Writing An Analytical Essay About Figurative Language

Literary Analysis: Using Elements of Literature

Students are asked to write literary analysis essays because this type of assignment encourages you to think about how and why a poem, short story, novel, or play was written.  To successfully analyze literature, you’ll need to remember that authors make specific choices for particular reasons.  Your essay should point out the author’s choices and attempt to explain their significance. 

Another way to look at a literary analysis is to consider a piece of literature from your own perspective.  Rather than thinking about the author’s intentions, you can develop an argument based on any single term (or combination of terms) listed below.  You’ll just need to use the original text to defend and explain your argument to the reader.

Allegory - narrative form in which the characters are representative of some larger humanistic trait (i.e. greed, vanity, or bravery) and attempt to convey some larger lesson or meaning to life. Although allegory was originally and traditionally character based, modern allegories tend to parallel story and theme.

  • William Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily- the decline of the Old South
  • Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde- man’s struggle to contain his inner primal instincts
  • District 9- South African Apartheid
  • X Men- the evils of prejudice
  • Harry Potter- the dangers of seeking “racial purity”

Character - representation of a person, place, or thing performing traditionally human activities or functions in a work of fiction

  • Protagonist - The character the story revolves around.
  • Antagonist - A character or force that opposes the protagonist.
  • Minor character - Often provides support and illuminates the protagonist.
  • Static character - A character that remains the same.
  • Dynamic character - A character that changes in some important way.
  • Characterization - The choices an author makes to reveal a character’s personality, such as appearance, actions, dialogue, and motivations.  

Look for: Connections, links, and clues between and about characters. Ask yourself what the function and significance of each character is. Make this determination based upon the character's history, what the reader is told (and not told), and what other characters say about themselves and others.

Connotation - implied meaning of word. BEWARE! Connotations can change over time.

  • confidence/ arrogance
  • mouse/ rat
  • cautious/ scared
  • curious/ nosey
  • frugal/ cheap

Denotation - dictionary definition of a word

Diction - word choice that both conveys and emphasizes the meaning or theme of a poem through distinctions in sound, look, rhythm, syllable, letters, and definition  

Figurative language - the use of words to express meaning beyond the literal meaning of the words themselves

  • Metaphor - contrasting to seemingly unalike things to enhance the meaning of a situation or theme without using like or as  
    • You are the sunshine of my life.
  • Simile - contrasting to seemingly unalike things to enhance the meaning of a situation or theme using like or as  
    • What happens to a dream deferred, does it dry up like a raisin in the sun
  • Hyperbole - exaggeration
    • I have a million things to do today.
  • Personification - giving non-human objects human characteristics
    • America has thrown her hat into the ring, and will be joining forces with the British.

Foot - grouping of stressed and unstressed syllables used in line or poem

  • Iamb - unstressed syllable followed by stressed
    • Made famous by the Shakespearian sonnet, closest to the natural rhythm of human speech
      • How do I love thee? Let me count the ways
  • Spondee - stressed stressed
    • Used to add emphasis and break up monotonous rhythm
      • Blood boil, mind-meld, well- loved
  • Trochee - stressed unstressed
    • Often used in children’s rhymes and to help with memorization, gives poem a hurried feeling
      • While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
  • Anapest - unstressed unstressed stressed
    • Often used in longer poems or “rhymed stories”
      • Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house
  • Dactyls - stressed unstressed unstressed
    • Often used in classical Greek or Latin text, later revived by the Romantics, then again by the Beatles, often thought to create a heartbeat or pulse in a poem
      • Picture yourself in a boat on a river,
        With tangerine trees and marmalade skies.

The iamb stumbles through my books; trochees rush and tumble; while anapest runs like a hurrying brook; dactyls are stately and classical.

Imagery - the author’s attempt to create a mental picture (or reference point) in the mind of the reader. Remember, though the most immediate forms of imagery are visual, strong and effective imagery can be used to invoke an emotional, sensational (taste, touch, smell etc) or even physical response.

Meter - measure or structuring of rhythm in a poem

Plot - the arrangement of ideas and/or incidents that make up a story

  • Foreshadowing - When the writer clues the reader in to something that will eventually occur in the story; it may be explicit (obvious) or implied (disguised).
  • Suspense - The tension that the author uses to create a feeling of discomfort about the unknown
  • Conflict - Struggle between opposing forces.
  • Exposition - Background information regarding the setting, characters, plot.
  • Rising Action - The process the story follows as it builds to its main conflict
  • Crisis - A significant turning point in the story that determines how it must end
  • Resolution/Denouement - The way the story turns out.

Point of View - pertains to who tells the story and how it is told. The point of view of a story can sometimes indirectly establish the author's intentions.

  • Narrator - The person telling the story who may or may not be a character in the story.
  • First-person - Narrator participates in action but sometimes has limited knowledge/vision.
  • Second person - Narrator addresses the reader directly as though she is part of the story. (i.e. “You walk into your bedroom.  You see clutter everywhere and…”)
  • Third Person (Objective) - Narrator is unnamed/unidentified (a detached observer). Does not assume character's perspective and is not a character in the story. The narrator reports on events and lets the reader supply the meaning.
  • Omniscient - All-knowing narrator (multiple perspectives). The narrator knows what each character is thinking and feeling, not just what they are doing throughout the story.  This type of narrator usually jumps around within the text, following one character for a few pages or chapters, and then switching to another character for a few pages, chapters, etc. Omniscient narrators also sometimes step out of a particular character’s mind to evaluate him or her in some meaningful way.

