A year ago my daughter Andrea and my
grandson Shawney accompanied me to the Atlanta Aquarium. Shawney was two and had never been to an aquarium. I have to admit I was more excited than his mother. I could hardly wait to see him react to the exhibits. When we walked inside, we were immediately overwhelmed by elementary students swarming everywhere. Wow! I wondered if we had made a mistake when I realized we had come on a day set aside for field trips. But it wasn’t long before the big payoff came.
As we turned the first corner and headed towards a tank of colorful fish, Shawney blurted out, “Mommy, look at the doggies! Hi, doggies!” I threw my head back and laughed heartily. He continued in awe of other “doggies” as Andrea and I sped behind him through a maze of hallways. What a priceless afternoon! While Shawney amused us with his limited but unique vocabulary, I am reminded that we writers need to choose words carefully. We run the risk of boring or frustrating our readers when we don’t say exactly what we mean. Using powerless, ineffective words is not funny!
Regardless of our style of writing, we must ask ourselves if our readers understand what we are saying. Chapter One of my memoir,The Price of Pearls,begins with a paragraph in which I describe the onset of depression:
My storm began brewing in 1989, a year after my oldest son graduated from high school. As dark clouds began to gather, interrupting a tranquil summer’s day, my depression started as a squall and gathering strength, grew into gale-force winds.
I wanted the reader to understand the nature and progression of depression, so I used the analogy of a storm. While everybody has experienced sadness, not everyone has experienced major bouts of depression. I wanted the reader to grasp the magnitude of this life-controlling disorder.
This is called figurative language or imaginative language. Basically, figurative language is the use of words to create a picture or image which helps the reader get a better understanding of what you, the writer, is attempting to say.
On another page in chapter one, I describe a time when I was terrified:
Fear then wrapped its tentacles around my neck, and I gasped for air.
The goal of figurative language is to draw the reader into your experience. Ultimately, you want the reader to walk in your shoes, to experience your range of emotions. When you accomplish that goal, you convince your reader to go with you on your journey. And isn’t that what you want? Think about how many books you’ve started and did not finish. Perhaps you could not relate to the writer. While figurative language should not be overused, it certainly warrants consideration. A little practice will spice up a dull narrative.