What makes a piece of writing compelling? What makes great literature great? These questions are tough to answer in any sense of entirety. But there is something that almost all great pieces of writing make use of, and that help readers find value beyond the surface level in those pieces.
You probably do know what these are: figures of speech.
What exactly are figures of speech?
Put simply, figures of speech are literary devices that use language in ingenious ways in order to create layers of meaning deeper than the surface. That is, they go beyond the “literal meaning” that a unit of language signifies.
You might have studied them or heard about figures of speech. This is a guide that will help you understand the basics of a few well-known and widely used figures of speech. I have grouped some into one point for ease of understanding. In the upcoming articles, I will pick up a few that you can start practicing, even if you are a beginner, and tell you all about them! Get ready to make your writing more interesting, layered, and impactful!
1. Metaphor and Simile
Metaphors and similes are everywhere. These are commonly used in poetry. In both of these, two things are put together. In a metaphor, the relationship between the two is much more subtly stated. One thing is simply said to be another. In a simile, the two things are compared using terms like “as” and “like”. You might even already be using these in your everyday conversations! Comparison is a common activity, and is a powerful tool in creative writing because of how it creates links between different types of experiences.
Shakespeare’s famous line from Romeo and Juliet, “It is the east, and Juliet is the sun” is a beautiful and classic example of a metaphor. Romeo means to build an affinity between Juliet and the sun (connecting their brilliance, one could say) and does so by declaring that the one is the other.
A famous example of simile usage occurs in the first few lines of Modernist poet T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”:
“Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;...”
Here, the evening is said to be spread across the sky like an unconscious patient, etherised for surgery. The first two lines build up a certain expectation and the surprising comparison both thwarts and vivifies it. The comparison is ingenious precisely because of this. Interestingly, Eliot had high opinions of the 17th century metaphysical poets such as Donne, due to their yoking together disparate images or objects to form clever comparisons.
“Oh, the irony.” This is a saying one keeps coming across. Irony is infused into life, in various situations and instances. Little wonder then that it has been a crucial literary device ever since the ancient Greeks. On a basic level, irony comes into play when there is a chasm between literal meaning and implied meaning, or between what is apparently said and what is actually meant. There are many types of irony, and the main ones are verbal irony, irony of situation, and dramatic irony.
The last one finds usage in Sophocles’ masterpiece of Greek tragedy, Oedipus the King. The chasm is between the characters’ knowledge and words and the audience/reader’s awareness. While the reader or audience knows Oedipus’ reality and fate, Oedipus himself, on page and on-stage, works tirelessly only to end up condemning himself. It is like a detective story where the detective is the killer.
A symbol is an object that stands in for, or represents something else apart from itself. These can be universally accepted, due to convention. That is, one thing has been used to represent another thing so frequently or widely that it has been accepted as a nearly universal representational relationship. For example, a red rose has become a nearly universal symbol of romantic love. A dove has become the same for peace. Symbols can also be created by writers, and can function as symbolic throughout their work/works. A creative writer can create their own symbols or make ingenious use of universally accepted symbols.
For example, in Othello, Shakespeare sets up Desdemona’s handkerchief to be a symbol of marital fidelity and faithfulness throughout the play.
4. Oxymoron and Paradox
An oxymoron is a figure of speech in which two opposing or contradictory ideas are put together surprisingly, often to convey something intangible or elusive. These are also very common in daily usage, for example in the phrase “good grief”. A paradox is a wider category that embodies contradiction and difference. I will here quote a definition that Anjana Neira Dev, Anuradha Marwah, and Swati Pal provide: “A paradox is a situation or statement that appears to be so self-contradictory that it startles the reader into attention. Behind the seeming impossibility, once all the conditions and circumstances involved...are understood, a meaning or truth can generally be discovered.” The word is common in scientific usage too. You might have heard of the Black Hole Information Paradox. Paradoxes are really interesting because they present to us situations which necessitate a different line of thought from the usual ones.
A famous example of oxymoron usage is again in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare sets Romeo up, at least at first, as a somewhat cliched Petrarchan lover, and he refracts this underlying reality through the kind of language Romeo uses.
Romeo is well-versed in poetic convention, and so uses phrases like “brawling love”, “loving hate”, “heavy lightness”, and “cold fire” to talk about love and the Montague-Capulet feud.
