Ok, saying that hyperbole is the best literary device ever might be an exaggeration (see what I did there?), but it’s still a pretty cool tool to have in your arsenal.
hyperbole: n. a big, dramatic exaggeration
You know those people who seem to be a little distanced from the truth? You know, like a fisherman whose catches get longer with each telling? Or guys who have a skewed concept of what an inch is? Those people are using hyperbole.
So hyperbole is kind of midway between telling the truth and lying, but it doesn’t have the negative connotations that lying does (hyperbole usually causes more of an amused or exasperated response… like an eye-roll or a sigh). Unless it’s done maliciously or to serve another character flaw like extreme arrogance (both are more rare), it’s considered more a personality quirk than a vice. Just don’t take it literally.
In writing, hyperbole is commonly used for humor, but you can use it however you like. It can go into dialogue, shape the plot, change the tone, or anything else your little heart desires. My personal favorite uses of hyperbole are for poetry, characterization, and brainstorming.
Since poetry is more abstract, it’s a great place for any and all figurative language. You can even combine them – using “a mountain of green” to describe money is probably both metaphor and hyperbole (You know, unless you actually have that much cash). Here’s a classic example by Lord Byron:
She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes;
Could the best of dark and bright really meet in her aspect and her eyes? Or is that an exaggeration? I know what I think, but I guess she could have been some sort of face of holding.
Want a character to be either amusing or annoying (or both)? Make them habitual hyperbole users (that sounds like a drug addiction). If they often exaggerate, then 1. their statements are usually a bit oddball, which can be funny, 2. they come off as somewhat unreliable (can I trust what they say?), and 3. their twisted truths can cause the plot to pause or shift (from the time it takes to whittle the truth out of them or the reactions if people believe the exaggerations).
Here are some examples of hyperbole as innate characterization:
- Hoban Washburne (Wash) from Firefly: “Hey, I’ve been in a firefight before. …Well, I was in a fire. …Actually, I was fired… from a fry-cook opportunity.”
- Usopp from One Piece: “I’m the great pirate fleet leader, Usopp, who is in charge of the security of this village.” (ok, so he’s a little closer to the boy who cried wolf…)
Of course, when the story is in first person, sometimes, you’re not quite sure which part is exaggeration and which is fact:
- Odd Thomas from Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz: “In spite of drinking lumberjacks under the table, regularly winning at poker with stone-hearted psychopaths who didn’t like to lose, driving fast cars with utter contempt for the laws of physics (but never while intoxicated), and eating a diet rich in pork fat, Granny Sugars died peacefully in her sleep at the age of seventy-two.”
Take an everyday, normal character and action. Then, pick a facet of the person and/or situation and make it larger than life. It’s a little like twisting the truth to make it look more impressive or fantastic than it actually is. For example, take a man walking to work and exaggerate it to…
- an alien gliding to work at a shuttle factory.
- a CEO of a car company walks into work because his car just died, and he found a serious flaw in the construction – one that shouldn’t have been there (dun dun dunnnn).
- a man walking through a graveyard to talk to a dead person because that’s his job (Deathwalker).
Warning: You don’t want to exaggerate everything. Like anything else in writing, contrast is important with hyperbole. How can you tell that part of the story is exaggerated and fantastic unless there’s a normal part to balance it out? So use it wherever you want, but make sure you provide enough contrast to keep it from overwhelming the story.