Being a Better Writer: Purple Prose

This post was originally written and posted June 23rd, 2014, and has been touched up and reposted here for archival purposes.

Today’s post, I would venture to guess, may cause some controversy, at least within some particular writing circles. Because it’s going to tackle something that has not only been talked about prominently online, but it’s going to raise a dissenting opinion for some.

Yup. I’m dropping that warning early, in advance. Now you know what’s coming. You can turn back now if you wish.

So, purple prose. This is one of those posts that will likely be a little short, because we’re going to dive right in. Purple prose is the act of writing something out in which the language is so flowery, so over descriptive, as to almost completely bury all content and subtext beneath the words themselves. In purple prose, show versus tell is turned completely into show … and then exponentially multiplied, so much so that the original intent of the words is given a backseat to the words themselves. Simple sentences become run-on paragraphs. Blades of grass, not even of tangential importance to the story, are examined and described in flowery metaphor that can stretch for a page or more. The term arises from a reference to a poem by Roman poet Horace, who in a reaction poem describes someone else’s work as “flashy purple patches” before declaring that it was not the place for them and asking “If you can realistically render a cypress tree, would you include one when commissioned to paint a sailor in the midst of a shipwreck?”

The thing is, there’s nothing wrong with being able to realistically render a cypress tree. That’s a useful tool. However, Horace is calling attention to the fact that it has no place in a painting of a shipwreck. The inclusion of such is merely the artist showing off their skill at painting a cypress.

This is the battle of purple prose. Now, I realize that purple prose is very popular on some amateur writing sites. I’ve seen people praise purplist works in blog posts and on public forums. I’ve even seen some popular fiction review sites or groups reject stories for not having enough “purple prose.” And I cannot be any clearer about this than the following statement:

This is not correct.

Whether it stems from a misunderstanding of what purple prose is or a dedication to the art of writing flowery language, the idea that plot, pacing, and character, as well as other critical elements of writing, should be judged equal with or even beneath prose is not only ludicrous, but ultimately damaging to not only writers but readers as well.

Why? Because purple prose is not story. It is not plot. It is not character. Purple prose, while occasionally being nice to read, is almost in all but aesthetic. A purely purple prose form will even often attempt to combat this by exaggerating emotion and feelings in order to sway the audience—in other words, by resorting to melodrama.

Is purple prose bad? No, not when used in moderation. Used in moderation, purple prose is like salt: A little bit goes a long way and adds some varied seasoning to your work that serves to make the other myriad “flavors” stand out. However, like salt, too much or too little, depending on your “recipe,” can have enormously adverse affects. Flavoring your work with small patches of purple prose here and there, like you would sprinkle salt over a meal, can be an excellent way to season things. But serving a bowl of nothing but purple prose with a few sketches of plot is akin to serving someone a bowl of pure salt with naught but a few french fries buried in the mixture.

When I was in college, one of my English courses gave me a very peculiar assignment, one that took me some time to wrap my head around. The assignment was to write five to eight pages about any subject you wished (though there had to be a subject). The challenge, however, was to write it all in purple prose, saying as little as possible in the most amount of words. The goal was to read through it, get to the end, and have as little additional information about the subject as possible. But you couldn’t write about other things, no, you had to talk about your subject. But you wanted your reader to reach the end knowing as little as possible over what they had known when they started.

The paper was a training exercise in purple prose. That was the goal. Our teacher wanted us to recognize it, not only so we could learn to catch purple prose for what it was, but also so that we could see what it did to our own writing and be better judges of where it did and didn’t fit.

The message? That purple prose could be useful and flowery to read … but also a warning that purple prose puts a hold on everything. Purple prose exists only as the showiest of show versus tell, and by its own nature conveys no real information. Which means the moment you dump it into your story, everything grinds to a halt. While your reader is reading purple prose, all other elements of the story are put on hold.

This is why those who call for stories to have “more purple prose” or rate/review them based on metric amounts of purple prose are flat out wrong in their assumptions. They’re either looking for more show than tell (and only using the incorrect terms) or, for whatever reason, admire flowery phraseology enough that they place more importance on it than anything else. They want a diet of salt, in other words. Of a single pack of Ramen with multiple flavor packets dumped in it.

They want something 99.8% of us don’t actually want.

There is nothing wrong with writing purple prose for the sake of purple prose. It can be fun. It can even be educational (once you’ve written purple prose, go back and reread some speeches from your favorite politician and cringe with realization). But writing purple prose for it’s own sake is not writing fiction. Inserting large amounts of purple prose into a fiction work can actively hurt it, rather than help. Purple prose, no matter how much you try, cannot replace the actual content of a work (although with applied melodrama, it can mask itself in an attempt to mimic it).

So take it easy with your purple segments. Show or tell. Save your purple for the moments where it will have the best impact, moments where it’s fine for everything to go on hold while you show off a little. Moments that can be scattered in-between the big stuff in order to provide a nice compliment of flavor.

But not as a meal. Never as a meal.

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