Overkill: how to use hyperbole in creative writing
Let me guess.
You just woke up sweating in the middle of the night, thinking, “Aaagh! If I don’t find out what hyperbole means right now, the world is doomed!”
And you leapt out of bed, rushed to your computer and scrabbled frantically at the keyboard.
Well, perhaps that’s a slight exaggeration.
But occasionally, while you’re reading in bed, you’ve come across the word and thought, ‘Hyperbole? I’m pretty sure it’s something to do with exaggeration. But I’m trying to develop my creative writing: I must look it up some time.’
Here’s everything you need to know about using hyperbole for your creative writing, with lots of examples of the different types:
So, what exactly is hyperbole?
Hyperbole (pronounced high-PER-bol-ee) is a written or spoken language device which uses exaggeration for a more powerful effect, which isn’t meant to be taken literally. Depending on the context, it can add a humorous touch, express a greater feeling of distress or urgency or simply make a story appear more exciting.
It works by comparing a relatively dull situation with a more dramatic scenario. For example, we often describe pain, discomfort or embarrassment by comparing it with death:
- I hate these new shoes – my feet are killing me.
- My sister will murder me if I don’t get there in time to babysit.
- If I don’t get some chocolate soon, I’m going to die.
- I was so embarrassed, I nearly dropped dead on the spot.
- My boss will chop me up into little bits when I tell her I forgot to send that email.
Another familiar example is comparing quantities or measurements with enormous or tiny amounts:
- He still has a ton of homework to finish.
- I’ll never see you once you’re a million miles away at university.
- That job only pays about $2 a week.
- I’ve told you a thousand times, don’t leave the lid off the toothpaste.
- If I eat all that, I’ll be the size of an elephant.
Some forms of hyperbole use superlatives, describing something good or bad as the very best or worst of its kind:
- She’s the most beautiful baby in the world.
- That’s the silliest suggestion I’ve ever heard.
- Coming to this party is the worst thing that ever happened to me.
- That’s the greatest toy ever!
Others suggest that overdoing everyday activities will have exaggerated results:
- All this studying! I think my brain’s going to explode!
- I’ve been working my fingers to the bone.
- If you keep your jacket on, you’re going to boil in that hot sun.
- My feet are going to fall off if I walk another step.
- He’s been bending my ear, telling me all his problems.
Or exaggerate the frequency with which things occur:
- My kids do nothing but play computer games.
- She’s always complaining about her health.
- You’ve got no chance whatsoever of winning the lottery.
- Oh, Mom! You never let me go out and play!
How to use hyperbole for your creative writing
Although they may be used sparingly in writing fiction, most of these types of hyperbole are too weak to improve your creative writing, because they’re too clichéd – we use them so often in speech that they’ve lost all their impact.
Obviously, the exception is in creating dialogue for your characters: giving them natural speech patterns is never wrong. tedious characters who don’t have many original ideas can use clichés to express their opinions, but quirky, intelligent characters should show more originality.
In Gerald Durrell’s memoirs, My Family and Other Animals, his brother Larry (later the writer Lawrence Durrell) frequently overreacts to problems by rephrasing them using hyperbole, which adds greatly to the humour of the book.
For example, when Gerry brought home a fierce black-backed gull, Larry claimed it was an albatross:
‘It’s a well-known thing. Even if you have just the feathers in the house everyone goes down with plague, or goes mad or something… we can’t have that thing in the house. It would be sheer lunacy. Look what happened to the Ancient Mariner. We’ll all have to sleep with crossbows under our pillows.’
If you’re writing a novel, you could assign this characteristic to one of the people in your story to strengthen the impact of their personality. So if a downtrodden character nervously drops three carrots on the kitchen floor, instead of the overbearing Aunt Maud snapping, “Pick those carrots up at once!”, she might demand, “Precisely how long am I expected to wade about this house knee-deep in assorted vegetables?”
Exaggerated descriptions often work well in creative writing:
- A tidal wave of dirty water gushed from the pipe.
- She was so fat, her eyes had almost disappeared, glinting suspiciously from between rolls of flesh.
- He was rumoured to have survived at least two ice ages.
- The chill cut through my bones like a buzz-saw, while the howling wind threatened to rip the hair from my head.
If you’re writing in the first person for your blog or memoirs, you can add hyperbole to your own viewpoint for humour or dramatic effect:
My son’s obsession with Star Wars is getting out of control. He spends his whole life dressed as Darth Vader. I can’t even open his bedroom door without tripping over spaceships and being savaged by Ewoks. I wouldn’t mind, but he’s 32.
Pillared and vast, the doorway of our new house swallowed us up as we walked into the echoing hallway. Flickering candles cast eerie shadows; the rest of the hall was as dark as a dungeon. I could almost hear the groans of tortured souls and see their ghosts flitting in the gloom. I clutched my sister’s hand.
Are there some good examples of hyperbole in your creative writing? Share them with us in the comments section!