Here is Part One of my series on using figurative language to (figuratively) grab editors and readers by the lapels.
Following is one of the greatest pieces of descriptive writing I’ve ever encountered. It’s from a Pulitzer Prize-winning piece about the investigation of an airplane crash. Here is how reporter David Hanners described the wreckage:
The fates seem capricious in what is torn apart and what isn’t when a large airplane crashes. Large pieces of metal dot the pasture, but between them lie tiny bits and pieces, indistinguishable now in their deformity.
It is a fertile garden of disaster. Strands of writing lie here, a few rain-soaked playing cards lie there. A shredded Diet Pepsi can lies on the ground, while a few feet away, the door of the Westwind 2’s cabin refrigerator lies flattened — the row of small cans of tomato and orange juice that line the shelf flattened neatly along with it.
Figurative writing expands on the literal meaning of words to create an evocative mental image. There are different types of figurative writing that you no doubt confronted in high school, such as metaphors, similes, and personification.
We’ll define those specific techniques later in this section, but at this point simply focus on the technique Hanners used (It’s a metaphor, actually) and why it works so well.
Why is it so powerful?
• It creates an image in the mind. “Fertile garden of disaster” brings to mind a concrete, vivid scene.
• It uses specific images that we all understand and can visualize. Weak figurative language lacks this quality. For example, “it crashed with the force of 25 pounds of TNT” means little to me because I don’t have any TNT around and don’t know what 25 pounds of it would do, specifically, other than make a big mess.
• It is reinforced with authentic and arresting detail — the playing cards, the flattened refrigerator, the shredded can, the scattered pieces “indistinguishable now in their deformity.”
• It’s clever and compact, drawing attention to its poetic use of language. And the figurative nature of the description is exponentially more brawny than an extended descriptive list of the debris or vague and pedestrian descriptions like the one I just used as a joke: “a big mess.”
Look for opportunities to use creative interpretations of language to create a memorable image; use the four points above for guidance. Be careful because if you over-do it the result can be self-conscious, obviously mechanical or obscure. But take this risk. Remember that the four words “fertile garden of disaster” supplant an entire page of mundane description.