I’ve been trudging through the book The Crystilleries of Echoland by Dew Pellucid, a Fantasy children’s chapter book. So far it’s about a kid named Will who lives in a world where a lot of people, including his twin sister, are being kidnapped without explaination. It turns out that there’s this whole other world that Will has to enter and save in order to help both worlds. The world is a combination of futuristic science and woodland fantasy. So it’s got several interesting things going for it. What’s been driving me crazy about this book is the way the author uses figurative language.
This got me thinking, what are the dangers of overusing figurative language in writing, especially in fantasy?
I don’t want to poo-poo on the book too much, because I can tell that someone spent a lot of time trying to create something really nice. My personal opinions aside, let’s explore the opening paragraph and how it uses figurative language to build its world.
Will Cleary walked into his father’s dusty library. At the center, a huge book was spread open on a pedestal like a bird with papery wings; and like a bird, the book was trapped in a cage of glass that reflected Will’s face back at him. The twelve-year-old boy looked like a scarecrow with big sad eyes.
The Crystilleries of Echoland, pg. 1, Dew Pellucid
So several things about this passage stood out to me while I was reading it for the first time.
The issue with using common comparisons like “birds in a cage” can be dangerous, as some readers will skip by this description without it really making an impact. It’s become such an idiom, a daily interaction with the reader, that it loses any true comparison power.
The most confusing aspect of this paragraph is what we’re supposed to picture. I’m aware this is a fantasy book, so I’m expecting elements of magic or maybe objects that have magical properties.
Let’s explore a different passage for a moment.
The forest seemed to sprint toward them, trying to run them down as if the trees were bewitched.The Crystilleries of Echoland, pg. 25, Dew Pellucid
In this scene, Will is running through the forest. However, because of the use of Personification, the trees are the ones running as if they were magical. The trees might actually be magical. This might explain why they seemed to move while Will was running.
However I don’t think that’s what the author was going for. I think the author was trying to describe the feeling of the trees moving by as Will runs through the forest.
Using too much figurative language in Fantasy can make your readers believe aspects of the world that aren’t true.
In Fantasy, there will be events and objects that don’t exist in our world. That’s why as writers, we have to walk a fine line between using words that help the readers picture and help the readers imagine.
All of these considerations are especially important in children’s literature where young readers might not be able to easily grasp the concept of figurative language and be able to separate it from what’s actually going on.
In my first example paragraph there’s four different figurative statements being made.
Three of these are connected, but also confusingly arranged so that they aren’t linear. Then the last (Will to scarecrow) is completely separate from the main comparison of the paragraph. Which is that there’s a book with wing-like pages trapped behind a glass container that reminds Will of a caged bird.
While this entire comparison is very interesting, the tacked on scarecrow comparison detracts from the strength of the main Simile. Instead of focusing on the book comparison, the readers end the paragraph thinking of how Will can look like a sad scarecrow.
Likewise in the second example, several things are happening to describe one feeling. The trees are running towards Will, but they’re also bewitched. They’re also trying to run him down. I’m assuming that Will is dodging between trees in the forest. But because there are three different statements about one action, I lose the impact of the figure of speech.
Stick with one solid comparison or metaphor per paragraph (or less) to ensure readers don’t get focused on the wrong things.
While we all want to use unique metaphorical language in our writing, sometimes we run the risk of being to abstract and therefore confusing readers. This is especially the danger for Fantasy, where people can have animal-like features or special abilities.
The problem with comparing Will’s face to a scarecrow to show that he looks sad, is that there are many aspects of a scarecrow that don’t conjure up an image of a sad boy. We think of fields, crows, straw, scary faces. Then we apply these subconscious thoughts to the way Will looks. Maybe Will is actually a boy made out of straw in this world — who really knows? Nope. Nope, he’s not. And he’s not scary or doll-like either.
The point is, we must be original AND accurate.
Be considerate of what other readers might think of with your comparison. Make sure that the emotion or image you’re trying to conjure up in their minds will match the figurative language.
Whew, thanks for getting through that with me. I’m going to keep reading this book, because I’ve heard great things. Right now it’s not a recommended read, but we’re all works in progress.
Writing is difficult, especially for children. Let’s work hard to become stronger writers together.