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What on Earth is Purple Prose?

As a writer, you’ve likely come across the term ‘purple prose’ on more than one occasion – usually delivered with a sneer or some inflection that marks the phrase as an unmistakeable pejorative.

But if you’re something of a novice in the world of writing and publishing, you might be asking yourself each time: just what is purple prose? And why is it purple?

The answer to the latter question isn’t quite as fun as “poetry written by Barney the dinosaur,” but it’s at least rather fitting in its original meaning. The reference to purple comes from Ars Poetica by Roman poet Horace, in which he wrote:

 

Weighty openings and grand declarations often
Have one or two purple patches tacked on, that gleam
Far and wide, when Diana’s grove and her altar,
The winding stream hastening through lovely fields,
Or the river Rhine, or the rainbow’s being described.
There’s no place for them here. Perhaps you know how
To draw a cypress tree: so what, if you’ve been given
Money to paint a sailor plunging from a shipwreck
In despair?”

 

Horace’s choice of purple supposedly owes to its symbolic nature (at the time) as an indicator of wealth and status. Those bearing a garish purple robe or cloak, for example, would stand out in a crowd – displaying their eminence and elegance for all to see. With this in mind, Horace ties the color quite directly to something else: pretentiousness.

Regarding writing, purple prose is that which is needlessly long-winded, over-descriptive, and often obtuse for the reader owing to the author’s desire to sound as extravagantly verbose as possible. In most cases, these overblown passages rarely lead anywhere – they don’t take the story forward, nor focus on anything important. Instead, they take a leap from the ride and stand still, studiously inspecting the petals of a flower at the side of the road for no reason.

The idea of the ‘purple patch’ isn’t restricted solely to literature, though. Horace attributes it to many types of art – such as needless detail or flair added to pieces of an otherwise simple painting, solely to appease the artist. See the point Horace raises in the excerpt shown earlier, where he poses the question of what use it is to meticulously draw a cypress tree when the focus of the work asks only for an image of a sailor falling from a wreck.

In other words, it’s pointless and unnecessary. That’s purple.

But of course, as an author, you’re in the business of description. After all, what are you doing if not describing stories for your readers? Settings and scenes don’t bring themselves to life on the page – it’s up to you to do that, and you have many tools at your disposal to make it happen.

So how do you know when your writing is hitting the mark – keeping the ride moving while offering the reader plenty of sights to see – and when you’re turning purple, stopping to stare at time-wasting redundancies?

The answer isn’t always clear (the enjoyment of art will always remain subjective), but here are a few tips to help you along the way…

 

Be careful with metaphors, similes, and other figurative language

In most cases, there’s simply no need to get figurative – a well-employed standard verb or adjective can paint the picture you’re after far more quickly, and much more clearly, than an overblown metaphor.

Part of the fun of writing (and reading), though, is in discovering impressive, emotive turns of phrase, so this isn’t to say that you should avoid them entirely. Just be careful with how often, and how fittingly, you employ figurative language – it’s often a marker of amateur writing to see metaphor after metaphor and simile after simile piled one on top of another in succession, and it makes for some extremely unattractive prose.

See this (hastily) made up example:

He hefted the ax in the air, roaring like a lion with exertion before swinging it back down in one smooth, precise arc, almost as if his body were a perfectly-forged protractor. The ax’s blade crashed down on the block of wood with thunderous force, splitting it in half as splinters flew through the air like shrapnel from a bomb. Argor’s muscles rippled like waves beneath the criss-cross of bulging veins that covered them, the force of the blow shifting some of the beads of sweat that peppered his forehead, like morning dew shaken from a leaf.

That’s… kind of painful.

The key point here is to look through the moments where you’re employing a figurative technique and ask yourself whether it’s entirely fitting. Are your comparisons apt? Are they standing out a little too much from the surrounding prose (donning a purple cloak of their own)? Would a more standard description do the job just as well?

 

Your descriptive lens needn’t be a microscope

Great descriptive writing is often only as descriptive as it needs to be. Broad brushes, with a hint of shading and a smattering of detail, give enough information for the reader’s mind to start painting its own complete images.

