What Is the Function of Hyperbole in Literature?

Daniel Liden

Hyperbole is a literary technique in which a certain piece of information, feeling, or other statement is exaggerated intentionally for a certain effect. In most cases, the literal interpretation of a hyperbole could not actually be true, but the exaggeration serves to emphasize a certain point. The statement "I have a million things that I have to do today," for example, is a hyperbole — it means that the speaker has many things to do, but it is unlikely that anyone actually needs to do a million tasks in one day. Hyperbole can also be used in literature sarcastically or for the sake of humor, though it is most commonly used for emphasis.

A person might use the hyperbole, "I have a million things to do" to make a point.
A person might use the hyperbole, "I have a million things to do" to make a point.

In prose, hyperbole is generally used for the purpose of emphasis or for humor. A writer who wants to make a particular point may make that point by overstating or exaggerating it. Hyperbole can be used in descriptions to emphasize some particularly prominent feature of a character, for instance. It can also be used to describe an action that is remarkable in some way. In these and other similar cases, hyperbole is used to place emphasis on a particular action, feeling, or feature and is not meant to be taken literally.

Classic works of literature.
Classic works of literature.

Often, hyperbole in literature relies on imagery that can be quite humorous. While the main focus of a given use of hyperbole may simply be emphasis through overstatement, a humorous image is, intentionally or otherwise, often a secondary result. A man may be described as having "fingers like Italian sausages," for instance. While the purpose of this phrasing may be to comment on the size of the man's fingers, it relies on the humorous image of a man with thick, stubby, sausage-like fingers. Writers who use hyperbole, therefore, must be mindful of the images they rely upon, particularly if they do not want to infuse their work with humor.

Hyperboles might be used with the intention of infusing literature with humor.
Hyperboles might be used with the intention of infusing literature with humor.

Poets also commonly make use of hyperbole. It is, as in prose, generally used for emphasis, but is much more likely to be used exclusively for humor or at least to make a certain point through the use of humor. Hyperbole can also be used to emphasize a contrast: if one idea is exaggerated while another is stated normally or even understated, the result is an emphasis of the contrast between the two. This is particularly common in poetry that seeks to explore two or more opposed ideas.

Some novelists use hyperbole to give the reader more insight into characters.
Some novelists use hyperbole to give the reader more insight into characters.

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Discussion Comments


I love it when hyperbole is taken to a massive extent. I remember reading a book where the main character is a giantess. It's treated a bit like an element of magical realism, when she is so large that she can carry her son around on one hand, but people just comment that she's very tall.

I think it's supposed to symbolize the power of motherhood and female sexuality, but it is hyperbole, an exaggeration taken to a place where it is a fact in the fictional world and I find that interesting.


@indigomoth - I think more often than not people will realize that you don't actually mean that you "cried for hours" or perhaps that ultimately it doesn't matter. If you felt the need to say it like that, whether you literally cried for hours or just felt like you had isn't important to me if I'm your friend.

What really annoys me is when people combine the word "literally" with some kind of hyperbolic statement that obviously isn't true. Like "I was so scared I literally jumped out of my skin".

That seems like quite a natural way to add even more emphasis now, but it makes the word "literally" worthless to use it in that way. Eventually it will be like crying wolf. You'll have something unbelievable happen to you and people will think you are just using literally to add emphasis, not to explain you aren't using hyperbole.


I actually have to watch myself that I don't use too much hyperbole in my conversation.

In literature it can be used to great effect as long as it's used in the right way, and I do like writing stories, and I do like using hyperbole in those stories.

But, if I use it in real life, without some kind of disclaimer, it can come across as just plain lying.

Sometimes I just want to explain something in words that express how it made me feel. So I'll say, for example, that it made me "cry for hours" when in reality it only made me cry for a few minutes, although I felt sad for hours.

I think people do this all the time, but if you don't clarify what you really mean it can lead to misunderstandings. And being honest with other people is really important.

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