The world would be a lot more boring without figurative language. Look at your favorite novel, essay, monologue, script – you’re guaranteed to find at least a few figurative language examples (if it’s a novel, you’ll probably find hundreds). Figurative language is absolutely necessary to understand for any aspiring writer or, really, for anyone who writes at all. This technique doesn’t have to make your writing overly flowery or opaque; in fact, it can do the opposite. It can clarify your point, illustrate your scenery, or solidify your character in just a few words. Let’s see what figurative language is, what forms it can take, and how it can be used.

Watch: What is a Metaphor — 8 Types Explained

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Define Figurative Language

What does figurative language mean?

Because there are so many types of figurative language, it can be hard to nail down a precise definition. But having an umbrella definition for the term is key to understanding its multitude of uses. So, what is figurative language?


What is Figurative Language?

Figurative language is when words are used in a capacity beyond their literal meaning. This often done in order to strengthen a point or description. In other words, figurative language is language that conveys a message without explicitly saying it.

Types of Figurative Language:

  • Idiom
  • Simile
  • Metaphor
  • Hyperbole
  • Euphemism
  • Onomatopoeia
  • Personification

Still unsure if you have a good grasp on the figurative language definition? Fear not– like a lot of concepts, this technique can be most easily understood by seeing it in action. Let’s look at some of the most common types of figurative language examples.

Figurative Language Techniques

Types of figurative language

There are many variations of this technique, each with a specific twist or quality. For writers, once you're able to grasp all of these concepts, wielding them in your work will give you a better command of your medium.


Probably one of the most popular types of figurative language is the metaphor. A metaphor is an implied comparison between two unlike concepts. Here's a video breakdown of this very popular language technique.

Metaphor Explained  •  Subscribe on YouTube

Metaphor can be a great way to quickly describe something without a multitude of adjectives and belabored descriptive passages. The key with metaphor is to describe one thing directly as something else. 

A couple of metaphor examples:

  • “He was a wild animal on the court.”
  • “The office is a hornet’s nest.”

A simile is another one of the common language technique. It is almost identical to the metaphor, except instead of implying comparison, it joins two different concepts with “like” or “as.” This is very similar to metaphor but the language/comparison is "softer," creating more of loose association.

For example, “she’s like a robot,” or “the expensive car was like a spaceship.”


Personification gives human-like characteristics to inanimate objects, and can be incredibly helpful when trying to add emotion and imagery to scenes without people. 

Some examples of personification include:

“The tractor wheezed,” or “minutes crawled by.”

A great use of figurative language can be found in Eric Heisserer’s screenplay for Arrival, which we imported into StudioBinder’s screenwriting software

Take a look at this passage, where Louise is being approached by the military a second time to help with communicating with aliens:

Arrival screenplay

The personification here is subtle but effective. Heisserer describes the sound of the helicopters as “muscular,” a trait a sound can’t literally have. But it delivers the point: these choppers aren’t messing around.

This time, things are a bit more urgent, and a bit more ominous.


Hyperbole can be great for heightening your writing to comic or persuasive effect. The term refers to extreme and purposeful exaggeration: 

“The line was a mile long,” or “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.”


An idiom is a common expression that has a meaning beyond what it literally means. Idioms should be used sparingly, as they are by definition clichés. Think “she had a green thumb,” “the apartment cost an arm and a leg,” or “he would cross that bridge when he came to it,” for example.


Onomatopoeia refers to words that sound like what they are describing. For example: whoosh, tick-tock, bang.

What is Figurative Language Comics are filled with onomatopoeia What is figurative language

Comics are filled with onomatopoeia  •  What is figurative language?


A euphemism is a word or collection of words that are used to talk around a harsh or explicit meaning. 

A few examples: “He’s no longer with us,” “I heard the two of them did the deed,” or “She was put out to pasture.”

These are often used when someone is uncomfortable talking about a subject or is trying to be polite, which makes them great for comedy. We can find euphemisms all over Anchorman. Take a look at this exchange, written by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay:

Anchorman script

There are two euphemisms in this brief exchange. The first: “Did you get lucky last night?” which means– well, you get it. Then there’s “Can I freshen any of you gentlemen up?” which is a nice way to put drinking on the job.

What is Figurative Language Meaning

Figurative language examples

The efficiency and color that these techniques provide an author or screenwriter’s writing has made it ever-present in art. There’s figurative language in poetry, novels, filmmaking, and more.

To further understand, let’s look at a few examples and dissect why they work so well.

Euphemism: Miller’s Crossing (1990)

Here the Coen brothers expertly use euphemism to illustrate their protagonist’s inability to be vulnerable and say what he means. At this point in the film, Verna is fed up with Tom’s closed-off demeanor, and so when he says he just wants his hat, she refuses to play ball: he clearly doesn’t just want his hat.

Euphemism in the Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing  •  What does figurative language mean?

So Tom adjusts his approach and asks for a drink, which, while still a euphemism, is far more direct. Verna lets him in, and sure enough, in the next shot, they’ve slept with each other.

The euphemism here strengthens character development and adds a bit of comedy.

Personification: Romeo and Juliet (1595)

“The grey-ey'd morn smiles on the frowning night, Check'ring the Eastern clouds with streaks of light.”

Shakespeare is no stranger to figurative language of all types – he would use them in poetry and theater. Here he uses personification to illustrate the passing of time from night to day. 

Friar Lawrence describes the morning as smiling and the night as frowning, adding mood and character to the setting.

Metaphor: The Communist Manifesto (1848)

“A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism.”

Examples of figurative language in literature are plentiful. One of the most famous examples is, surprisingly, by Karl Marx. Marx is known for many things, and flowery language is not one of them. The sociologist usually wrote in scientific terms, so it speaks to the power figurative language can carry that he opened his best-known work with a metaphor. 

A spectre, or ghost, was not literally haunting Europe, but Marx and Engels wanted to illustrate the power communist ideology had over the working class throughout the continent, and how frightening it was to the European elite. The result is one of the most famous opening lines in literature.

Onomatopoeia: For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940)

“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.”

Another example of figurative language in literature. Like Marx, Ernest Hemingway was a very literal-minded writer. But he, too, used figurative language. In this passage, Hemingway uses “clack” and “clicks” to add to our auditory senses in the passage.

Since our character sees nothing, all the sound is emphasized.

What is Figurative Language Even the master of minimalism used figurative language Define figurative language

Even the master of minimalism used figurative language  •  Define figurative language

What Is Figurative Language Meaning

Figurative language meaning

So what is the purpose of figurative language? The use of figurative language is guaranteed to add flavor and imagery to your writing. Like with most good things, however, it’s best not to overuse it.

This technique should always clarify your meaning and add an element to your passage that wouldn’t be there otherwise. There’s nothing worse than unnecessary or confusing figurative language.

So next time you’re writing something, take note of your use, or lack thereof, of figurative language. If your writing lacks it, ask yourself: could I illustrate my point better with a metaphor? Some personification? An idiom? If you’re using a lot of figurative language, it’s best to ask: what is this serving? Am I clarifying my point or obscuring it?

Keeping figurative language in mind will make you a more deliberate, thoughtful, and effective writer. 

Up Next

What are Literary Devices?

We’ve answered “what is figurative language” and “what are the 6 types of figurative language,” so now let’s answer a related question. Read up on some great literary devices that can help take your pen game to the next level. We go through a ton of different devices, and provide examples to help you understand their use.

Up Next: Literary Devices →
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