How to Tell a Simile from a Metaphor

It’s not often that prime-time television examines the fine points of writing. On a recent episode of the TNT cop series Memphis Beat, however, three of the lead characters discuss the difference between simile and metaphor. Unfortunately, their dialog doesn’t do a great job of it.

Memphis Beat characters (left to right) Sutton, Hendricks and White discuss the intracacies of simile and metaphor at a crime scene.

Memphis Beat star Jason Lee (formerly the lead of the comedy My Name Is Earl) plays Dwight Hendricks, a Memphis police detective with an intimate connection to his city and a passion for its music. Investigating a mansion break-in, Dwight compares the high-end burglars who pulled the heist to former Detroit Lions running back Barry Sanders; like Sanders, these burglars retired uncaught in 10 break-ins several years ago, walking away from the game at  the pinnacle of their career. When uniform cop Davey Sutton (DJ Qualls) appears confused by the Sanders reference, Hendricks’ partner Charlie White (Sam Hennings) explains, “It’s a simile, son, simile.” Sutton, however, apparently knows something about literary devices himself, and responds: “Actually, that would be a metaphor, Whitehead. A simile would be something like ‘Your tie is a crime against humanity.'”

Detective White just lets it go, but Sutton’s retort is not quite correct. A simile is a figure of speech that compares two different things by employing the words “like,” “as” or “than, ” while a metaphor compares two things directly. For instance, a simile to describe a fast runner  would be: “Tom runs as fast as a speeding bullet.” A similar metaphor might read, “When Tom ran, he raced down the track at bullet speed.”

While Sutton correctly identifies Dwight’s comparison as a metaphor, his own example is not a simile. “Your tie is as ugly as sin”–a comparison using “as”–would be a simile. But “your tie is a crime against humanity,” with no “like” or “as,”  is simply an intentional overstatement–which is hyperbole,  a deliberate exaggeration to create emphasis or effect.

My advice on this topic: Watch Memphis Beat for its engaging stories, quirky characters and especially for its musical score, coordinated by the contemporary blues singer and composer Keb Mo. But when you need lessons in literary devices and good grammar, find a good editor.

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Filed under Behind the Words, Writing Tips

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