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MOWMT Bonus Day! Tim McGlen Gooses Stories with Figurative Language

Goose Your Story with Figurative Language

by Tim McGlen

You’ve read your manuscript aloud again and again. It feels like a good story. Seems likethe pieces are in place. Yet … something’s flat. Something you can’t identify. Is it the story world? Emotional punch? Characterization? The fix just might be figurative language, which can unlock a story in multiple ways. Let’s look at examples of good figurative language that affects story. The opening spread of Jane Yolen’s Owl Moon, a clinic in figurative language, wastes no time establishing mood and place, rendering readers helpless but to follow. Two similes work on multiple human senses. It was late one winter night, long past my bedtime, when Pa and I went owling. There was no wind. The trees stood still as giant statues. And the moon was so bright the sky seemed to shine. Somewhere behind us a train whistle blew, long and low, like a sad, sad song.

In contrast, Marianne Dubuc’s Bear and the Whisper of the Wind employs exactly one simile, perfectly wrought and perfectly placed at the moment when all seems lost for our main character. Because this simile stands alone, it stands out. It is child-relatable, memorable via alliteration, and expresses emotion. He finds shelter underneath a big pine tree. “My bundle is full of water, and my boots are like bathtubs!” Bear moans. With Bear’s crisis expertly presented, the victory at the end of his profound journey becomes deeply satisfying. In both Owl Moon and Bear and the Whisper of the Wind, strategic placement of similes seems important. Another way to empower your story is employing assonance—the repetition of a vowel sound—and alliteration—the repetition of an initial consonant sound. Assonance and alliteration can advance story. Look at the important work they do in these next two books.

Early in Mac Barnett’s retelling of The Three Billy Goats Gruff, assonance works with its pal rhyme to cast a spotlight on the troll’s character. Goat smoked, goat poached, a goat pot roast. Goat smorgasbord! Goat smeared on toast! A goat kale salad—hold the kale. Goat escargot! (That’s goat plus snails.) We do not need to be told this troll is a glutton; the conspicuous assonance shows us.

Alliteration goes to work in Beth Ferry’s The Bold, Brave Bunny, beginning but not ending with the title. In the story, Teetu lives in a burrow with his family. Alliteration helps establish this clan’s populous pep, the trigger that pushes Teetu into the world. When he turned the pages of his brand-new book, more … bunnies. The baby bunnies were beside themselves. We’re in a book! Good examples of assonance and alliteration abound. It’s worth digging beneath the surface to see the real impact on story. Finally, a look at simile’s partner, metaphor.

In my book Antonino’s Impossible Dream, when a frustrated painter makes a new friend, metaphor expresses his feelings. Her smile hatched rainbows in Antonino’s heart. Compare that to the plainly stated “Her smile brought Antonino joy.” Which is more memorable? Have fun applying figurative language to your work. If at first you don’t succeed, trial and error means you are working at your craft. Persist, and you may strike gold.

Tim McGlen writes and teaches in western New York. Antonino’s Impossible Dream is his debut picture book. Connect with him on Twitter @TimMcGlen. Prize: PB Critique (500 words max) + 30-min. ZOOM chat


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