A famous paradox is the Socratic paradox. According to Plato, Socrates says, “I know that I know nothing.” How can one know that they know nothing, if they know nothing? The underlying truth could be that the only certain knowledge is that of not knowing. A famous paradox in literature is from George Orwell’s novella Animal Farm: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” How can any animal be “more” equal than another if all animals are equal? The underlying truth is understood well in the context of the novella. Even regimes that begin with promises of complete equality can become exploitative.
As the name suggests, this figure of speech is also based on difference and deviation. This figure of speech also has philosophical underpinnings. Consider one idea a thesis. Then the addition of another idea that opposes it is where antithesis comes into play. Thus in antithesis, two opposing or contrasting ideas are put next to each other. The ideas, however, do not have to be mutually exclusive. To clearly set the antithesis apart from the oxymoron and the paradox, here are a number of examples of antithesis.
Alexander Pope’s “To err is human, to forgive divine” is an example. So is much of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech, including the quoted line.
Another famous example is the starting line of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…”.
6. Personification and Pathetic Fallacy
Personification is the figure of speech wherein an animal, idea/concept, or inanimate object is given human characteristics. So, anyone or anything which is not a person, is given the qualities of a person. Actually, it is a type of metaphor. This is a really common mode of expression, especially when it comes to nature poetry.
Various aspects of nature are given human features and characteristics in order to create images that resonate with the reader. It is even heavily entrenched into daily usage of language. Pathetic fallacy is related to personification but a bit different from it. In pathetic fallacy, inanimate or natural objects are seen as experiencing human emotions and feelings. Despite the name, there is nothing inherently fallacious about this figure of speech. It has been used in really powerful ways in literature.
A great example of personification occurs in John Keats’ To Autumn. Referring to the autumn season, Keats’ poetic voice says:
“Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;...”
Here, the autumn season is said to “conspire” with the sun, which is also referred to using the pronoun “him”.
An example of pathetic fallacy occurs in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. After the calamitous event of the king’s murder, the term “day’s shame” is used to indicate the pervading darkness. Shame is a human emotion, and in this context it would be felt by the murderers and those unable to protect the king, not by the inanimate day.
7. Transferred Epithet
This figure of speech also involves a transfer. Here, the epithet or the adjective(s) used to describe one noun, are transferred to and used with a different noun. There is a level of similarity between transferred epithet and the previous two figures of speech, but the difference is clear in the way it is used.
An apt example of transferred epithet is a line in Thomas Grey’s poem “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”: “The plowman homeward plods his weary way.” The plowman is actually the weary one. The adjective is transferred to the way, which in itself cannot be weary.
Puns make for some great jokes, but are also powerful tools used in literature. A pun is a literary device that plays with the fact that one word often has more than one meaning (often very disparate) and with the fact that often two very different words sound alike. These are mostly used to provide humour or comic relief and are used in a variety of contexts.
Shakespeare used a lot of puns, especially in his comedies, but also in his other plays. In Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio is fatally stabbed. During his speech after this, he proclaims, “Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man.” At this point, the other characters in the scene do not know he has been mortally wounded and take his comment as a joke. Despite the use of humour, there is a truth to Mercutio’s punning. The two meanings of grave are “serious” and “burial site”.
9. Alliteration, Assonance, and Consonance
Alliteration is a figure of speech that involves the repetition of starting consonant sounds (of a syllable) in close proximity in a piece of writing. It is useful because it adds to the sonority of writing, particularly in poetry. The repetition of starting consonant sounds often makes for a pleasant reading experience and also adds emphasis to the line. Other such figures of speech are assonance and consonance. In assonance, the same vowel sounds are used repeatedly close to each other, while in consonance the ending consonant sounds of words are repeated in close proximity.
Again in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, “From forth the fatal loins of these two foes” uses alliteration. So does “Double, double, toil and trouble” from his famous play Macbeth.
An example of assonance can again be found in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: “O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?”
For consonance, Anjana Neira Dev, Anuradha Marwah, and Swati Pal give the apt example of Shakespeare’s “struts and frets” from Macbeth.
Look around and you will see multiple types of exaggeration in play. Hyperbole is the literary use of exaggeration that serves to heighten particular images or ideas, or to throw them into greater relief by expanding their scope. Exaggeration in literary terms, therefore, is an exercise in increasing emphasis, not in dishonestly rendering something.
“The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars,” says Romeo about Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. He is exaggerating the brightness of her being by proclaiming that it would outshine actual stars, but with the intent of highlighting her beauty.
