I don’t know how many of you have ever tried to learn a foreign language, but believe me, English is one of the harder languages to learn. As the husband of an immigrant, I can attest to my wife’s continuous learning curve with our crazy language.It’s been eye opening for me as a writer, someone who’s always had a gift with English words, to watch this process. And what I’ve discovered is that one of the biggest challenges in learning English are some of my greatest tools as a writer: figures of speech.
The tropes otherwise known as “figures of speech” are expressions not intended to be taken literally but instead used to symbolize related things in some way. The five most common figures of speech are:
Metonymy – one thing is represented by another thing associated with it. Ex: “all the crowns of Europe” wherein crowns refers rather to “kings”
Synecdoche – a part stands for the whole. Ex: “all hands on deck,” with hands standing for men.
Personification – in which human characteristics are bestowed on nonhuman things. Ex: “the gentle breeze” or “the calming storm“
Metaphor – a comparison which assumes or states a comparison without acknowledging that it is a comparison. Ex: “the woman is a peach” or “the eye of a needle“
Simile – a comparison between two things using “like” or “as.” Ex: “the woman is like a peach“
Other common tropes are:
Hyperbole – extreme exaggeration. Ex: “when she smiles her cheeks fall off.”
Oxymoron – the linking of two contradictory words. Ex: “act naturally” or “random order“
Pun – a play on words using either different senses of the same word or similar senses/sounds of different words. Ex: “when it rains, it pours“
Imagine being a foreigner trying to sort all those out?
For fiction writers, the simile and the metaphor are our most vital tools for painting with words, i.e. creating imagery in our fiction. It’s the tension between the two compared items which holds the power of such statements to inspire pictures and images in our readers’ minds. How alike or different are they? Good metaphors and similes get readers’ brains working to imagine how the writer could come up with such a relationship. They are intriguing, inspiring, interesting, even surprising. They contain an abstraction or judgment but yet are brief, condensed. At their best, they make us look at things in a new way.
From childhood, we are taught to learn by comparison. By being told to “be careful” when we fall, we learn that “be careful” is a warning of impending harm, which we will then apply to other situations. Our past experience forms a basis by which we predict the future and soon we are using language so full of similes and metaphors that we don’t even realize we’re doing it.
A pitfall of this phenomenon is clichés. “Her heart broke as he said it” is so overused it fails to have impact any more. “Her heart shattered like glass with the impact of his remark” is different altogether. Most writers spend a lot of time developing the craft of using these kinds of comparisons. Often one has to focus intensely on these aspects of his or her fiction. I know it’s something I continue to wrestle with. But when successful, metaphors and similes form the core of rich prose.
So next time you laugh at a foreigner struggling with English, think about your own efforts to learn craft. Maybe you’ll understand better where their struggle comes from. You might even empathize.
For what it’s worth…
Tomorrow I’ll share some exercises on how to build up your skills with imagery.