In order to get behind the truth of what purple prose is, or the myths that surround it, writers need to understand what Purple Prose really means. The phrase is so often used – sometimes arbitrarily, and at times to the point that it’s misused – that it’s become synonymous for “flowery” or over descriptive, extravagant prose. This kind of writing is a turn off for most readers, since it overpowers the narrative and interrupts the natural flow of the story.
But one certain thing about purple prose is that it’s not that straightforward. There are a lot of myths surrounding its use, and what is actually is, so it’s important that writers should learn to recognize when writing is too melodramatic or over the top, or whether it’s just simply descriptive and vivid.
The phrase originates from the classical period, when the poet Horace described ‘purple patches’ tacked onto “weighty openings” and “grand declarations” within his Ars Poetica (The Art of Poetry). The trend for flowery prose became very prominent in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when florid description was the norm with the likes of Charles Dickens, Edward Bulmer-Lytton and the Bronte sisters, but of course, times and tastes change, and modern writers now frown upon the practice.
So, what are the myths behind purple prose?
Purple Prose is Bad
That depends on the interpretation of what actually constitutes purple prose. The name is a bit of a misnomer, and what one person thinks is flowery description, another might think it evocative or beautiful. It’s very individual.
Narrative only becomes purple prose if it is utterly filled with adjectives and adverbs, or the description is so pretentious that the reader might laugh out loud rather than be enthralled by it. Take a look at this example:
The wind gushed through the strong, tall trees with maddening harshness, and each golden coloured leaf wavered as though caught in a black maelstrom, which provoked the branches to shudder with a heavy sigh before whipping the leaves into the air.
This example would be considered flowery because of the ridiculous number of descriptive words crammed into the paragraph. This makes the narrative overbearing for the reader; it’s too much. But that doesn’t mean that purple prose is bad, since every writer has written something akin to flowery narrative at some point in their careers – at the very beginning, no doubt.
It’s all to do with the way it’s handled by the writer that makes the difference. Here’s the same example, but with certain words changed and cut:
A harsh wind gushed through the trees. Branches shuddered and autumn leaves rustled; the sound carried on the air like a hiss.
This example is it still descriptive, but because it isn’t overloaded with adjectives, it’s not flowery or extravagant, and in literary terms, this is not purple prose (although for those who still think less description is better, any intelligent description might be construed as purple prose).
The example shows vivid description, not silly description.
Purple Prose is a Sign of Bad Writing
Not necessarily. Purple prose is usually a sign of a beginner who is still learning, not bad writing. Beginners are not born with the innate skill and experience of someone who has been writing for 20 years, so their writing isn’t going to be perfect.
For many people, purple prose is a writer’s attempt at overcompensation – in other words, the quality of the story and the narrative isn’t that good, so the writer uses lots of descriptive words and adjectives to divert the reader from an otherwise flat, lacklustre story.
The truth is that purple prose isn’t that far removed from poetic prose, but too many see poetic prose or very imaginative description as purple prose and they don’t seem to understand the mechanics or dynamics of how it’s constructed, therefore they confuse the two.
For example, take a look at these three descriptions. Which one is purple prose, if any:
Example 1 - Rolling clouds billowed forward and smothered the land. The wind blustered across the hill, stripped leaves from trees and rattled fences. The bitter air snapped at the man’s heels as he made his way home, roiled in his wake.
Example 2 - The rain lashed against the thick windows with unceasing pressure so loud and hard that it threatened to break every pane of glass. Huge lightning prongs forged a pronged a silver path across the dark underbelly of night and lit up the hilly landscape with a startling purple-tinted candescence.
Example 3 – The sound of the surf sounded like soft whispers on the air, it soothed her, and she closed her eyes, relaxed, and rested on the edge of slumber.
All three are descriptive, but which one might be considered a bit over the top? Clearly, example number two is the one we’d consider overindulgent and flowery prose. The other two are descriptive in different ways, but they achieve a balance that prevents the description from becoming excessive and flamboyant.
Example two is something that is common from beginners – not because they are bad writers, but simply because they are not yet familiar with power of verbs and nouns rather than adjectives and adverbs, and they don’t yet understand how descriptive narrative works.
Writers Shouldn’t Use Fancy Words
Why not? You’re a writer, that’s what you do.
Why use boring plain words when a poetic or beautiful word might be better? Again, this myth – perpetuated by the (inexperienced) self-published authors on Amazon – seems hell bent on crushing creativity and imagination.
Fancy words have a place in modern fiction, but like everything, it’s how they’re used that matters. For instance, if you are describing a scene that takes place at night, how many times can you mention the word ‘dark’ or ‘darkness’? Well, once, because thereafter it becomes repetition. So you need another descriptive word. That means being imaginative with words, therefore you might use ‘umbra’ or ‘maw’ or ‘gloom’.
Or what about the sun setting, to create atmosphere? In this instance, ‘It was orange’ will not suffice. Show the reader the sunset and use the right words to describe it. You don’t have to state the obvious, but the idea is that you draw the reader’s attention.
The general rule is simple: you don’t need to be pretentious when choosing your words, however if there’s a better word, use it. If there isn’t, leave it.
Plain Prose is Better
Better for whom? The reader or the writer?
This is yet another myth from certain sections of the writing fraternity, who are under the illusion that plain prose is best, which is fine if you like your narrative flat, uninspiring, lacking atmosphere and has all the intensity of a damp mop.
Prose sums up the essence of the writer’s style and voice, their distinctive way of writing. We identify other writers by their writing styles. There’s no voice or uniqueness if the prose is ordinary or plain. That’s why description is a necessity.
Look at these two examples:
Example 1 - He looked into the distance and saw the sun set. He turned and left.
Example 2 - He looked into the distance. A blood-red disc draped the landscape in a warm golden glow. He turned from the last slit of light and left.
The first one is plain, it tells the reader. The second shows the reader. Neither is purple prose.
Plain prose is for writers who can’t be bothered. If you want to be a serious writer then use your imagination and create. Show, don’t tell. Plain prose suits some scenes, but it’s definitely not a ‘better’ option.
Purple Prose is Genre Driven
This is thought to relate to certain genres and their reliance on more ‘bosomy’ descriptions – in particular romance or erotic stories. Noir and chick-lit are also favourites for more colourful descriptions.
Romance in particular doesn’t fare well, what with ‘rippling loins’, ‘heaving bosoms’ and ‘throbbing manhoods’ and some really over the top descriptions of sex, however, it’s a myth that purple prose is genre driven. It’s not – it crops up in all types of genres, everything from thriller, humour, crime or horror.
The thing about myths is that they are perpetuated in various ways, so getting to the nitty-gritty is important. In Part 2 we’ll look at the truth behind purple prose – why writers fall into this trap, and ways to avoid making descriptions too extravagant.
Next week: The Truths and Myths about Purple Prose – Part 2