Rhythm - often thought of as a poem’s timing. Rhythm is the juxtaposition of stressed and unstressed beats in a poem, and is often used to give the reader a lens through which to move through the work. (See meter and foot)

Setting - the place or location of the action.  The setting provides the historical and cultural context for characters. It often can symbolize the emotional state of characters. Example – In Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, the crumbling old mansion reflects the decaying state of both the family and the narrator’s mind. We also see this type of emphasis on setting in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice.

Speaker - the person delivering the poem. Remember, a poem does not have to have a speaker, and the speaker and the poet are not necessarily one in the same.

Structure (fiction) - The way that the writer arranges the plot of a story.

Look for: Repeated elements in action, gesture, dialogue, description, as well as shifts in direction, focus, time, place, etc.

Structure(poetry) - The pattern of organization of a poem. For example, a Shakespearean sonnet is a 14-line poem written in iambic pentameter. Because the sonnet is strictly constrained, it is considered a closed or fixed form. An open or free form poem has looser form, or perhaps one of the author’s invention, but it is important to remember that these poems  are not necessarily formless.

Symbolism - when an object is meant to be representative of something or an idea greater than the object itself.

  • Cross - representative of Christ or Christianity
  • Bald Eagle - America or Patriotism
  • Owl - wisdom or knowledge
  • Yellow - implies cowardice or rot

Tone - the implied attitude towards the subject of the poem. Is it hopeful, pessimistic, dreary, worried? A poet conveys tone by combining all of the elements listed above to create a precise impression on the reader.

How might you engage your reader by incorporating more figurative language (anecdote, narrative, simile, metaphor, dialogue, personification and such)? How might you offer more valid comparisons using these techniques?

“All the world’s a stage”—have you ever wondered why people remember and quote lines from Shakespeare so much? One of the reasons is because he used figurative language very effectively in his writings. You may have heard the term “figurative language” before, and perhaps when you heard it you were in a class analyzing novels or poetry. But figurative language is not just used in literature: you can employ it in your essay writing to great effect. Figurative language adds color to your writing by taking your words and applying them to other, often unexpected, objects or concepts. By using figurative language, you can create vivid images in your reader’s mind that will not only give your writing a more distinctive style and make it more enjoyable to read but will also help make your argument more convincing. So what exactly do these terms—metaphor, simile, and personification—mean, and how can they be used?

A metaphor is a figure of speech that identifies one thing with another. Metaphors do not use “like” or “as” but equate the two terms you are comparing. Effective metaphors capture your reader’s attention, and by creating strong, clear, interesting images, help the reader better understand and remember your point.

  • The financial crisis in America was a tsunami whose waves of destruction battered the economies of countries all over the world.
  • Racial injustice is a disease that never seems to be cured.

A simile is a particular type of metaphor that compares two objects that are essentially not like one another. A simile, unlike a metaphor, introduces this comparison with the words “like” or “as.” My essay’s introduction is like the first sip of a fine wine—that is a simile; My essay’s introduction is the first sip of a fine wine—that is a metaphor. Used sparingly, similes can help your statements stand out and evoke thought-provoking images for your reader:

  • The fast food industry’s attempts to offer healthy menu options are like the 11th hour plea bargain of a death row inmate.
  • "Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness" (Orwell 316). [1]

Personification is giving animals, inanimate objects, and ideas human form, personality, or emotion. Though you would not want to employ personification too much in an essay (just as you also have to be careful about the frequency of your similes and metaphors—too many can make your writing tedious or pretentious), one or two uses of personification can make your writing more interesting and rhetorically effective.

  • With funding tight in many school systems across the country, art programs are being pick-pocketed by science and math programs.
  • The past will always come knocking on the politician’s door.


Here are some key things to remember when using figurative language:

  • Make your images clear, precise, and understandable (you want to interest and maybe intrigue your reader, not confuse him/her).
  • Stay away from clichéd comparisons (what’s the point of using figurative language if you’re just going to recycle the same tired metaphors?).
  • Avoid using too much figurative language (a little goes a long way).  

It would be a good idea to ask your classmate in a peer review session to evaluate your figurative language according to these criteria.

Figurative language can be used in any part of your paper.  Because it is more dramatic and visual than a direct statement in everyday language, it enables you to better arrest your reader’s attention and perhaps cause him/her to pause and think more about your assertions.  Metaphors, similes, and personification can help you better convey complex and abstract ideas because you are attaching these abstract ideas to an image and in that way making it more concrete and understandable.  Figurative language can also just make your writing more pleasurable to read and consequently more likely to gain your reader’s thoughtful consideration.  We all like to be entertained, even in just little ways, and are more likely to pay attention to things that seek to interest us.

Now go be the Shakespeare of essay writing.

[1] Orwell, George. "Why I Write." A Collection of Essays. Orlando: Harcourt, 1981. 316.

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