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Writing Tips (Part Two): Literary Devices

November 1, 2014 | Richard Scarsbrook | Comments (0)

Or,  Imagery, Metaphors and Symbols (Oh my!)

 Great fiction and creative non-fiction are ultimately about ideas and feelings – causing your reader to think and feel.  Since both feelings and ideas are abstract, literary devices such as similes, metaphors and symbols help to clarify or make these conceptions more concrete. 


 Imagery is a literal or concrete representation of a sensory experience or of an object that can be known by one or more senses

 Or. . . Imagery is the effective description of a time, place or thing using as many human senses as possible


 Simile is a figure of speech in which a similarity between two objects is directly expressed; usually the comparison is introduced by “like” or “as”.

Or. . .  A simile is a comparison between two things, using the words “like” or “as” to show the comparison.

 Examples:  “You are like a hurricane, there’s calm in your eye” (Neil Young), or, alternately, “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” (Shakespeare)


 Metaphor is a literal or concrete representation of a sensory experience or of an object that can be known by one or more senses.

Or. . . A metaphor is a simile with the “like” or “as” left out, so that one thing is simply substituted for another.

Example:  “I am a rock, I am an island” (Paul Simon)


Symbol is a metaphor that is generally used and recognised by a lot of people; it is not just the private invention of one person.

Examples:  A cross or menorah can represent the religions for which they stand, but can also represent various aspects of the religions themselves (ie. Authority, Peace, Conflict, depending on the writer’s viewpoint).

 A ticking clock can represent passing time, a crowd of people glancing nervously at a town clock tower as they rush along the sidewalk can represent time’s universal control over “civilized” humans, and so on.


Personification is the portrayal of an abstraction (an idea or feeling) as a living person: as with living persons, the name of a personification has an initial capital letter.

 For example, the idea of death personified:  “Silently, gently, Death’s cold embrace engulfed me.”


 Allegory is an organised system of symbols and/or metaphors and/or personifications in which the literal meanings mirror the symbolic or metaphorical meanings. Allegories tend to exist throughout and entire work.

 Examples:  In John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, the Pilgrim travels on a long journey, struggling up a hill, falling into a swamp, coming to a place where a man is in prison, being joined on his journey by another man who encourages him and accompanies him to the very end. The Pilgrim’s journey is an allegory for Christian faith:  the hill symbolizes difficulty, the swamp symbolizes depression, the prisoner symbolizes despair, and the loyal companion personifies hope. All the symbols fit together as an allegory of a Christian's journey through this life towards Heaven.



 1.  Avoid clichés – “butterflies in the stomach” and “a heart beating like a drum” were once good metaphors, so good that they have become clichéd and worn out!  Always try to come up with your own unique metaphors rather than leaning on ones that have been “done to death”.


2.  Avoid “stretching” comparisons – “The ground was as cold as that icy crust that sometimes forms inside a box of ice cream after you’ve forgotten it inside the freezer for six months”. . . well, sometimes it’s better to simply say “The ground was cold.”  If the comparison seems forced or thin, you’re better off without it.



During his residency, Richard will work on three new books: a novel called Meet Me at La Bodeguita del Medio, a short story collection titled Rockets Versus Gravity, and a poetry collection called (d)Evolution. Through workshops and one-on-one meetings, Richard will draw on his years of writing and teaching experience to help developing writers find their voices and perfect their works.
Writer in Residence Program