We all exaggerate, right? There’s the little exaggeration of how many miles you ran on the treadmill or the slight exaggeration of how immensely talented your children are. Sometimes we exaggerate to spice up the stories we tell friends. The action is always better when you throw in an angry python or two when it was actually a harmless garter snake that scared the pants off you.
In writing, exaggeration is a literary technique with a specific purpose: to add extra stress and drama to your story.
What is exaggeration?
Exaggeration is any statement that creates a worse, or better, image or situation than it really is. It’s used to highlight points and add emphasis to a feeling, an idea, an action, or a feature. Using exaggeration in your writing lets you describe something in a heightened way to make it more remarkable. Poets use exaggeration through similes and metaphors.
And often, exaggeration is paired with sarcasm and irony to create a humorous narrative.
Types of exaggeration
There are two types of exaggeration that writers use to create effect.
A writer crafts a statement that slightly exaggerates something to make his or her meaning more prominent. For example, a poet could overstate the actual truth of his beloved’s beauty and charisma by comparing her to famous people, works of art, or even opulent locations.
Hyperbole takes it over the top. It’s an extreme and extravagant exaggeration that’s impossible to believe. When you say your grandmother is as old as the hills or a bag of groceries weighs a ton, you’re using hyperbole.
Exaggerations are common
We use exaggerations every single day such as:
- His brain is the size of a peanut.
- My dog is the only one I talk to anymore.
- She would rather die than wear thrift store clothes.
- That baby will drown in his own tears.
- This car is older than Methuselah.
Examples of exaggerations in literature
If you haven’t read it yet, check out Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal. He uses his writing talent to make quite the social and political statement. This amusing read exaggerates a political solution to save Ireland from poverty: kill the children of poor Irish families and feed them as a delicacy to Ireland’s nobles. He even explains how their skin could make wonderful handbags and gloves.
The poem Song by John Donne is a list of impossible to achieve tasks. The opening line tells the reader to Go and catch a falling star which, if possible, children all over the world would already have done. He also says it takes a journey of ten thousand days and nights to find a faithful woman. Beyond being an obvious exaggeration, this is an example of misogyny in literature.
Finally, Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions by Daniel Wallace was adapted into a film by Tim Burton. In this story, Edward Bloom is dying of cancer. His son Will hasn’t spoken to him for years because he finally got sick of his father’s exaggerated stories as nothing more than lies. It’s on Edward’s deathbed that he relives the stories he told and Will finally comes to understand the truth in them. Surprise ending (read the book or watch the movie).
Consider how you can use exaggeration in your next story. For example, a character may use exaggeration as manipulation, much like a child uses big eyes, tears, and sobs to get attention. Another character could use exaggeration to deliberately skew the facts about someone’s reputation as character assassination. There are as many ways to use exaggeration in your WIP as your imagination can think them up.