11. Metonymy and Synecdoche
Don’t be deterred by these complex names. You have surely come across these two figures of speech and even might be using them in daily life. Both of these involve a particular type of replacement. Metonymy is a figure of speech wherein a thing is replaced by a characteristic directly associated with it. Synecdoche is a figure of speech where a thing is replaced by a part of itself. That is, the part represents the whole.
An example of metonymy is when Keats writes “a draught of vintage”, replacing “wine” by “vintage”, in his “Ode to a Nightingale”.
T.S. Eliot makes use of synecdoche more than once in his “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”. In the line “To prepare a face to meet the faces that we meet”, people are represented through a part of themselves, their faces. In the same poem, the poetic voice refers to a crab as a “pair of claws”, as also pointed out by Neira Dev, Marwah, and Pal. Emily Dickinson also uses this figure of speech brilliantly in her “I Heard a Fly Buzz-when I died”. She refers to people as “Eyes”. The use of this particular usage is explained really well here.
Onomatopoeia is a figure of speech that is connected to sound. Sound and sonority play a vital role in literature and writing, particularly in poetry. Onomatopoeic words are those whose pronunciation makes the sound of what they are supposed to mean. “Hiss” is an example. While the word describes the sound a snake makes, saying the word also makes the same sound it attempts to signify. A lot of onomatopoeia is used in comic books. Seeing the word “Bam!” on a page immediately indicates the exact sound it tries to signify.
Onomatopoeia is also used in more traditional forms of literature, though. In this novel For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway writes, “He saw nothing and heard nothing but he could feel his heart pounding and then he heard the clack on stone and the leaping, dropping clicks of a small rock falling.” The onomatopoeic words add to the scene, giving us a sense of the sounds.
Daily language as well as literature are rife in euphemisms. A euphemism is the deliberate usage of words to mask the directness of the true nature of something. We do not always use language directly. If we did, a lot of the power of language to shape itself according to the speaker/writer’s needs would be lost. “Polite” terms that we use in common interactions in order to make things sound better or different, are euphemisms. The most obvious example from daily life would be the act of referring to death as “passing away” These work only when recognised by the listener/reader, which they usually are due to convention.
In their explanation, Anjana Neira Dev, Anuradha Marwah, and Swati Pal give a great example of a euphemism from literature. In Rabindranath Tagore’s short story ‘Kabuliwala’, the titular character uses “father-in-law’s house” as a euphemism for prison.
Ambiguity might not generally be used as a positive term, but is an important device in literature. Ambiguity as a figure of speech comes into play when a writer makes use of the fact that language is often imprecise, or can lead to many different meanings.
Neira Dev, Marwah, and Pal point to W.B. Yeats’ first stanza in “Sailing to Byzantium”, which they read as oscillating between two different attitudes. It is not clear whether the poetic voice is appreciative of his surroundings or critical of them.
“That is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees,
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.”
An allusion in a literary work is a kind of reference that the author or work makes to a different work or external reality. Referentiality has come to be thought of, especially since the Postmodern era, as an essential way the human mind understands its interaction with its surroundings. When we think, talk, or write, we often find ourselves referring to others’ thoughts, words, or writings. These affect and maybe even shape us. Allusions, when used cleverly, make the work richer and place it in a network of writing. Again, allusions work when your intended readership understands them.
Poets such as T.S. Eliot take this to another level. His poems are rife in allusion, so much so that each line requires a long footnote when his poems are being read in classrooms! In “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, he alludes to the Lazarus resurrection episode from the Bible, and other texts including Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment. The striking part is that even within Crime and Punishment, the Lazarus story is an important part of the events of the latter half. The part is even read aloud by a character in the novel. Eliot’s allusions have layers to them. This is one example of how allusions can be extremely productive to writers. Postmodern writers also make heavy use of allusions and referentiality, constantly configuring present reality in comparison and contrast with the past.
As is clear by now, there are many figures of speech you can read about and make use of in your own writing. There is a lot of room for creativity, and this is only the beginning. In the coming few articles, you will find detailed explanations of some of the most widely used figures of speech that are also fruitful for beginners and intermediate-stage writers to use in their own writing. Stay tuned!
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Lyrics and poetry are connected as forms of writing and expression. After reading this article, listen to some of your favourite songs and you will notice how many lyricists use figures of speech. If lyric-writing is your forte, none other than Swanand Kirkire can be your mentor: only on FrontRow!