In the right hands, writers can use hyperbole to create memorable quotes and iconic characters. But in the wrong hands, hyperbole can make both your characters and your stories seem like a joke.
But what is hyperbole? What role does it serve in writing, and how can you use it the right way? Keep reading to discover the definition of this classic literary device, along with some helpful hyperbole example from literature and everyday speech.
The hyperbole literary definition
Hyperbole is a specialized type of literary device that uses exaggerated statements in order to enhance certain narrative effects on the reader. In fact, the word “hyperbole” comes from the Greek word “huperbole,” which means “to throw above.” Hyperbole adds comedic moments to a story, enhances sarcasm, and can even lend your characters a mythic flair in dramatic writing. We pronounce hyperbole as “hyPER-boly.”
One of the reasons that this figure of speech is so effective in writing is that hyperbole is a major part of our everyday conversations. We’ve all heard at least one person in their lives talk about being “so hungry I could eat a horse.” Logically, the person’s stomach couldn’t contain an entire horse, and horsemeat probably isn’t their first choice. But the statement easily conveys the idea that they could eat a lot of anything in a much more evocative way than if he’d simply said “I’m so hungry.”
In your own stories, selective use of hyperbole as a rhetorical device can do the same thing. Specifically, it can replace more boring and shopworn phrases with something much more memorable!
The purpose of hyperbole in writing
While hyperbole is a very versatile literary device, its primary purpose is either to bring humor to a story, or to emphasize a point the writer wishes to make. In many cases, good hyperbole is capable of doing both at the same time.
For instance, imagine you want to tell readers how cheap and thrifty a character really is. You might use hyperbole as part of a simile, saying “He’s tighter with his money than a rubber band wrapped around a leaky bottle of superglue.” The extreme exaggeration is meant to be funny to the reader, as over-the-top imagery. At the same time, the writer is using exaggeration to emphasize just how cheap this particular character is.
As with other figures of speech, though, the golden rule of hyperbole is that it should help move your plot along. So while hyperbole can help elevate emotion or craft effective comedy beats, those two things shouldn’t be your end goal as a writer. Instead, hyperbole is a way of helping us to better understand your overall narrative.
We’ll look at some hyperbole examples from literature later on so you can see what others have done.
Here are some ways this common literary device is used in literature:
Hyperbole can elevate feelings
Hyperbole is great for showing strong emotion among characters. It’s also an effective tool for eliciting those same emotions in your audience.
Even relatively basic feelings can be elevated by hyperbole. We see this in everyday conversation all the time. When a character complains that they’ve already studied their book “a million times,” it’s highly unlikely they’ve literally counted and gone over the text 1,000,000 times already. However, this hyperbole lets us know the character is impatient, easily annoyed, and probably a bit of a whiner. With just a little hyperbole here and there, you can communicate character feelings in such a way that readers feel they really understand who this person is.
Hyperbole is particularly effective in elevating intense emotions such as love. W. H. Auden is a master of this, as we can see in his poem “As I Walked Out One Evening.” Auden tackles a familiar theme: eternal love. But using hyperbole in his poetry, Auden can approach this time-worn theme from a fresh perspective.
I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you
Till China and Africa meet,
And the river jumps over the mountain,
And the salmon sing in the street.
Auden is describing a series of things that can literally never happen, from rivers leaping over mountains to fish coming ashore to sing. These events are absurd, but they are prefaced by the idea that this is how long the speaker will love another person. In this way, hyperbole helps Auden take a concept that most people are familiar with (loving someone forever) and present it in a fresh way by simply redefining how long “forever” will be.
Hyperbole highlights emphasis
As we’ve discussed, the most basic purpose of hyperbole is to give something a special emphasis. An exaggerated and sometimes absurd figure of speech helps emphasize something in a way that literal prose just can’t do.
Harper Lee provides some great examples of hyperbole in To Kill a Mockingbird. She describes life in the small town like this:
A day was twenty-four hours long but seemed longer. There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County.
Obviously, there was not actually “nowhere to go” and “nothing to buy,” much less “no money to buy it with.” However, Lee effectively uses hyperbole to emphasize how the town was both poor and boring more effectively than simply writing “the town was poor and boring.”
Hyperbole creates contrast
Hyperbole is powerful in writing because it provides points of contrast with the rest of the prose. In turn, a lack of hyperbole in the rest of a narrative helps the occasional use of hyperbole really stand out.
