On Purple Prose

Purple Prose: a term of literary criticism used to describe passages, or sometimes entire literary works, written in prose so extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw attention to itself. Purple prose is sensually evocative beyond the requirements of its context. [x]

I have a big problem with purple prose.  As in, I don’t like it, not that I struggle with it myself.  (I sure hope not.)  As its most common perpetrators happen to be in MY genre, I especially don’t like it when they make fantasy writers look bad.  These folks are the reason everyone else thinks high fantasy is melodramatic and silly!

But some people mistake purple prose for High Art, and defend it viciously.  I have been told over and over that this sort of writing enriches the novel’s landscape, while I feel it reads more like a vocabulary exercise meets a bad attempt at poetry.

Descriptions should be vivid, yes, but they should not sound like they’re trying so hard to be vivid that they are the work of a high school English student attempting to use more colorful adjectives. I would rather hear “She was breathtakingly beautiful” than “She was as beautiful as an autumn sunset,” because the first is descriptive and emotional while the second is hackneyed and overdone. If a man leaned close to me and said, “You know, you are so beautiful,” I would be touched, whereas if he compared my beauty to the setting sun I would just think he was trying too hard.

Of course good stories use imagery. But there is a such thing as too much and in the wrong spots. All imagery should enhance the story, but not eclipse it.  In fiction, language needs to take a backseat to story and character—that doesn’t mean it needs to happen less or be less descriptive; it just means that it needs to be placed correctly. The writing shouldn’t give the distinct impression that the words are being chosen more for their sound than for their practicality.

For instance, if someone is crying, my first thought would be on wanting to know more about the emotion causing the crying. What is the person crying about? What is that emotion doing to that person’s thoughts? What is that like?  Observe how the purple prose author handles this situation by describing “tears like liquid diamonds.” When someone is crying, I do not want their tears described so much as I want to feel their anguish.

Describing what people’s tears look like on the outside causes us, the readers, to naturally pull out of the characters’ personal hell and into a world where their tears are art. I can’t appreciate characters’ sorrow if the story is too busy admiring their tears.

Unnecessary description causes abrupt switches of perspective for readers; a description of a character’s beautiful face is fine in a paragraph about another character’s feelings about that beautiful face, but when the focus of the scene is, say, the couple’s argument, then unless the description is enhancing that, I find it distracting. You can’t stay connected to a character if you have to switch back and forth between hearing the character’s thoughts (being inside the person’s mind) and then looking at the character from outside as described by a narrator and not another character.

Sentences aren’t Christmas trees. Stop decorating them.

You need to prune sentences to make them better.  Not start spraying them with adjectives.  And there’s no need to constantly insert comparisons of perfectly good images to other things in a ham-fisted attempt to enhance them.  We can picture post-battle smoke as viewed from the sky just fine without being told that it was hanging over the town “like a blanket of hurt, anger, and sorrow.” I think it would actually be more poignant without these associations forced onto every image. Let us imagine. Let us feel it ourselves. Stop telling us what every cloud of smoke “means.”

Occasionally applying human elements to images and whatnot can be very powerful. It’s not wrong to do it. But when you’re doing it constantly, beating us over the head with attempts to make every image poetic, it’s distracting, unnecessary, and absolutely hokey. “Long black shadows stretched out from every object, reaching eastward as if striving to touch the horizon.” Okay, great. Not bad. “A strong, musty aroma clung to the girl, like the smell of a forest floor on a warm summer day.” Seriously? Does she smell like a forest floor (really? WHY???)?  Or if you’re telling us that the aroma’s hanging around her the way aromas hang around things in general, what are you really adding?  “A column of dust billowed toward the clouds above, like a pillar of white smoke.” Really? “A column” of dust needs to be compared to “a pillar” of white smoke, which is almost the same thing and doesn’t visually enhance the scene at all?

If just about every time an image pops up, the reader has to put up with comparisons and weird personification, we get seasick. “Her neck was arched like a drawn bow, the tip of her tail twitched as if she were hunting. . . .” Enough already. This would convey the stress and impatience of a waiting dragon much better if we could see the arched neck and the twitching tail without the similes making us imagine bows and hunting. A little of this is okay. Weaving it into EVERY SENTENCE is not. Having no natural understanding of voice and tone and no knack for writing character cannot be amended or hidden through excessive adjective insertion. Whenever I read things like this, I feel like I was promised a comfortable shirt and was given an ill-fitting, scratchy garment whose tailor elected to “fix” its flaws with a Bedazzler.

And for the love of chocolate, can we stop calling every red thing “a burning shade of crimson,” and stop saying that anything that has a slight shine to it “sparkled like a sea of diamonds in the fading twilight”?  (Actually, if you think about it, it’s unlikely the reader has ever seen a “sea of diamonds.”  If the simile to help us envision something is such an unlikely image, is it really helping us “see” the object?)

So what should we be doing, you ask, if we want vivid descriptions but we’re not allowed to treat them like an archaeological dig into the thesaurus?

I’m not advocating bare, minimalistic sentences either.  Description is necessary.  But the reason I can’t give you an easy answer is that figuring out the right balance for each story is part of the work and art of being a writer.  No one else can tell you how to do it, though they can probably tell you when you’re not there yet.  If it was straightforward—and if there was a single answer—writing would be a science.  Art is kind of annoying that way.

It’s fine if your natural tendency is toward flowery writing.  Some people’s writing is utilitarian, and that’s fine too.  But if your flowery style is so focused on the flower’s scent that it forgets a flower’s purpose (which is to facilitate pollination), you’re just going to choke everybody with the smell.  However, as long as you don’t forget what your flower is for, it’s your choice if you want to cultivate a little perfume.

Another place purple prose tends to infect text is when authors are trying to shoehorn in revelations or “the moral of the story” and whatnot.  They tend to end up full tilt into hokey mode, not understanding their character’s powerful realization is going to LOSE its power if it’s weighed down by distracting details.  Think of the message as the reason you’re on the stage, and the words you’re using are the outfit you’re wearing.  If your message is amazing but you deliver it standing on the stage covered in blinking holiday lights “to make an impression,” people are going to look at the lights, not at the message.

So you do not need to treat us to several “poetic” pages full of descriptions of the meaning of your revelation. The serenity and power of what you’re trying to say will be yanked away if you groom it into trite, cheap sound bites that are more about how they look on stage.  You know what actually does drive home majesty and beauty in your writing?

Silence.

Say your piece.  Evoke your image.  And then get out of the way and stop trying to lead our minds to the revelations without letting go of our hand.

Don’t coddle our perspective.  Don’t yammer a litany of hollow platitudes into our ears.  Get out of the way.  We’ll go there on our own, undistracted, if the core of what you’re saying is laid bare for us to see.  You don’t have to tap dance and point at it.

Don’t narrate the sacred.

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