The Truths and Myths about Purple Prose – Part 2
Part 1 looked at some of the myths, or misconceptions, that surround purple prose, so it’s time to look at some truths – or at least realities - about this misunderstood concept.
It’s Down to Perspective
The plain truth is that it’s not as bad as people assume.
Assumptions aside, prose – purple or otherwise – is about individuality and perspective. Some people love the poetry and nuance of prose, others don’t. Some appreciate its form, others simply can’t see it. Incredibly, some writers don’t like vivid writing.
For the most part, it’s a personal judgement call.
That said, prose should only be colourful and descriptive for the important scenes, rather than every scene. So if a reader comes across some intelligent and wonderful description, it’s immediately labelled as purple prose, when in fact it’s nothing of the sort. This generally happens because the reader doesn’t understand the concept of context.
You can’t please everyone.
Purple Can be Pretty
Pretty prose lifts the scene from the page – the reader can see, hear, smell and touch it. Choose the right words, the right sentence constructions, and let the narrative breathe. Purple can be pretty if it’s done correctly and sparingly – there’s no reason why you shouldn’t have the odd dash of vibrant, colourful description nestled in otherwise boring beige narrative.
Without adjectives and the adverbs, the purple diminishes from your prose and becomes less noticeable, making the work easier to read.
Description Must be Vivid to Work
If prose doesn’t come alive on the page, if it doesn’t afford the reader any imagination or it doesn’t bring fictional worlds to life, then prose isn’t doing its job. It has to be vivid, to a degree, to be effective.
Who would be brave (or foolish) enough to assert that Shakespeare’s vivid and brilliant writings are just purple prose, that his works are chock full of fancy words, or indeed that his ornate narrative just isn’t plain enough?
The truth is that Shakespeare used wonderful, evocative description, he used fancy words because they were perfect for the scenes and he would have balked at the idea of plain, grey prose – all the things the dissenters say we should be doing, and yet they are the very elements that make vibrant description work. Any well written novel will have a healthy balance of dramatic, colourful and evocative description. Poorly written books won’t.
Purple prose is vivid; it’s just that it’s simply been written in the wrong way. Write it the correct way and you have pretty prose.
Purpling is for Beginners
Writers would do well to study Shakespeare’s grasp of poetry and cadence with words, because the real truth is that ‘purpling’ is more a product of beginners – they have not yet learned about the negative impact of adjectives or adverbs, the effect of overwriting or constructing overly complicated sentences. They haven’t discovered their style or ‘voice’. They haven’t enough experience of writing a balance between description, dialogue and narrative and many beginners are self-indulgent because they haven’t yet learned that writing is never about the self.
Ways to Avoid Purple Prose
There are plenty of things you can do to prevent your narrative from slipping into writing prose that’s just too elaborate, verbose or overpowering. By far the worst culprit is the use of adjectives (or a string of them). These descriptive words make already descriptive narrative awkward to read and overly rich. Description works better with nouns and verbs.
The other thing to avoid is too many adverbs. Along with adjectives, they are not as strong as verbs and too many of them lead to over-description and awkward, clunky sentence structures.
The other thing to avoid is self-indulgent writing. It’s not about you.
Don’t construct overly complicated sentences by using long, vague words plucked from a Thesaurus in the hope you’ll sound clever. Use words that fit the description and context.
Don’t overwrite – in other words, don’t string out the description of something over an entire page, when a couple of paragraphs are more than enough. There is a time and place for lengthy or more detailed description. Describe only the things you have to describe in key scenes, those elements that really matter, that the reader should know. Those are the elements you should show or exaggerate a little.
Always ask – is it too much? If so, pare it back. Description should be vivid, poetic and intelligent, but never boring, plain or grey.
Remember, description should draw the reader’s attention. It should never draw attention to itself. Brilliant, well written prose doesn't just tell a story, it conveys ideas, themes and concepts that stimulate and inspire the reader.
Next week: Creating cadence in writing