Part 5: Figurative Language and Sensory Details

Author’s note:

This is going to be a short chapter. Sorry, but I’m sick and cold medicine can really knock a girl out, so I’m a little behind. I made a commitment to post every saturday though, so without further ado, I give you chapter 5!


Dear Reader,

In this chapter I’m going to explain the four most common types of figurative language, sensory details, and how they are used to create an image for whomever is reading your story. Figurative language and sensory details have to be my favorite things in writing, so I’m really excited to share them with you. Basically, figurative language is the use of comparing two unlike things in your description to provide your reader with a unique image that you want them think of as the scene in the story. There are many different technical types of figurative language, but today I’m only going to be explaining similes, metaphors, personification, and hyperboles. I’ll describe sensory details later in this chapter.

If you like to write or read, which I assume you do because you are actually reading this, then you might be using or reading these different techniques without even realizing it, but if you keep reading this chapter, you can use it to your advantage.

The first type of figurative language I will write about is called the simile. A simile is a comparison that uses the words like or as. This is, I think, the most used kind, and I see and use this so much without realizing. Notice in the examples below that I have two separate sentences, one using like and one using as. In these sentences, I am comparing two unlike things: my brother, and a pig. They are two very different things, but together they create an image in your mind’s eye.

Examples: My brother eats like a pig. My brother eats as sloppy as a pig.

Another kind of figurative language is the metaphor. A metaphor is when a word or phrase is applied to something, where the comparison is just a comparison, not literally true. If I were to say that my brother is a pig, it isn’t a simile because it is not using like or as. I am stating that something IS something, but I don’t mean it literally. Obviously, my brother is human, not a pig, but I am merely comparing the two things.

Red Bird, one of my stories, is made up of short stories that are pretty much just lessons of life that are displayed as metaphors. For example, the first chapter is called Red Bird. The red bird is in a cage and is presented with the option to leave, stay inside, or keep one wing in and one out. Really, I am describing the situation of growing up and becoming more independent of the need of parental help in everything you do. The Red bird could go outside, where the other birds survive on their own, or in reality, real life where you have to live on your own and survive by yourself.

In The Fault in Our Stars, by John Greene, there is the metaphor of Gus putting the killing thing (cigarette) in between his teeth but doesn’t give it the power to kill him (doesn’t light the cigarette). Basically, it seems like he’s doing one thing when he’s really doing something else. He looks like he is letting the cigarette get the best of him, but really is conquering the power that the cigarette could have over him. This is the sole reason I love that book: the metaphors. Hehe.

The next type of figurative language that I’m going to explain is personification. This is when, in your description, you give an inanimate object human-like qualities, in order to present the scene to your reader. Since this is kind of a hard thing to use in writing if you don’t know how, I’m providing an excerpt from Looking for Lily (my only completed wattpad story so far) to use as an example.

The school looked just as it had last time he’d seen it, but this time it looked emptier, to him anyway. The glass double doors seemed to hold onto each other for support and the roof seemed to slant so far it was hanging on, trying not to fall. The red bricks that always climbed the walls appeared to be slouching, not sitting up straight, supporting the structure. The words, “Maple Valley Private,” seemed to droop on the front of the sign, frowning. It was as if the private school itself had heard the news and was mourning the loss of its students.

I’ve underlined the different uses of personification. Notice that the double doors are holding onto each other, something that isn’t literal, but brings a picture to your imagination. The roofing is hanging on, trying not to fall, which shows that it is weak, also contributing to the picture in your mind. The bricks are climbing, an action that can only be demonstrated by a living thing, not an inanimate object. Finally, the school was mourning, which is a human quality. Overall, this paragraph sets the mood of fragility and mournfulness, giving the scene a negative connotation, which was the intended effect.

The final type of figurative language that I will write about today is the hyperbole. A hyperbole is an exaggeration of something that cannot be taken literally. This is when the author uses words that contains sarcasm, but not all sarcasm has a hyperbole in it. I have written an example below of a random conversation that popped into my head.


Maggie sighed. “Why don’t we just turn back around and go home?”

Tucker looked at her like she was crazy. “No way! If we did that, it would take us a million years to find this trail again. We should keep going.”

In the example, Tucker uses a hyperbole because it wouldn’t literally take them a million years to find the trail, but he intended to explain that it would take them a long time. Just for the record, I have no clue what that example is about, but it was the first thing that I could think of for a hyperbole.

Did you notice that I also use a simile? He looked at her LIKE she was crazy. I did this without even thinking, which just goes to show that similes are used and read more often than we think, and we write them without even thinking.

Now, on to sensory details. This is a topic that is constantly recognized in middle school grades, and on from there. Sensory details are the discription that a writer uses to help the reader imagine the scene, using the five senses, and can be kind of hard to recognize sometimes. I’m even still working on using this in my writing. Most authors make the mistake of imagining the picture they are trying to portray to their reader that they only use one sense: sight. It’s important to remember to describe feelings, smells, sounds, and tastes too because it helps to really put the reader in the story. Figurative language can be used to describe any of these things. Here are some examples:

sight: I noticed that his eyes were black– coal black. (From Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer)

touch:  The sunlight warmed my skin, heat spreading through me.

smell: The aroma of delicious cooking hit me as soon as I walked through the door.

taste:  The air tasted like saltwater, something I always loved about the beach.

sound:  I could hear the pop-pop-pop of gunfire outside my window.

Notice that all of those listed above would help pull you into the scene if you read them in a book. Sometimes, and I’m not exactly sure what this is called, and it is one of my favorite techniques, I like mix the senses. Example:

The hate dripped from his voice as he spat the words at me.

Okay, this is totally nerdy, but I love it. First of all, realize that voices are sounds, therefore nothing can drip from them. Despite that, however, you can effectively imagine the hate in his voice, and it feels so much more real to your reader. The word spat is used to show his anger, and the way the character knows that the hate is in his voice. You can’t actually spit words, but it works because it makes the reader feel fear from the man that is talking. I don’t know why, but this completely wrong and confusing choice of words works out perfectly for the reader to create the scene in his or her mind.

More examples because I’m completely obsessed:

In the Tale of Despereaux, by Kate Dicamillo, Despereaux describes the kings music as sounding like honey. This is sound and taste being mixed, but somehow it makes the reader effectively visualize the music.

In the song Love The Way You Lie, by Skylar Grey, she uses the phrase “gravel in our voices”. This is mixing the feeling of gravel and the sound of voices. It helps you to connect yourself into the song. Notice that many different songs and poems use figurative language and sensory details to make the writing more poetic and metaphorical.

“I watched in the mirror as everything I’ve been through in the last few days was reflected back at me. The smell of roses were wafting off the glass, the sounds of the crowds and the hot sunlight I’d walked through was surrounding the image of a girl that doesn’t quite look like me anymore.” Again, I don’t know quite where that came from, but I’m totally using it in one of my stories, so please don’t steal it. The girl is looking in the mirror, remembering the smells, feelings, and sounds, but is really only seeing the image of herself, which she thinks has changed a lot in the past few days.

I hoped this helped you, and PLEASE at least try to use these techniques in your writing. I’m not saying you have to use them a ton, but if you add in a simile here and a sensory detail there, I promise that it will bring your story to life a lot better than if you hadn’t used them at all.

If this isn’t really your thing, then at least just look out for them when you read so you can see what they can do. These techniques are EVERYWHERE. In poetry, music, short stories, novels, advertisements, television shows, movies, EVERYWHERE.

Read more in next week’s chapter about mood, tone, and connotation. I do have a problem with changing my plan often, so that might not actually be what the chapter is about, but I’m trying here.


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