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Purple Prose

These lessons, by one of our most consistent FaithWriters' Challenge Champions, should not be missed. So we're making a permanent home for them here.

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glorybee
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Purple Prose

Postby glorybee » Sat Feb 27, 2016 11:34 am

Purple prose is easy to define—it’s overly flowery and descriptive writing, heavy with adjectives, adverbs, plenty of elaborate (even obscure) words, and lots of metaphors. Purple prose isn’t a desirable thing; if someone uses that phrase when critiquing your work, they’re saying tone it down a notch or two.

But how much descriptiveness is too much? That’s not so easy—what one reader considers excessive might appeal to another reader. It also depends on the genre; some kinds of books rely more heavily on description than others. In addition, books that were written in previous decades (or centuries) will have more flowery language than contemporary works—that’s to be expected.

Still, nearly everyone can agree that gross overuse of some types of words can take a descriptive passage from one that appeals to the senses to one that feels like walking into great-grandma’s overly-perfumed Victorian parlor.

The tendency to over-write some passages could come from those creative writing classes we had in junior high and high school, where the teacher told us that adding descriptors and modifiers would make our writing more interesting. That’s true, to some extent, but those of us who took up writing several years after we’d been behind a school desk perhaps remembered that lesson far too well.

Enough of the theoretical—let’s get to some practical examples. Here’s a descriptive passage from The Tie that Binds, by the excellent writer Kent Haruf:

… the pictures I have seen of her show that she was a small thin woman with eyes that seemed too big for her head—one of those women with blue veins showing at both temples. A woman like that—tight strung, nervous, too fine altogether for what was wanted of her—never should have married somebody like him, and she paid for it. He was a hard stick. He was all stringy arms and legs, with an Adam’s apple like a hickory nut that jugged up and down when he chewed or said something…

I hope you don’t think that I’ve posted that passage as an example of purple prose, despite the fact that it’s a descriptive passage. It’s exactly the opposite of purple prose—written sparsely and with an economy of words. Let’s look at the definition in my first paragraph again.

Purple prose …

• is flowery. This passage uses simple, uncomplicated words—not flowery at all.
• is heavy with adjectives and adverbs. While this passage has several of these (small, thin, blue, nervous, stringy), none of them are words that call attention to themselves.
• uses elaborate or obscure words. The only word I found here that’s not used in its usual way is ‘jugged’ to describe the action of the man’s Adam’s apple. That word works very well to provide a visual image, and like the adjectives, doesn’t shout out notice me!
• uses lots of metaphors. There are a few metaphors here—He was a hard stick, and Adam’s apple like a hickory nut, but the mood they convey is in character with the sparseness of the passage.

So you can see that it’s the overuse of those bulleted items that characterizes purple prose.
But just to bring the lesson home, let’s rewrite that paragraph in purple prose (please forgive me, Mr. Haruf).

… the pictures I have seen of her show that she was a diminutive woman, whose arms were so minuscule that the youngest toddler could encircle them with but one softly dimpled hand. Her immense eyes seemed too enormous for her head, as if they had continued to grow, unabated, even as she reached a solemn adulthood. She was one of those dainty, delicate women with cerulean veins showing at both temples, occasionally throbbing, revealing the passions she attempted to conceal. A woman like that—tight strung, nervous, edgy and anxious, too fine altogether for what was wanted of her—never should have married somebody like him, and she paid for it. He was like the rigid limb of an old oak, a stick that had broken off in a tempest and was now used for punishing recalcitrant mules. He was all stringy arms and legs, with an Adam’s apple like a hickory nut that jugged up and down when he chewed or said something…

Do you see how adding descriptors and modifiers and more metaphors actually weakened that passage?

This particular paragraph describes people, but I’ve read Writing Challenge entries (and also the work of some of my editing clients) that use purple prose in describing settings or in describing the actions of characters. The characters in these stories don’t just say things: they chortle, they grunt, they quaver, they sputter, they wheeze. They don’t just go to the store: they amble casually down the crooked, gray, concrete sidewalk, whistling jauntily as they go.

If you’ve read a number of these writing lessons, you may be saying, Hold on a minute! What about rice cake words and salsa words? I thought we were supposed to use more interesting words in our sentences!

Yes, you are.

And this is where the art of writing comes in. The words you choose should specifically match the mood, tone, and atmosphere of your story. Kent Haruf’s novel is set in a simple time and place, and has quiet, slow pacing. Simplicity was the key to this passage (and to all of his writing); if he’d used a word like cerulean, it would be like an unwelcome neon light shining on that sentence and begging the reader to appreciate it.