Hyperbole is so effective on audiences because it’s unexpected. In small doses, hyperbole will always stand out from the regular prose around it. However, writers who use too much hyperbole risk diluting the effect because the exaggeration won’t stand out anymore.
Hyperbole can be funny (and thought-provoking)
The exaggeration of hyperbole helps make comedy more effective. This is why hyperbole goes hand-in-hand with satire.
Jonathan Swift uses several examples of this type of hyperbole in his novel A Modest Proposal. Swift uses figurative language to exaggerate dark comedy to the point that it becomes very strident social commentary:
I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricasie, or a ragoust.
Of course, Swift himself had no intention of eating children, but rather wanted to raise awareness about England’s policies against Ireland. But by using hyperbole to paint the British as cannibals with a taste for for Irish babies, Swift more effectively captures the reader’s imagination. The dark humor is as striking now as it was back then, and the comedic use of hyperbole helped Swift create the most famous satire in history.
Audiences are already primed to laugh at the absurd, especially if it comes out of nowhere. Therefore, a good hyperbole may be enough to make us laugh on its own.
Hyperbole also helps develop characters because it can show us the extreme, emotional, and exaggerated reactions they have to different situations. This is part of why so many comedians love hyperbole: it helps them transform their own unhappy experiences into something unexpected and entertaining, and audiences laugh because they can’t help but imagine how they would react to the same events.
Not all hyperbole is meant to be funny, and you can certainly use hyperbole to tell very dark and serious stories. However, even a little comedy can enhance almost any narrative, and hyperbole is one of the best ways to make your own audiences laugh. You’ll see this in some of our hyperbole examples later on.
Hyperbole creates relatable characters
Who hasn’t complained that a friend has already told you a story “a million times” before? Because we all use hyperbole in everyday speech, this sort of figurative language in dialogue can make characters seem more realistic. Hyperbole also helps authors create more archetypal characters that are instantly recognizable.
Hyperbole is part of our everyday vocabulary. A busy person might complain that their schedule will take “a million years to finish” to complain about their schedule in an exaggerated way—even if it isn’t literally true. Similarly, someone picking up an object may cry “it weighs a ton” to complain about the weight in an over-the-top way.
When characters use hyperbole in this familiar way, it makes them easier to relate to, because they’re using phrases and terms that the rest of us use in our daily lives.
Effective examples of hyperbole in literature
To better understand hyperbole, it’s important to review some famous examples of it. By understanding how these literary figures used hyperbole, you can better integrate it into your own writing.
1. Kurt Vonnegut
Kurt Vonnegut is a master of hyperbole. In Slaughterhouse Five, he uses hyperbole to describe what Dresden looks like after the firebombing attack that Vonnegut himself survived:
It wasn’t safe to come out of the shelter until noon the next day. When the Americans and their guards did come out, the sky was black with smoke. The sun was an angry little pinhead. Dresden was like the moon now, nothing but minerals. The stones were hot. Everybody else in the neighborhood was dead.
Vonnegut uses hyperbole to make the firebombed city feel like a harsh alien landscape. The sun being described as an “angry little pinhead” makes it seem like the characters are far away. Vonnegut emphasizes the otherworldliness by saying that the city “was like the moon now.” Obviously, Dresden did not suddenly become a replica of the moon, but the hyperbole helps emphasize how much the surrounding landscape had changed. Readers also get a sense of how the character is starting to disassociate, thinking of himself in a remote and empty landscape not unlike the moon.
2. Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Elizabeth Barrett Browning uses several examples of hyperbole. In her sonnet 43, “How do I love thee?,” she uses hyperbole to help measure love, something that can’t be measured by any objective metrics:
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
In sophisticated and concise language, Browning attempts to both measure the depths of love one person has for another with the effervescent feelings of romance and infatuation. In basic terms, the premise of the poem is that she will measure how much she loves another person, but she uses a metric that is impossible to calculate (after all, no one knows the “depth and breadth and height” her soul can reach). By using this impossible metric, she spells out the firm belief that her love for another person would be impossible to actually calculate.
In addition to being beautiful in and of itself, her poem will be familiar to anyone who’s struggled to find the right words to express how they feel about another person.
