Hyperbole: What Is It and How to Use It in Your Writing
- Definition of hyperbole: What is it?
- Why use hyperbole in writing?
- Examples of hyperbole
- Improve your writing with hyperbole
Hyperbole uses figurative language to make an overstatement or exaggeration. This figure of speech creates emphasis and depending on the context, you can use it for comic or dramatic effect, to create vivid images, or to convey intensity or emotion.
The following hyperbole definition will help you understand this device and distinguish it from other literary terms. Hyperbole examples and their function allow you to use them in your own creative writing to best effect.
Definition of hyperbole: What is it?
Hyperbole overstates or exaggerates, for example, circumstances, qualities or effects. As a rhetorical device or figure of speech, hyperbole takes a true statement and intensifies it to the extreme: “How much do you weigh, a ton?”. The shortest definition for hyperbole is, therefore, overstatement or extravagant exaggeration. It aims to create the most extreme form of a statement: “I died of shame” is already figurative language, and the hyperbole “I was so embarrassed, I died a thousand deaths” seeks to create a superlative of that.
The word hyperbole is pronounced ‘hi-PUR-bow-lee.’ It came into the English language from the Latin hyperbola, which goes back to the Greek word hyperballein, a composite of hyper for ‘beyond’ and the verb ballein meaning ‘to throw.’ The English adjective we use is ‘hyperbolic.’
Synonyms for hyperbole are overstatement, exaggeration or over-exaggeration, embellishment, magnification, or auxesis (meaning growth). In everyday speech, we use hyperbole to make a powerful impression, to emphasize and evoke feelings. As a rhetorical device or figure of speech, it can become a caricature, and we rarely take the meaning literally. “He has a brain the size of a pea” creates a vivid image most listeners will understand, but not take for fact.
Context is often important for hyperbole. We infer the intention of the speaker or the statement from what is exaggerated, not the actual meaning of the words. “To the moon and back” expresses vastness or a long way, but it’s also an impossible distance for the average person, raising questions if such a statement is sincere. “I love you to the moon and back” might sound romantic when you’re wearing rose-colored glasses but it can also come across as “cheesy” or insincere.
What is the difference between hyperbole and litotes?
Hyperbole as extreme exaggeration or overstatement has a direct opposite in extreme understatement, also known as meiosis, or diminishment. Examples are referring to the ocean as “The Pond”, saying, “I’ve run into a bit of trouble” when there’s been a major accident or mishap, or stating “It’s nothing,” when indeed it is something.
As a figure of speech, litotes is a special case in which the speaker creates a magnification by denying its opposite. The negation of the understatement, therefore, becomes an overstatement:
- “Not bad.” = good
- “He’s not exactly splitting the atom” = He’s not very intelligent
- “It’s no small feat” = It’s quite an accomplishment
Meiosis uses understatement to make something seem smaller than it is. Litotes, as a figure of speech, emphasizes the magnitude of something by denying its opposite, often ironically.
Why use hyperbole in writing?
Hyperbolic statements in creative writing grab the reader’s attention - when they stand out. Constant exaggeration can be exhaustive and will work against the audience’s suspension of disbelief. Hyperbole, therefore, is one of the quickest and easiest ways to create an unreliable narrator. We learn not to trust a character who’s full of “tall tales”.
Hyperbole is one of the literary devices such as simile, metaphor, personification, or euphemism which use figurative language to create meaning beyond the conventional definition of the individual words, deviating from the literal meaning. It’s more than selecting the strongest one of many synonyms in a thesaurus.
Hyperbole doesn't make a comparison, but an extravagant exaggeration or ridiculous overstatement. It can describe a duration or a quantity but works particularly well as intensification or emphasis on feelings and emotions. Hyperbole will most often appear in the direct speech of your characters.
In the narrative voice, this figure of speech will influence the relationship between narrator and reader and can be appealing or distancing. In screenwriting, you’re unlikely to use hyperbole in action lines and descriptions, since the meaning is not to be taken literally.
Hype can be short for hyperbole and usually emphasizes or exaggerates the benefits of something. Advertising makes use of hyperbolic messaging in slogans and statements to persuade customers and drive sales: “Red Bull gives you wings,” “The king of beers” (Budweiser), and “Breakfast of champions” (Wheaties) are such examples.
Examples of hyperbole
The figurative language of everyday conversation and life is full of hyperbole examples, which exaggerate to express emotions, emphasize or even create ironic, absurd, or grotesque overstatements.
