Purple Prose: Not A Problem

Purple and yellow asterA few weeks back I learnt the term ‘Purple Prose’. Never heard of it? Don’t worry. It’s strictly the domain of writing geeks, and now that you have we welcome you into the fold.

What exactly is purple prose? I find Wikipedia’s and Deb Stover’s explanations lacking (hell, I’m not going to reference something that confuses me), so I’ll just keep things simple.

Purple prose is prose that makes you wince.

There. One simple concept. It’s stilted prose; overcooked prose; writing that tries too hard and reads like a deflated gasbag. Following the excellent rule of showing and not telling:

The magnanimous attractive beauty of this voluptuous red rose in front of me, coupled by the intoxicating smell it emanated, pulled me closer to this divine entity. Its supple body, along with its delicate and tender appearance made me apprehensive towards feeling it. This was the first time I had encountered this monarch of flowers.


I was worried about writing purple prose for a bit. I reread every passage I penned, scribbled in the margins hurried notes and frightened question marks, and then it got so bad I didn’t touch my manuscripts for a week.

It took about that long for me to realize purple prose was not a problem.

In fact, it shouldn’t be a problem: it’s very, very easy to prevent it. While writing, any and all purple prose can be prevented by saying exactly what comes to mind.

Notice I did not say ‘write short’. Also notice I did not say ‘stop using descriptive passages and start taking adverbial shortcuts.’ The rule to prevent purple prose is so bloody easy I had to hit myself on the head for wasting a week:

Say exactly what you mean to say.

If I want to say they had sex, I say they had sex. I don’t go out of my way to say they consummated their relationship with vigorous bonding in between sheets. If there’s a sandstorm in my story I say exactly that, not ‘swirling twirling maelstrom of dust particles’.

This rule is in some ways related to KISS (Keep It Simple, Silly!), but not to the extent where everyone writes in simple, understated Hemingway style. If you want to write beautiful descriptions say things with words you actually use, not words you copy out of a thesaurus.

It became a lot easier for me to write again once I had this in mind. Purple prose is really just a fancy name for something I had recognized long before, but couldn’t place. I was relieved when I realized this. And I could write again.

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Category: Learning To Write
  • http://scarymarybook.blogspot.com Windvein

    I always heard it was, “Keep it simple, stupid.” It’s almost a koan either way.

    Yeah, purple prose hurts, and it seems to be a crime committed in love scenes and romance novels a lot. If two words will do to describe a character’s hair, let’s use twenty words anyway, and we’ll mention hair or physique a lot and discuss them rhapsodically every time.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    I’ll reserve judgment about romance novels – not much experience there, I’m afraid – but yes … it does hurt.

    Repeated gushing: annoyance, much? ;-)

  • http://hortonsfolly.blogspot.com/ Horton Carew

    If you were to press me, which is an idea that I must confess to humouring with no small amount of palpitation, I too must concur with those who hold that purple prose, or ‘violaceous discourse’ as is my preferred term, is unwarranted and needless in the majority of cases. The practice is certainly one that I strive to eschew in my daily electronic diary as I find that it functions merely to dissuade potential readers.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Classic, Horton, classic. Showing as well as telling. =)

  • http://thebookaholic.blogspot.com bibliobibuli

    but prose can be too bare too. really the only way to get it right is to read tons and develop a style that seems natural to you.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    It can?! *thinks for a bit*

    I haven’t seen many examples of that – most of the time my friends try to impress everyone with their vocabulary and end up crafting horrible pieces.

    But that can be a problem, come to think of it. Though me thinks it’s gotta be pretty rare.

    Yes to the 2nd part. Reading tons and developing a style is a given.

  • http://thebookaholic.blogspot.com bibliobibuli

    depends what effect you want to create and what kind of fiction you are trying to craft, i guess. i get real pleasure from beautifully crafted work and usually that isn’t at all bare bones stuff.

  • http://criticalmass.crazydreams.org CrazyDreamer

    If I want to say they had sex, I say they had sex. I don’t go out of my way to say they consummated their relationship with vigorous bonding in between sheets.

    I actually find referring to sex to be a great case for purple prose . . . so long as it’s properly done, playing off of the English language’s tendency to have strange and amusing euphemisms for that act. (I love playing with the language and the readers’ expectations like that.)

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Perhaps flowery language would be a better word. Purple prose is by definition stilted. And I know it’s possible to pull off beautiful language without sounding stupid, but I don’t know why it works when it does.

  • http://criticalmass.crazydreams.org CrazyDreamer

    Good point. On a related note, allow me to quote two paragraphs from The Encyclopedia of Fantasy‘s entry on “Diction”:

    3. Archaism The “forsoothery” of much High Fantasy may be nothing more than a reflection of the tendency – derived from William Morris and J.R.R. Tolkien – to conduct heroic matters in a Germanic tone of voice, and thereby to convey a sense of the dawn of the world. Attempts at the Saga Voice afflict almost all high fantasy, from Morris to Poul Anderson and to most recent writers of Genre Fantasy. Texts in Saga Voice are full of undigested morsels of “language”, but often in no way constitute a genuine attempt at conveying otherness. Where they do, as in the best of Anderson’s early work, it is because of a conscious attempt to go back to the sagas and make the imitation of their language personal and new.

    Other sources for the effect of archaism in fantasy include the cod Orientalism of Lord Dunsany and others of the turn of the century, and even the Bible. Sometimes this is a deliberate piece of what Bertolt Brecht called the alienation effect; Dunsany, James Branch Cabell, Ernest Bramah and others are announcing, not entirely truthfully, that what they are telling us in this particular and peculiar way is a Story, and to be taken on Story’s terms. What can make later imitations of their language so silly is the absence of a sense of irony, and of the sense that language can have several meanings at once.

    [Encyclopedia copyright 1997; “Diction” entry by John Clute and Roz Kaveney]

    There’s not much that I can add except that badly-written high fantasy has the same problem with the same solution as ordinary purple prose.

  • http://arcanadium.monoxide.ws/ Spotty

    I saw this term in some of the later posts and couldn’t figure out what it was.

    Now I know, I seriously doubt I’m in any danger of ever commiting this problem.

    On the topic of possibly under done writing (ie. the polar opposite of purple prose) I refer you to my own writing. I’ve been struggling to try to strike a balance somewhere in the middle, but I’ve always kind of been a man of few words. I could always write well in English, I could just never meet a word limit.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Underdone writing is never as big a sin, believe you me. Look at how far Hemingway got!

  • http://arcanadium.monoxide.ws/ Spotty

    I have to admit, I’ve never read Hemmingway.

    My real problem comes when I visualise a scene in my mind… Then don’t quite get it all out on the paper, or wordpress, or whatever I happen to be writting to, leaving a gaping hole that I quite possibly don’t see, because I still see the scene in my mind.

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