Updated: Aug 25, 2020
Guest post by Colin Mustful
What Is Purple Prose?
For many years I assumed that flowery, eloquent language was, as a writer, something for which to aspire. I thought that clever phrases and elaborate descriptions were signs of good, experienced writing. That was until my editor marked up my manuscript with the term “purple prose.” I thought I had done well, when in fact I had done so poorly that, to my editor, it was maddening. Purple Prose!! he wrote time and again, highlighting my sentences in purple to ensure I understood.
Let me give you some examples from the markup of my manuscript.
I wrote: Hector galloped feverishly with complete disregard for his path or any obstacles in front or behind him.
My editor wrote: Purple Prose!!! Simple, direct language with strong words is better.
I wrote: Panic engulfed Benjamin’s senses.
My editor wrote: Purple Prose. Keep your language simple and convincing.
I wrote: Shouts of derision flowed from the horde of gatherers like a thick wave toward the agent.
My editor wrote: Purple Prose! And definitely use another word besides “horde.”
I wrote: Austrian spouted words like a raging waterfall, filled with contempt.
My editor wrote: Purple Prose! Has a waterfall ever been filled with contempt, raging or otherwise?
I wrote: Benjamin was besieged with the sensation of sleepiness. Despite his best efforts he fell unwittingly from the waking world and into the blissful unawareness of a welcoming slumber.
My editor wrote: Purple Prose! Keep the language simple and unadorned. When you give way to flights of description, the language never sounds authentic.
Reading those sentences now, I am embarrassed by what I thought was witty writing. But it is obvious to me now that they are confusing and awkward. So then, what is purple prose?
Generally, it is thought to be any kind of overly wordy, ostentatious language that draws attention to the writer and away from the subject. It is needlessly poetic. It is distracting and could be considered authorial intrusion. Rather than engaging the reader in the story, purple prose disrupts and confuses the reader. Purple prose has a way of making the reader feel stupid while aggrandizing the author, which does not serve the purpose of any story.
Effective Purple Prose is the Exception, Not the Rule
Purple prose is not without merit. Many revered and successful authors use purple prose to captivate their readers and beautify their scenes and settings. Think of William Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf, or Marcel Proust. Purple prose can accentuate a story and endear its readers to the author’s voice and style causing great enjoyment for a narrative and its characters.
The classic example of ineffective, overly wordy writing can be observed in the opening lines of Paul Clifford by Edward Bulwer-Lytton. He writes:
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.
What? That single opening sentence has fifty-seven words, an em-dash, a semi-colon, a parenthetical aside, and three commas. It is nearly impossible to read it once and understand what it means. That is not an effective way to draw a reader into your story.
Focus On Clarity
Instead, I suggest focusing on clarity. Be authentic to yourself and your voice and make it easy for your reader to envision your scene and your setting. Avoid clichés and metaphors. Write matter-of-factly, allowing your description to come naturally as you try to imagine what something might look or feel like.
Remember, the reader does not know where you’re headed with a story. The reader does not know what you’ve already imagined for yourself or learned through research. Make it easy for the reader to imagine the world with you, not in spite of you. Focus instead on plot and character, not on adjectives and metaphors.
Also, examine your words carefully. If you need, look up the meaning of descriptive words in the dictionary and then ask yourself, does this word’s meaning express exactly what I wish to convey? For example, I once described emotion as “spewing forward.” But can emotion actually be spewed? Not according to the definition.
Let’s take a look back at the lines of purple prose in my first draft. Now, I will show you how they were revised in the final draft:
First draft: Hector galloped feverishly with complete disregard for his path or any obstacles in front or behind him.
Final draft: The frightened horse galloped headlong across the field, blind to any obstacles.
First draft: Panic engulfed Benjamin’s senses.
Final draft: Benjamin nearly panicked.
First draft: Shouts of derision flowed from the horde of gatherers like a thick wave toward the agent.
Final draft: The crowd became excited once more. Shouts of derision flowed from the mass of people toward the agent.
First draft: Austrian spouted words like a raging waterfall, filled with contempt.
Final draft: Austrian said.
First draft: Benjamin was besieged with the sensation of sleepiness. Despite his best efforts he fell unwittingly from the waking world and into the blissful unawareness of a welcoming slumber.
Final draft: Benjamin struggled to stay alert. He was tired from several days travel and he felt so warm and comfortable next to the fire that eventually he gave in to his desire for sleep.
Now it’s your turn. The opening of a novel is almost always the most difficult to write while also the most tempting to use adorned, flowery language.
Imagine a story set in Times Square in which your main character, a rookie police officer, is chasing a purse thief who is dressed as Spider-Man. First, write the opening paragraph using purple prose. Then, write the paragraph again using simple, clear language. Which do you like better? Why?
Or, try this scene. Your main character, a pretentious teenager, is breaking up with his/her significant other over SnapChat while standing at Old Faithful on a family trip to Yellowstone National Park.
Here’s another: Your main character, an American Climatologist, is hiking to the top of Mount Fuji when he/she encounters an unexpected mudslide.
Colin Mustful is the founder and editor of History Through Fiction. He is the author of four historical novels about the settlement and Native history of the Upper Midwest. His books combine elements of fiction and nonfiction to tell compelling and educational stories.
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