In both poetry and prose, Shakespeare uses hyperbole to help showcase the larger-than-life emotions of different characters. Several effective examples of his many hyperboles occur in Macbeth. In this passage, Macbeth is wrestling with his guilt:
Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No. This hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.
In Macbeth, the characters of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth often obsess about the blood on their hands. In the above quote, Macbeth ponders purifying himself by washing the blood off; but by comparing the amount of water he would need to the amount of water in the oceans, he creates an effective hyperbole. The comparison is absurd, of course, but the hyperbole lets us see that he has so much shame over what he did that he doesn’t think he can ever make it right. This helps us understand Macbeth better and even helps us understand his commitment to going forward with his villainous plans: in his mind, there’s no going back.
4. Mark Twain
Mark Twain is rightly known as a master of hyperbole. One of his best examples of hyperbole comes from his classic tale Old Times on the Mississippi. Check out how Twain describes his own sense of amazement:
I was quaking from head to foot, and could have hung my hat on my eyes, they stuck out so far.
Here, Twain combines some realistic fear responses (physically shaking and anxiously looking around) with over-the-top comparisons. He may have been scared, but his shaking is nothing like an actual earthquake; and it’s unlikely his entire body was shaking in this way. Similarly, young Twain was certainly looking around the new world, but the image he paints of eyes sticking out so that he could hang his hat from them is so cartoonish that it could be right out of a Looney Tunes short! In this way, Twain portrays his own fear and awe with hyperbole so unbelievable it makes the short sentence quite funny.
Figurative literary devices similar to hyperbole
Let’s look at some other literary devices and rhetoric language that are similar to hyperbole.
Hyperbole vs. exaggeration
In writing, exaggerated statements should always move the narrative forward. Selective use of this literary device helps authors develop narratives and characters in an organic, entertaining way.
The primary difference between hyperbole and exaggeration is that mere exaggeration is meant to make something seem better or worse than it really is—sometimes we see this being called “tall tales.” By definition, hyperbole relies on its unrealistic overexaggeration in order to make a larger point.
For example, saying a family had “enough food to feed an army” is hyperbole—unless they live in a well-equipped underground bunker, it’s unlikely that they could really store enough for that many people. To say they had “enough food to feed a pack of teenagers” is an exaggeration—it probably isn’t quite true, but it’s within the realm of possibility.
In literature, what a character exaggerates can affect how the reader perceives him. A character exaggerating how hard he worked may seem like someone unscrupulous but who wants more respect. A character exaggerating that a hard task was “no big deal,” by contrast, will come across as noble and possibly self-sacrificing. Whatever the writer or character exaggerates, though, we understand that standard exaggeration is relatively mild.
Hyperbole, by contrast, is over-the-top and unrealistic. As we noted before, nobody saying they’re “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse” actually plans to eat an actual horse. However, expressing their hunger in this way helps underscore how they’re really feeling. Similarly, writers using hyperbole are hoping to use stylized expressions to heighten or enhance a particular feeling.
Another way of looking at this is that all hyperbole is exaggeration but not all exaggeration is hyperbole. Rather, hyperbole must be characterized by it being over-the-top and unbelievable on the face of it.
Hyperbole vs. simile
Hyperbole and simile are often confused because a simile is also used to describe two things using the words “like” or “as.” Sometimes, these comparisons can be quite fanciful, like someone describing the summer heat by saying it’s “like an oven out there.”
While a hyperbole can sometimes be a simile, the difference between hyperbole and simile is that a hyperbole is so exaggerated that it cannot be taken seriously.
For example, the simile that “it’s hot like an oven out there” involves a bit of exaggeration, but not necessarily that much. Water boils at 212 Fahrenheit, for example, so comparing summer temperatures (which can easily be over 100 degrees) to something twice as hot is mild exaggeration. But if I said “it’s as hot as the surface of the sun out there,” then I’ve just used a hyperbole, because the sun is over 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit! This exaggeration is what makes hyperbole and simile differ.
Hyperbole vs. idiom
Hyperbole and idiom can also be confused because each one involves figurative language. Idioms are also used to emphasize a point, but they also have an extra layer of figurative language. The easiest way to spot the difference between the two is that hyperbole is an heightened exaggeration of something that could happen. Idiom, meanwhile, is often only understood metaphorically.
