Want to stand out with your writing? Or in general? Remove hyperbole from your writing and, for that matter, your speech. Have you noticed that people now seem to be incapable of speaking without it? We’ve become gushers of adjectives, adverbs, and expletives. A touch of hyperbole can strengthen a scene, but if it’s not there for a specific purpose, cut it. If you read the scene aloud and it calls attention to itself, cut it.
Less is more in these days of overstatement. “I was so f-ing exhausted.” You go beyond exhaustion, you’re probably dead. “No, really, I nearly died from exhaustion.” Did you just finish the Ironman? Then okay. But thanks to advertising, politics, and the entertainment industry, it’s become our standard way of speaking. No one is wrong, they’re diabolically evil. They can’t have a different opinion, they’re horrendously stupid. Along with it, mercy, the benefit of the doubt, even common ground have disappeared (and in this climate, you want to stop bullying? Good luck with that). Once hyperbole becomes the norm, it loses its effectiveness as a device. We get jaded as stories push the envelope further and further. Get simple. Get back to a good story, well-told.
If you need a bit of hyperbole for effect in your writing, combine it with a simile or metaphor. Also, use different levels – and that would include zero – of hyperbole in the character voices. Allow your characters different speech patterns. Let the characters be as varied as people in the world. As with any literary device, be aware of what you’re using and why.
Hyperbole done right? The master, as always (from Hamlet, Act V, sc i)
O, treble woe
Fall ten times treble on that cursed head,
Whose wicked deed thy most ingenious sense
Deprived thee of! Hold off the earth awhile,
Till I have caught her once more in mine arms:
[Leaps into the grave.]
Now pile your dust upon the quick and dead,
Till of this flat a mountain you have made,
To o’ertop old Pelion, or the skyish head
Of blue Olympus.
Hamlet is not about to be outdone – he even says so at the end of his speech later in the scene:
‘Swounds, show me what thou’lt do:
Woo’t weep? woo’t fight? woo’t fast? woo’t tear thyself?
Woo’t drink up eisel? eat a crocodile?
I’ll do’t. Dost thou come here to whine?
To outface me with leaping in her grave?
Be buried quick with her, and so will I:
And, if thou prate of mountains, let them throw
Millions of acres on us, till our ground,
Singeing his pate against the burning zone,
Make Ossa like a wart! Nay, an thou’lt mouth,
I’ll rant as well as thou.