Some canopy beds even literally have curtains to them, and I would imagine they were more common in Shakespeare’s times.
“O, full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife!”
(Act 3, Scene 2, Macbeth)
To feel the unpredictable, swift, silent, stinging and overwhelmingly toxic being of not one scorpion, but of an entire basket full of them sounds like a very powerful emotion. Do you feel the venom in this?
An image like this will not fit into the language of every novel. However, it’s often possible to use a milder form of it.
But Shakespeare used such a wealth of imagery in his play that some of it completely misses the mark (at least to me; if you have a different opinion, let me know in the comments).
Remember, Shakespeare is dead already, so I can say it out loud:
Not So Good Imagery in Macbeth (Sorry, Will!)
Let’s look at some examples that have overshot the mark by many feet.
“Nay, had I power, I should
Pour the sweet milk of concord into hell”
(Act 4, Scene 3, Malcolm)
Ask yourself this: Do you feel any subconscious connection between milk and concord? Does this image move you in any way? Does it work on several levels?
For me, the answers are no, no and no. This image sounds like it belongs into the above categories “incongruous” and “overloaded.”
You can see that the master had his bad moments too. Take this as encouragement. Luckily, he has equipped us with a couple of poor images for the purpose of motivation…
“Whole as the marble, founded as the rock”
(Act 3, Scene 4, Macbeth)
“Founded as the rock:” This one has been used thousands of times before in literature, and one would assume even before Shakespeare’s times.
It’s even part of a proverb (“hard as a rock”). This one is very generic and belongs into the “boring,” or maybe the “obvious” bucket. It’s not imaginative and has no emotional depth. Don’t try this at home.
As some of these images are such car wrecks made of letters, it’s easy to see why creating great figurative language is one of the hardest things to do in all of creative writing: Even the best ones throw in a missed punch sometimes.
For you, that also means: Don’t be afraid to throw the bad images out of your draft.
“That memory, the warder of the brain,
Shall be a fume, and the receipt of reason
A limbeck only”
(Act 1, Scene 7, Lady Macbeth)
What was that? Did I hear somebody call out my name?
Oh, “limbeck,” I get it.
I’m actually on the fence about this one, but come to think of it, I do like it. Thinking about how memory and what we believe to be reason play us, the image seems enticing.
On the other hand, it’s too complicated, and that’s probably the reason why it took me a while to appreciate it. See, some writing can be smart, but nevertheless ineffective (like building pages and pages of multi-clause sentences). You don’t have to show off. You just need a good image.
Your Figure of Speech Writing Prompt
Finally, here is your writing prompt for today: Take a paragraph of your latest story and insert one captivating figure of speech. Or just write a random paragraph on the spot. However, you have to make its context clear, so we can understand and feel your image.
For this purpose, any other criteria is meaningless: Forget about characterization, plot or dialogue – just show us a couple of lines with a nice image and make sure we get its context. You should feel free to neglect any other writer’s duty, so you can completely focus on the power of imagery.
Post your paragraph (or even just a single figure of speech) in the comments below. Look at the checklist above! Get in touch with your subconscious! Feel the image!
And if you are looking for fun writing prompts with a twist, look at my writing prompts page here. You will find quality prompts for almost every genre.
The Back Cover of This Post
Let me say it one more time because it is so true: Great imagery is drawn from the feeling a situation, a thought, a person or else is evoking in you – feel it first, in order to be able to write it. Connect with the deepest possible layer inside of you, let loose and pull out all of the filters!
Only in the end should you trim the fat and weed out the failed ideas. Relentless practice will make it easier and easier to find figurative language that is fitting and unique to you.
Listening to your inner voice and connecting with your intuition to smell out the best imagery is great fun! You will sound like a true poet when you do it, like an artist, and you might even get a glimpse into the deepest corners of your self and learn something.
Do it; think large and feel big – because that’s what life and writing are all about!
Hamlet Robot Image: Валерий Качаев/123rf.com