But if your writing has a narrator from Victorian England, or takes place in a medieval fantasy world, you’ll want to make it—well, not exactly purple, but maybe a few shades more lavender than Haruf’s writing.

And of course, there are an infinite number of combinations of settings and genres and moods and characters, all of which should go into your determination of how purple you choose to write.

No homework here, but I’d love to ask for your help—these lessons are best when people visibly participate. If you’d like to give it a try, write a paragraph without purple prose and the same paragraph dipped in violet. OR you could share with us a short passage from something you’re reading that might be a tad on the purple side. OR you could just ask a question or make a comment.
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GeraldShuler
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Re: Purple Prose

Postby GeraldShuler » Wed Mar 02, 2016 4:34 pm

I've got to admit, the biggest reason my writing isn't more purple is because of the 750 word limit in the challenge. The only way to get it down to size is to shave purple. There have been times my entry was nearly triple what the count would allow. Just for fun, Jan, I added some purple to a story I wrote years ago. The first paragraph is from the original entry and the second, if I understand purple, is the ruined version. All I did in the second one is to give more detail to tell about what kind of guy he is and add to the picture of the watch, which isn't needed because I called it a railroad watch and everyone that has ever seen one already has an image of it in their memory. Am I correct in calling the additions "purple prose"? And is there any purple prose in the first paragraph that you feel could still be cut out?


Simon pulled the loud, heavy railroad watch from his pocket and flipped it open. “Time to go.” he thought, as he tucked the watch back in its resting place. He took a lot of ribbing about that old watch. It didn’t matter. In a somewhat quirky kind of way he thought of that old watch as a mirror of himself. What did the commercial use to say? Takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin’. The century old watch had been through a lot but it was still in perfect working condition, just like him.


Simon pulled the loud, heavy, too-ugly-to-sell railroad watch from his faded Levi pocket and, with his right thumb, flipped open the dented, scratched cover, revealing its cracked, dull crystal and its slightly bent minute hand pointing to the twelve. “Time to go.” he thought, as he tucked the watch back in its worn, comfortable blue jeans watch pocket. He took a lot of ribbing about that old watch. It didn’t matter. In a somewhat quirky, almost insane kind of way he thought of that old fifty cent garage sale watch as a dark, brooding mirror of himself. What did the old television commercial use to say? Takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin’. The antique century old watch had been through a lot, from hot-headed rough and tumble fights to crystal breaking falls but it was still in perfect working condition, just like him.

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Re: Purple Prose

Postby glorybee » Wed Mar 02, 2016 10:30 pm

Gerald, you definitely have some major adjective flooding there. It's close to being purple prose, but I think truly purple prose is far more flowery. Not just series of adjectives, but lots of metaphors, too, and fancy and elaborate words (sometimes old-fashioned ones), and exaggerations. Here's another example, from www.uncyclopedia.wikia.com:

The sad dog walked home.

The sentence is quite terse, and is not at all Purple Prose. We know that the dog is sad and walked home, without all the useless adjectives and archaic nonsense. But, with enough thesaurus reading, you can convert this sentence into an incomprehensible mess...

The lugubrious mongrel ambled into its dwelling, despairing over the cruel aggravations life endows on our weakened shoulders. Silently, the unfortunate canine sauntered into his domicile, knowing that tomorrow, only depression and despair awaited his frail frame. "I'm in despair" the bitter canine howled. "Life's hopelessness has left me in despair."
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Re: Purple Prose

Postby Sibermom65 » Fri Mar 04, 2016 9:04 pm

I understand that purple prose is a pitfall, and the choice of words you use should move the action forward or develop character. When I read over my work, however, I see a lack of color and very limited engaging of the senses. How much non-essential description can I plug in without turning shades of purple? How do I know when it's too much?

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Re: Purple Prose

Postby glorybee » Fri Mar 04, 2016 11:07 pm

Sibermom65 wrote:I understand that purple prose is a pitfall, and the choice of words you use should move the action forward or develop character. When I read over my work, however, I see a lack of color and very limited engaging of the senses. How much non-essential description can I plug in without turning shades of purple? How do I know when it's too much?


There's no simple answer to that, as so much depends on several factors--the genre, your own writers' voice, and the like. The best I can do is to reiterate advice I've given in a few other lessons: Choose interesting nouns and verbs. Words do not have to be adjectives or adverbs to appeal to the senses.

I ate some lunch.

I slurped some chowder.

Same number of words, no modifiers, yet the second example is far more evocative than the first.

As to your second question, I can think of two possible answers. It's too much when you feel that it's too much, or when a trusted reader tells you so.
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