Unlike literal language, which states exactly what it means, figurative language engages the imagination through indirection. Figures of speech compare concepts to more familiar objects or concepts. They may create emotional reactions. Five important types of figures of speech include hyperbole, symbols, simile, personification and metaphor.
Hyperbole is used to overstate or emphasize a concept. These descriptions are not intended to be taken literally. They are used to exaggerate, sometimes to impossibility. An example of hyperbole is: "She buried me in the debate." Formal writing does not use hyperbole, but creative writing does.
Symbols are images with non-literal meanings; they stand for something other than what they seem to be on the surface. Poetry and creative writing make extensive use of symbolism. A “dove” in a poem might actually stand for peace or purity and not the bird itself. Some symbols are conventional and readily understood whereas others can be private and esoteric, as in the poetry of William Butler Yeats.
A simile is used to compare two concepts or objects that are not alike. They demonstrate how even items that are unlike have some similarities. They also can be used to make a description particularly vivid and arresting. Similes typically use “like,” “as,” “than” or “resembles” to compare the two items. An example of a simile is: "The boy grew like a weed."
Personification treats animals and inanimate objects as if they were human with human characteristics. Commonly used in allegories, personification enables readers and listeners to relate to animals and objects as they imagine them reacting or feeling the way a human would. An example of personification is: "the angry sky." Here, a human emotion, anger, is transferred to something nonliving.
Metaphors are used to state that one thing is another thing -- for instance, in the phrase "Jim is a chicken." In metaphors the meaning is not literal, but the first thing, in this case "Jim," shares common characteristics with the second, the "chicken." Commonly used in everyday language, metaphors are also common in poems and creative writing. Avoid using two metaphors in a sentence, however. A mixed metaphor often creates confusion and an unclear image.