Crafting Figurative Language: 3 Ingredients for Success

What makes good figurative language?

This week, as I was typing away at my work, I reminisced a bit about my career as an undergraduate student. I studied English, with a concentration in creative writing—and, in the process, I became intimate with similes and metaphors.

Literary devices are dangerous weapons. If used incorrectly, figurative language can drag your writing down into the blackness of an ocean trench. But, conversely, a spot-on metaphor or simile can launch your work up amongst the stars.

Many authors have become successful by relying heavily on figurative language to define their style. Mexican-American author Sandra Cisneros immediately comes to mind. In The House on Mango Street, she describes said house as:

“It’s small and red with tight steps in front and windows so small you’d think they were holding their breath.”

I mean, wow. Somehow, in just one sentence, the reader knows the house on Mango Street at an almost intimate level. This is the magic of creative literary devices.

But why do Cisneros’ devices work so well? What makes them different from the average figurative language an inexperienced writer might come up with?

After a fair bit of thought and analysis, I’ve compiled the three ingredients that occur in all successful figurative language.

01. Creating Imagery

Creating effective figurative language starts with imagery. You need to create an image for your reader. For example:

My sister protects her books like a goose protects her eggs.

Okay, cool. Your sister is… like a goose. At this point your reader is a bit confused and definitely not intrigued in a good way. But what if, instead, you wrote:

My sister protects her books like a mother goose fawning over her perfectly oval eggs.

The difference is slight, but significant. In the second example, we have a concrete image: A mother goose admiring her perfect eggs.

That gives us way more insight into how my sister feels about her books, doesn’t it?

Now, it’s easy to create imagery when you have characters that actually move and do interesting things. But what about when you’re describing a thing or situation that is not living?

02. Personifying the Inanimate

Let’s say you’re writing a metaphor about a tree. You could say:

The tree swayed in the wind like a blade of meadow grass before a storm.

There’s nothing wrong with that simile. It’s not particularly cheesy. It creates a concrete image of a tree swaying similar to a blade of grass.

But it’s not really captivating, is it?

What about this:

The tree swayed in the wind like a tired old man gripping his cane.

When you’re creating figurative language that revolves around a non-human object, do your best to personify it. It makes all the difference. Comparing something inanimate (a tree) to something also inanimate (a blade of grass) is not nearly as effective as comparing it to a person (an old man)!

And if similes aren’t your thing, you could just as easily apply human characteristics directly to the object:

The tree swayed in the wind, arthritis creaking in its wooden bones.

Personifying an object allows the reader to relate on a personal level with the subject of your language — which means it’s more likely to resonate and be remembered!

03. Unexpected Connections

The number one piece of advice to live by when crafting your figurative language is this:

Create unexpected connections.

This is how you can take your writing to the next level. Let’s go back to my example with the tree:

The tree swayed in the wind like a tired old man gripping his cane.

That’s a good simile. But it’s predictable to a well-read audience. Be creative with your language, and don’t be afraid to connect things you’d never connect otherwise! As long as you can justify it, go for it.

The tree swayed in the wind like despair: waning, then crashing, then receding again, destined to return.

Not many folks would immediately connect tree to the roller-coaster that is mourning and despair. But it oddly makes sense, doesn’t it? And it got you thinking.

Now, in this instance, I opted to not personify my tree in favor of doing something more unexpected. It is, of course, up to you and your sense of style.

At the end of the day, these are the three ingredients that I’ve noticed across the work of many authors. But other writers, like Hemingway, very rarely use similes and metaphors. It can be done!

I encourage you to explore, experiment, and — above all — catch your readers off-guard with your creativity!

Steph Matthiesen
Steph Matthiesen

Through her writing, Steph aims to change the world and open people up to their potential. Steph is a freelance writer for hire at wordgrower.net, where she shares her experiences with mental health, creative writing, and keeping houseplants. It is rumored that she is fueled only by lattes.

2 thoughts on “Crafting Figurative Language: 3 Ingredients for Success

  1. This is such a good post and so thought provoking!
    I’ve been out of touch with writing creatively recently and this has made me want to get right back into it. I love a good metaphor (when done well). These are such great axanplea.

    1. Thank you! Honestly I haven’t written any fiction in a while and I think I’ve inspired myself in the process of writing this article! It was really fun to think critically about something that often gets glossed-over. I’m also glad you enjoyed my examples, I came up with most of them on the spot 😂

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