How does a writer create emphasis and evoke strong feeling from the reader in describing an emotion or event or object that is almost too fantastic to believe? She uses the rhetorical device known as hyperbole. “Hyperbole” comes from the Greek word meaning “exaggeration.”
Exaggeration can be effective in both comedy and drama. Or it can make the reader roll his eyes. “This bag weighs a ton,” is of the eye-rolling variety. In everyday speech, a husband might say, “I waited an eternity for my wife to get ready.” Or, “You could have knocked me over with a feather.” We’ve all heard, “I nearly died laughing,” and “He’s got tons of money.” We use these Over the Top Expressions often and they have become clichés.
Writers want to avoid clichés in most instances. The goal of the writer is to add fun or emphasis by creating appropriate hyperbole, enhancing the tone of the story. Hyperbole links writer and reader in a conspiracy that says, this is too good not to use, but it’s not to be taken literally. Even though it is implausible, the exaggeration gets the point across when a simple metaphor seems too weak.
Many great writer have employed hyperbole.
In the Folk Tale, Paul Bunyan, it took five storks to deliver the baby giant.
Homer. The Iliad
“Mars roared as loudly as nine or ten thousand men in the thick of a fight, and the Achaeans and Trojans were struck with panic, so terrible was the cry he raised.”
James Thurber. “University Days.”
Thurber talks about his dismal showing in military drilling when he was a student at Ohio State. He seems to have driven his drill instructor to hyperbole. “I was no good at all. Once General Littlefield, who was commandant of the cadet corps, popped up in front of me during regimental drill and snapped. ‘You are the main trouble with this university!’ I think he meant that my type was the main trouble with the university but he may have meant me individually.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson. “Concord Hymn.”
“By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood
And fired the shot heard round the world.”
Ah, this takes me back to the seventh grade and Mrs. Alison’s English class.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The Hundred Years of Solitude.
“He was a fugitive from all the plagues and catastrophes that had ever lashed mankind.”
William Shakespeare. Othello.
“…On horror’s head horrors accumulate;
Do deeds to make heaven weep, all earth amazed;
For nothing canst thou to damnation add
Greater than that.”
Hyperbole is also effective in literature for children.
C. Collodi. The Adventures of Pinocchio.
“He cried all night, and dawn found him still there, though his tears had dried and only hard, dry sobs shook his wooden frame. But they were so loud that they could be heard by the faraway hills…”
In my “The Case of the Missing Mascot,” (published in Characters Magazine), the principal, Mrs. Gardner, gives Karen permission to search the school for the missing plush bear.
“The bell rang and a few of the kids went home. They were the ones who didn’t want to see the team get ground into the dirt. Most everybody stayed to give the team moral support in its darkest hour.
“As I left the gym, the Oak Hill team arrived. That was when I remembered the key to the trophy case. I checked its nail in Mrs. Gardner’s office. It wasn’t there.
“About an hour and a million classrooms later, I returned to the scene of the crime, empty-handed.”
The very premise behind Bruce Coville’s My Teacher Flunked the Planet is hyperbolic in nature. The whole planet?! What fun.
Let me know of any hyperboles you have used in your work.
Well, I have to go now. I’m so hungry I could eat an elephant.