Figurative and Literal Language in Your Writing

Image of a mind being blown — in the literal sense

The balance of literal and figurative language in a book can dramatically influence a reader’s experience. What does the literal/figurative language map look like in yours?

In all languages, there are two very different uses of words: literal and figurative. The literal use of words sticks with the primary dictionary definitions. A cat is a feline, not a “cool guy.”

What is literal language?

Writers choose how much of each to use and when. The literal word “pregnant” can be replaced with the figurative “having a bun in the oven.” The literal phrase “we just had a baby” can be replaced with “we had a visit from the stork.”

The balance of literal and figurative language used in a book can drastically influence a reader’s experience. Writers throw literal language down on the page to get across facts and push the action along. Thrillers will be packed with it.

What is figurative language?

Figurative language is the heart of imaginative fiction. Writers use figurative language to transcend the usual meanings of words. It is a mainstay of literary fiction and even more for poetry and lyrics.

When to use either and in what doses is largely up to the author and the tone or mood he or she wants to create. Literal language is like the fabric of a book while figurative language is the color and patterns on top. Writers should be adept at both and use the two in the right measures.

Examples of literal and figurative language

Here are three examples. The first relies largely on literal language, the second is mixed, and the third is skewed towards figurative content.

Literal language

Michael Crichton gets the job done with very literal language. This is the opening to Terminal Man:

They came down to the emergency ward at noon and sat on the bench just behind the swinging doors that led in from the ambulance parking slot. Ellis, the senior man, was tense, preoccupied, distant. The younger man, Morris, was eating a candy bar. He crumpled the wrapper into the pocket of his white jacket.

This is straightforward, literal language at its cleanest. The only figurative language is “white jacket.” It could literally be a white suit jacket, but who wears those? Since we know it’s a medical thriller, we can infer (correctly) that Morris is a doctor. We are told straight-up they are at the hospital – in the emergency ward. Crichton continues:

From where they sat, they could look at the sunlight outside, falling across the big sign that said EMERGENCY WARD and the smaller sign that said NO PARKING AMBULANCES ONLY. In the distance, they heard sirens.

Again, the language is so blunt and straight up it’s the strength of the writing.

Then comes the hook:

“Is that him?” Ellis asked.

Since you know the book is about a psychopath, this question sends chills down the spine. Three simple words pack huge emotional weight in this context. The book is off and running after a handful of words.

Now, let’s compare this to the opening passage in the book Hollow City, by Ransom Riggs. This is still largely literal language, but the world is observed through a “literary lens.”

We rowed out through the harbor, past bobbing boats weeping rust from their seams, past juries of silent seabirds roosting atop the barnacled remains of sunken docks, past fisherman who lowered their nets to stare frozenly as we slipped by, uncertain whether we were real or imagined; a procession of waterborne ghosts, or ghosts soon to be.

“Weeping rust” is particularly well-observed and beautiful. Boat don’t weep, but the red traces of rust can drip down over time, a sign of age, like tear stains down a cheek. Bird’s certainly aren’t juries, but we get exactly what mood he is trying to set with this comparison of them looking down from on high.

The phrase “barnacled remains of sunken docks” is interesting for two reasons. “Barnacled” carries strong connotations. Something must sit untouched a long time to establish a carpet of barnacles. Barnacled is literal, but uncommon usage. It’s used instead of “covered in barnacles.” As such, it offers a great example of the difference between spoken language and written English language. We might say, “Wow, that has a lot of barnacles,” or, “Jeez, that’s totally covered in barnacles,” Or perhaps, “Look at all those barnacles!” Few, if any, would exclaim, “That’s a barnacled rock if I’ve ever seen one!” Yet, it works beautifully in this context.

Then there is the “procession of waterborne ghosts.” This sounds otherworldly — there are no ghosts in the literal world, after all, but perhaps there could be in this one. Riggs is raising the stakes, reminding readers of death. Is he also foreshadowing, suggesting “ghosts soon to be.”

Figurative language

Now, let’s look at the opening of Gormenghast, by Mervyn Peake. It is more heavily figurative.

Titus is seven. His confines, Gormenghast. Suckled on shadows; weaned, as it were, on webs of ritual: for his ears, echoes, for his eyes, a labyrinth of stone: and yet within his body something other – other than this umbrageous legacy. For first and ever foremost he is a child.

Babies are suckled on milk, not shadows. No one can be weaned on “webs of ritual,” it takes solid food. The notion that all he hears are echoes and all he sees is a “labyrinth of stone” can mean many things, but it certainly paints a picture with figurative language of a young boy raised in a deep, and likely dark, legacy of an ancient past.

It just gets better as the book continues. Peake uses literal language to push the action along and figurative to cast the spell of life within Gormenghast for its sorry inhabitants. This exercise can be done with any book.

Pick a few of your favorites off the shelf and see how and why figurative language is used and identify the intended meaning. If you print out one or more pages, you can even mark it up in colors to see the true landscape of literal and figurative language while noting the pacing in the writing. Highlight words with a literal meaning in one color. In another, mark all the figurative aspects of the word landscape. Once done, you can view the literal/figurative map the author laid out for the reader. Now do the same for a passage of your writing.

Focus on originality

Sometimes you need to be literal for readers to understand what you are describing. Sometimes you need to paint verbal images with more figurative language. No matter what type of language you use, avoid clichés at all costs: you want it to grab your readers’ attention with the originality of your writing.

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  1. Indeed, these are nice ways of “painting” scenes in storytelling. What I can’t stand is people using the word, “literally” to emphasize something that is actually figurative—it’s overdone (i.e. “I literally dropped my jaw”). Seriously? That must have been ugly ;0)


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