In our previous example of wanting to eat a horse, we understand the exaggeration because nobody can eat an entire horse in one sitting. However, people around the world do, in fact, eat horses as part of their diet. When someone says they’re hungry enough to eat a horse, we understand how unlikely it would be, but we also understand an exaggeration of the need to eat.
Compare this to the familiar idiom “it’s raining cats and dogs out there.” There is no natural relationship between the weather and these animals, so if you didn’t already know what the phrase meant, you’d be lost. It’s the same when someone describes getting a new title along with their promotion as “icing on the cake.” Food has nothing to do with raises or promotions, and we only know that “icing” means “extra” due to our familiarity with idioms. These two idioms aren’t exaggerations, so they’re not hyperboles.
If you’re ever stuck on whether something is hyperbole or idiom, ask yourself: would someone learning the language be able to figure out what the phrase means? Hyperbole is usually relatively intuitive because it involves extreme exaggeration. Idioms, meanwhile, can often be completely nonsensical to someone first learning the language.
Hyperbole vs. metaphor
Metaphors are literary devices that connects two unrelated ideas with the goal of helping the audience see them in a new way. Hyperbole can sometimes be metaphorical, but what makes a hyperbole is overexaggeration. Both of these literary devices are used to describe something creatively.
In other words, all hyperboles can be metaphors, but not all metaphors are hyperboles. It’s entirely possible to use metaphorical descriptions without using the intense exaggeration of hyperbole.
Incidentally, this is one of the reasons why we can only afford to use hyperbole very sparingly. Hyperbole stretches credulity and gets the reader’s attention, but it can also be jarring. By relying on metaphor much more often than you rely on hyperbole, you can make the hyperbole have an added effect on the rare occasions you engage in it.
How to write hyperbole
It can sometimes be difficult to come up with a good hyperbole. However, the key components to writing an effective hyperbole are to pick a particular subject, to decide what to exaggerate, and to fit the whole thing into your narrative.
As with many aspects of writing, this is easier said than done. However, our guide below should make the entire process easier for you.
Picking the subject of your hyperbole
Because hyperbole is a form of exaggeration, you must first pick your subject. While you’re not limited to these choices, the best subjects for hyperbole are usually emotions.
Sometimes, picking the subject for hyperbole means first picking a character. Ask yourself: out of your characters, who are likeliest to exaggerate something? When some characters are more prone to exaggeration and others are less prone, it helps your ensemble feel more realistic. Once you pick a character, you can then pick an emotion to exaggerate.
Keep in mind that exaggerated character reactions also help tell us about how your characters perceive and react to different events. If one of your characters sees a shadowy person and later claims “he was, like, ten feet tall,” it helps to sell to the reader just how scary the being seemed to the other character.
Decide what you want to exaggerate
The next step in writing hyperbole is deciding what to exaggerate.
For example, let’s say you picked a particular character as a subject for hyperbole. What will that character exaggerate? Will he exaggerate how long something took because he’s bored? Or exaggerate how awesome something was because he wants to feel heard? Maybe he’ll exaggerate something simply because he wants to make other characters laugh.
As you can see, hyperbole is often tied to character motivations. Chances are that you probably spend a lot of time imagining how your characters think and feel. With hyperbole, you need to put yourself in the minds of your characters. Ask yourself: how do others currently see this character? How would he or she prefer to be seen? From there, you can deduce what he or she might exaggerate in order to improve his reputation among others.
Fitting hyperbole into your narrative
Hyperbole is overexaggeration in order to create contrast, and is therefore meant to stand out. If you don’t want hyperbole to stand out in a negative way, though, you need to make sure that it fits your narrative.
The easiest way to do that is to make sure that hyperbole fits the characters using it. Would your character really exaggerate this thing, or would they take it seriously? Has this character used a statement like this before, or is this hyperbole seemingly coming out of nowhere?
In any given chapter, hyperbole is one of many different ingredients. As we noted before, good hyperbole enhances things like emotions, characters, and comedy beats without overpowering the entire chapter. Good hyperbole starts by making sure that your use of it isn’t overly jarring and that it propels both your characters and narrative forward.
Adding hyperbole to your own writing
Ultimately, hyperbole is a lot like chess. It may be simple enough to learn, but it takes a lot of time and practice in order to master.
To sharpen your hyperbole skills, try studying these examples and using the techniques in this article the next time you sit down to write a story. You might be surprised at just how far a little hyperbole can take you, your characters, and your narrative!