Hyperbole (high-per-bah-lee) is by far the best thing the ancient Greeks gave us (sorry philosophy, epic poetry, and thick, fat-free yogurt).
It works precisely because it draws attention to itself. An overwrought metaphor can kill an entire page. A too-literal analogy might drive a whole argument to the gutter. A subtle hyperbole? Get outta here, (oxy)moron! The more ridiculous the exaggeration (hyperbole is a descendant of the Greek word for excess), the more entertaining the effect.
Today, let’s talk about how to use these deliciously over-baked word pastries in your writing (wasn’t that the best overwrought metaphor, ever?).
But first, some inspiration from the masters:
I was quaking from head to foot, and could have hung my hat on my eyes, they stuck out so far.
(Mark Twain, Old Times on the Mississippi)
At that time Bogota was a remote, lugubrious city where an insomniac rain had been falling since the beginning of the 16th century.
(Gabriel García Márquez, Living to Tell the Tale)
Bar no holds
The key to good hyperbole is taking it far enough. Not doing so can leave your writing awkwardly ambiguous. Take this sentence:
I was so miserable as a kid, I don’t think I laughed until I turned twelve.
Is it exaggeration? Black humor? An expression of a truly awful childhood? Context might have helped us here, but it’s hard to tell from the statement itself. Now, take a look at this (warning: these might be the best two minutes of your life):
I know, I know: we can’t all aspire to Monty Pythonesque levels of brilliance. But the point is clear, hopefully: don’t be shy of pushing your hyperbolic moments to absurdity. That’s where they belong.
Drop it with precision
For the ridiculousness of hyperbole to work, you have to exercise good judgment in choosing when — and how often — to deploy it. As the clip above proves, you can create entire pieces built around playful exaggeration. If you enjoy writing satire or parody on your blog, you could experiment with a post that lampoons a cultural phenomenon or political position that way (to name a couple of obvious examples).
More often than not, though, hyperbole works best when it’s surrounded by straight-up prose — the contrast between regular declarative sentences and the hyperbolic statement will amplify its effect, whether you’re aiming for laughs, shock, or some other emotional reaction from your reader.
It’s important to note that not all hyperbole comes in the shape of a highly polished rhetorical gem. We’re actually surrounded by hyperbole in everyday speech: “this is taking forever,” “I’d bet a million bucks,” “that’s the best thing ever,” and even “LOL” (among many others) are used all the time.
Used in the right context, or with added exaggeration (“I’d bet a gazillion Ducats!”), these humble phrases pack an impressive rhetorical punch.
Mix and match
Too much of only one good thing can get annoying — yes, you can overdo exaggeration. Mixing up your rhetorical and other devices is always a good idea, and even more so when it comes to hyperbole. For example, understatement works particularly well next to hyperbole. These two contrasting figures feed off each other’s energy, often to great effect. A case in point is this famous JFK zinger:
I think this is the most extraordinary collection of human talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered at the White House — with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.
(John F. Kennedy, speaking at the White House to dozens of Nobel Prize laureates)
Another great way to use hyperbole is in lists — the natural buildup that comes with the format is a perfect fit for increasingly over-the-top humor. Alternatively, the poets (and poetry lovers) among you might also take a stab at some hyperbolic verse. Whether you’ll be extolling the unparalleled beauty of your parakeet or making fun of anyone who would, you’ll be in good company:
To lift Gertrude up almost broke all their beaks
And to fly her back home, it took almost two weeks
And then it took almost another week more
To pull out those feathers. My, Gertrude was sore!
(Dr. Seuss, The Big Brag)
If it’s good enough for Dr. Seuss, only the most obstinate, humorless, tedious killjoy would object. And that’s an understatement.