When I was growing up, my dad would sometimes pin me with his laser stare and ask, “Are you stretching the truth?” How could I possibly deny my exaggeration under those circumstances? I could only hang my head and mutter, “Yes, sir.” But now that I’m grown up and a writer of fiction, I find that exaggeration can sometimes be a good thing. In fact, when applied to writing, it has earned a fancy name—hyperbole. That sounds so much nicer than fabrication or embellishment or just out-and-out lying, doesn’t it?
I get a kick out of hearing people use hyperbole in everyday conversation. My friend Pat once told me, “I either have to get a haircut or a dog tag.” She’s a writer too, so we can forgive her for overstating the shagginess of her coiffure. And we’ve all heard the clichés:
“I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.”
“She’s as big as the side of a barn.”
“If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times ….” (Oops. There’s my dad again.)
But when used sparingly in writing, hyperbole can be an effective tool in adding color to our stories.
For example, In Macbeth, Shakespeare wrote:
"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."
I think it's unlikely that Macbeth's blood would actually turn the ocean red, but by using hyperbole, Shakespeare sure lets us know how guilty his character feels.
And then there's Mark Twain in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.
"There did not seem to be brains enough in the entire nursery, so to speak, to bait a fishhook with." Much more effective than writing, "The children were not too bright."
Flannery O’Connor (in “Parker’s Back”) wrote: “The skin on her face was as thin and drawn as tight as the skin on an onion and her eyes were gray and sharp like the points of two picks.” What a picture O’Connor painted!
In my first book, I.O.U. Sex, Peggy wants to lose weight before she tracks down her boyfriend from high school days: "I'm holdin' off 'til I'm as thin as a bar of soap after a hard day's washin'." My co-author and I thought that was much more fun than just saying she wanted to lose some pounds.
So go ahead and stretch the truth every once in a while. You’ll add spice to your writing, you’ll have fun doing it, and it’s perfectly okay – so long as you call it hyperbole.
*Note: This is a recycled post, which I originally published several years ago on the Boomers & Books blog, which is now inactive.