A writer’s toolbox needs to be diverse, and hyperbole can have a valuable place there. But it is one of those tools—like that fetchingly useful ‘ratcheting socket wrench, with indexable sockets’ that can feel a bit clumsy in the hand. We take it out for special needs, have difficulty pronouncing it, and use it rarely. (Never would we hit anyone over the head with it.)
Use of hyperbole creates an exaggerated effect. It comes from a Greek word that means, in essence, an over-scattering of seed. (Overkill might be modern usage.)
It is meant to be a teaching or memorization aid, and should serve to fix the desired object—scene, character, bit of wisdom— in the reader’s mind.
My current reading interest is the genre known as the ‘English country house novel’. Recently, while reading the article by Lev Grossman on the topic, I came across his brilliant use of hyperbole:
‘It wouldn’t quite be accurate to say that the English country house novel is currently being revived; there certainly are a lot of them right now, but as far as I can tell it never expired in the first place. You could walk from here back to the 18th century stepping only on English country house novels and never get your feet wet …’
An effective and engaging use of hyperbole; one that fixed his point firmly in my mind.
The antithesis to hyperbole can be found in one simple sentence. Another example of how the right use of words, in this case the sparing use, can fix a scene, character, or idea in one’s mind. Margery Sharp is a master at scene setting and character sketching with just a few strokes of crisp, spare prose.
“Miriam Oleson entered. That was what she had been trained to do at her finishing school on the Boulevard St. Germain, and she never forgot.” —Rhododendron Pie, by Margery Sharp
We learn so much about Miriam Oleson from this simple strand of words. Like hyperbole, deconstructed.
Hyperbole…use it in a sentence…or perhaps a haiku?
“Let’s fly to the moon and seize
some string theory cheese…”
Okay, I’ll put my ratcheting sock wrench with indexable sockets back in the toolbox now.
More about the novels of Margery Sharp here.