Figurative Language: Let’s Talk About The Camel in the Room

A badly placed poetic device is like an elephant in the ocean.

Don’t you hate it when you are really enthralled in an intense scene in a novel and the author, a short, bald, unappreciated man whose mother was an accountant, takes you out of a story to give you a completely unnecessary description? Or when an author finds it necessary to compare the protagonist’s heart to a trampoline without any explanation or purpose?

When Adrienne Quintana and I were going through one of the first edits of her debut novel, Eruption, we stumbled across something very similar to what you just read. The scene was elegant, romantic, and a little bit steamy. The writing was flawless…that is, until the camel.

Camel_closeup“I was like a camel in the desert, only I hadn’t ever had more than the tiniest sip of what he had to offer.”

Don’t get me wrong; camels are awesome. I mean, it’s pretty fantastic that they can survive in the desert with so little water and stuff…but camels are definitely not elegant, romantic, or steamy. Well, maybe steamy, but in a gross, desert heat kind of way. Basically, this simile, though not irrelevant, was misplaced because it detracted from the mood of the scene. Adrienne and I recognized this, laughed about it, and made sure that the next draft was unsoiled by the camel.

People love to sprinkle around similes, metaphors, and imagery when they write creatively. Because we all learned about them in high school English, we assume that we have to use them to be good writers. However, while these literary devices have the potential to boost our writing, if they are misused, they can temporarily crumble the world we’ve built for our readers.

And guess what? Those aren’t the only literary devices. Word choice, sentence structure, selection of detail, and even grammar are elements of writing that can be purposely manipulated to create a mood. Whether you’re a writer who wants to challenge yourself by infusing your writing with purposeful figurative language or a reader who wants to understand literature in more depth, try paying attention to the purpose of any literary devices that are used. Does it make sense? Does it fit the mood? What does it do for the scene/characters/plot? If you understand how the mechanics of figurative language work, you carry a powerful weapon in your literary sheath. Use it well.

If you’re a nerd like me, check out this gorgeously extensive list of literary devices.

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