It’s great to engage the senses to facilitate the creation of that painting in the reader’s mind, but remember that you’re largely providing a kick-start for that process – you aren’t there to guide every stroke and every highlight with your own hand.

It can be helpful to think about it like looking through a microscope. When you read one of your passages, are you letting the reader survey the situation from a standard distance, or are you reaching for a microscope and detailing far too much? Too much detail bogs down the text, and it feels as though the story itself has fallen by the wayside during ‘purple’ passages like these.

A character may walk into a room and catch sight of a lily in a vase, noting the beauty of its vibrant color and delicate scent – a very quick scene-setter before the story continues.

Or they may walk in, see the lily, and ponder how its pleasant bouquet dances in their nose like a sweet perfume. They admire the lily’s unusual spotted pattern, and how the light from a lamp behind illuminates it like the warm rays of the breaking dawn – oh, how it all reminds them of childhood summer days… and so on and so on.

You can bet that latter lily is a purple one.

 

Think of the audience

It can sure feel great to throw around your extensive vocabulary – but something that sounds eloquent to you might be an off-putting stumbling block for your readers. A simple approach is often best. Yes, with today’s technology it only takes a few moments to look up the meaning of an unfamiliar word but, as with over-description, this can cause a distracting break in the reading experience.

Your novel is primarily for your intended readership, so be sure to get familiar with the styles and range of vocabulary to which they’re already familiar, and focus on sticking to the path of least resistance. AutoCrit even includes multiple readability scales which you can use to gauge how wordy or challenging your manuscript is.

 

Don’t get too hung up on it during drafting

We’d all be ecstatic if our first drafts were impeccable from the off, but the reality is that they’re usually far from perfect. When it comes to the first draft, your goal is to focus on getting the story out of you in as solid a form as possible. Everything can be refined from then on.

The last thing you want to do is obsess over whether your writing is too flowery as you’re battling your way through the initial draft. Yes, you don’t want to completely give up caring about quality and leave yourself with a gigantic amount of editing to do, but you also don’t want to get so hung up on it that you’re re-writing the same passage 20 times, beating yourself up and questioning your decisions to the point that progress isn’t being made.

It’s the first draft. Be mindful, but don’t get mired – just keep one mantra up front: the story comes first.

 

So, that’s what ‘purple prose’ is, with just a few ways you can go about weeding it from your manuscript. What do you think about it? Have you struggled with being overly flowery in the past, or do you still struggle with it during editing? Let us know in the comments below.

 

Join the Discussion on “What on Earth is Purple Prose?”

  1. I had the good fortune to have a father whose work required meticulous procedural writing. We learned to speak clearly and simply, avoid unnecessary detail, but include everything relevant.

    Turns out that great procedural composition lends itself to clear fiction writing.

  2. Lisa Tener says:

    Thanks for sharing–it was fun to discover the origin of this phrase. And excellent writing advice as always. I will share widely!

  3. James Weber says:

    Thank you for explaining ‘purple’ so succinctly. You have pointedly described what I have been trying to say for a long time. It seems that most (published) authors craft decent stories but then then fill the stories up with meaningless words that are nothing but a waste of time for the reader. Description of surroundings is good, necessary in fact, but who cares about all the trivial detail that writers often use just to fill up the pages. If those stories followed the styles of Clancy, Follett, or Leonard, they might lose eighty percent of their pages.

    1. Mel Hughes says:

      James, I beg to differ, at least on Clancy. I liked the plots, but while “Patriot Games” and “Hunt for Red October” were pretty succinct, anything after “A Clear and Present Danger” needed a drastic edit. Think on it…”The Sum of All Fears” spent twenty pages describing how a mirror was polished, for Pete’s sake. 🙂

      This article was great, though. I had not heard the history of the expression before, and most of the time I’ve heard it used, it’s been in a context that led one to believe it meant “melodramatic writing.” I’m glad to know the real meaning is more complex.

  4. Margie Peterson says:

    Oh yes I have been giilty if this. In defense of fact checking, I discovered that soldier wasn’t used regularly until the late 1500s. I will need to describe people by their weapon and class and their master of dress. Excruciating.

    1. AutoCrit says:

      Eep! That sounds rough, Margie. The research should be interesting, though. 🙂

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