Where art mimics real life, you’ll find characters using hyperbolic figures of speech in books and movies. Hyperbole can also appear in narratives, visually on screen or in a film script.
Playwright William Shakespeare employed figurative language to allow his characters to speak in rich, often hyperbolic metaphors. “The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars”, Romeo says of Juliet and claims that even the birds would mistake that brightness for day instead of night.
In Macbeth, the titular main character has figurative blood on his hands, which he cannot wash off, just like he can’t rid himself of the guilt of murder.
“Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather The multitudinous seas incarnadine, Making the green one red ”
It’s hyperbolic to assume that cleaning his hands in the ocean would turn them red from all the blood. Yet speaking figuratively, Macbeth shows how heavy his conscience weighs on him. Lady Macbeth replies that literal water—and clean hands—are enough to be done with it: “'A little water clears us of this deed.”
In Old Times on the Mississippi, author Mark Twain illustrates helplessness with hyperbole: “I could have hung my hat on my eyes, they stuck out so far.” F. Scott Fitzgerald uses a metaphor when the narrator describes Daisy’s voice. However, it is hyperbole that elevates the statement: “It was full of money—that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals’ song of it.”
“I’m king of the world!” Jack declares in Titanic and though we know he’s far from it by any standard, we intuitively understand the feeling of elation that the outcry conveys. The line adds emotional emphasis, further heightening the rush of standing elevated at the bow, for which we have enough visual cues as well.
You can also use hyperbole in film to create contrast, for example between a character’s words and their actions. “To infinity and beyond!” is the tagline of Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story, which would already be hyperbolic for a real astronaut, let alone a toy. The contrast between the statement and Buzz’s capabilities becomes clear when he activates his laser weapon, which turns out to be only a red light.
Hyperbole is common in movie trailers, which are advertising and can overstate the film’s premise, stakes or content. For example, through editing, showing all the highlights and action scenes in a short time, or through narration, such as over-the-top voice-over lines.
Tropes can be hyperbolic as well. A trope is a theme or archetype recurring across a genre, such as an evil or mad villain or a near-almighty hero, devoted to fighting crime because of childhood trauma. Films can exaggerate tropes visually, by making a villain look hideous, employing gloomy lighting or angles, or by adding overly dramatic music.
‘Not hyperbole’ has become a trope itself, particularly in movies. It usually refers to a character making a hyperbolic statement or prediction; shortly after, that exact thing occurs. Examples of this trope are a character claiming to be nauseated by lies, and then having to throw up in the face of a lie, or a hero claiming to kick a villain through a wall, and then literally following through.
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The use of hyperbole is common in the expressions we use every day. We overstate or overrepresent numbers to show an abundance or simply a lot: “I was attacked by a million mosquitoes.” We frequently hype things up to interest, motivate or convince someone: “You don’t want to miss the best party ever!” However, when we want to convey irony with this figure of speech, we might pair hyperbole with a deadpan delivery, a flat voice or an indifferent facial expression.
Negated understatement, litotes, is also a popular way to show appreciation of things without sounding overly enthusiastic. We might say “not shabby” instead of luxurious, “I can’t complain” when things are going well or “you managed to not screw up” when someone succeeded.
Another frequently used hyperbole in English and by now a figure of speech itself is the word ‘literally’, which we use with its opposite meaning, ‘figuratively.’ Adding “literally” to a statement therefore often qualifies it as not true and an obvious exaggeration. We say, “I’m literally starving” when we’re hungry, and “It’s literally killing me” for a nuisance.
Taking FOREVER: Improve your writing with hyperbole
As with many literary devices, less is usually more for hyperbole. It is intentional exaggeration, dramatic overstatement and obvious emphasis that should stand out. Hyperbole can only do that for your writing when your work is not saturated with it.
It’s a different matter when one of your characters is prone to hyperbolic statements. You can show their true nature when they constantly talk like that, but the rest of your cast or ensemble should have contrasting habits and traits.
Check your use of the word literally; it can serve as a marker for hyperbole, but try to create powerful figures of speech that don’t rely on it. As a rule of thumb, ‘literally’ is best avoided, unless it’s part of a character’s way of talking.
Hyperbole is not cliche per se, but unfortunately, it’s easy to fall into the trap of cliches when aiming for the hyperbolic: “I could eat a horse” is both a cliche and hyperbole. Think of an exaggeration that truly fits the circumstances and the character to avoid overused figures of speech.