Being a Better Writer: Too Much Purple in Your Prose?

Well, this post topic comes at a topical time. Or maybe I picked it because of what I’ve been reading lately. Hard to say.

Hello readers, and welcome back! I realize that intro needs a little explanation, and so you’ll get one! See, I’ve recently started reading this book. Recently as in “just a few days ago.” It was a book I won’t name (per the usual, if I’m going to use a book as a negative example of something, I don’t name it unless it’s so famous the creator won’t care or it’s really bad), but it was a loan from my sister. No idea where she acquired it, but she passed it to me with an ominous exchange of ‘I read this and I wanted to know what you think?’ followed by ‘Was it good?’ and a retort of ‘It was interesting. I want to know what you think.’

Now I’ll admit that I’m about eighty pages in and I am curious to see where the story is going, though as a YA book it’s already showing some signs of slipping into a more “standard” trope story. But it’s not terrible. But it definitely is … interesting.

One of the reasons I say this is because the book has a real love of overly purple prose. In fact, as I was reading it last night I realized there was a pattern to it: Almost anything that was going to be described wasn’t just going to be described in very flowery, over-the-top terms and language (I’ll bet I could find “eyes like cursed amethyst” somewhere in this book). No no, it was going to be described using such no less than three times. Introduced, or even meeting again a male character? Get ready for three sentences—a whole paragraph—about how his eyes are burning like simmering, shifting coals, his posture like a howling wolf with a firebrand on his tail, etc etc. You get the idea.

I actually laughed when I noticed that it really was a “rule of three” thing going on with all the prose and descriptions. Even if it’s just a sudden cut for a quick, single-word description of something, there will be three of them in a row. All equally verbose and over-the-top.

But … it does raise a question. I haven’t stopped reading the book yet, so is it too much? For that matter, what about in the books that we write? When is there too much purple in our prose?

Before we answer that question, of course, we need to bring context to it and talk about what purple prose is. Many of you readers probably know, or have a good idea, but for those that don’t let’s not charge blindly ahead following unfamiliar terms. So what then, is purple prose? Or even just prose?

Well, prose is quite literally just what we get when speaking or writing about anything. That last sentence is prose. A conversation about snails is prose. Prose is anything written or spoken that is an understood language.

Which means prose is a lot like air. We use it everyday, even unconsciously, it’s all around us, and yet … not all air is equal. There’s sea air and desert air, each with their own bouquet. There’s clean air, and there’s polluted air.

Prose is like that. It’s in use any time we speak or write anything, but it’s not all equal. There are different kinds of prose, different styles and approaches. Some readers and writers prefer a rhythmic prose, where every word is measured and chosen based on the number of syllables, or on how it sounds spoken aloud when flowing into the next word. Others like their prose intricately complicated, the more complex and multisyllabic the better!

And some like prose with is purple, or as it’s also known, excessively flowery. This is prose that’s more commonly seen, both in books and in many young writers’ first stories, because there is a large reading swath that enjoys purple prose … and it can be “easy” for new writers to slip into.

However, I say that with two massive caveats. The first is that purple prose is a bit like anything else in that too much of it, an excess, isn’t good. The second is that although purple prose appears easy to pull off, as many young writers soon learn, there’s good purple prose … and then there’s poor purple prose.

Let me describe this another way. If we go back to our analogy of “air” used above, purple prose is a common type of air that’s been scented with flowers. In other words, it’s pleasant and can be used to add a welcome scent to a room or scene. However, while a bouquet of a few flowers is nice, dozens upon dozens of them can be overwhelming, the scent overpowering anything else that’s going on. And a lot of young writers tend to opt for the latter due to inexperience.

Flowery. Bouquet. Is there a reason there are so many flower-based analogies for purple prose? Well, yes, actually. See, the term purple prose is used to describe a form of prose that is overly “showy” or “flowered.” Prose that’s been written to be overwrought with showy, complex words, terms, or often lots of metaphor, adjectives, and adverbs, many of which were usually plucked out of a thesaurus to replace a more commonly used word.

In other words, it’s a young writer sitting down and thinking “But I’m a writer now, I can’t just say that ‘the house was blue!'” and instead writing an overwrought, overworked paragraph about how “the edifice was clad in a cerulean skin” three different ways. It’s taking a straightforward description or piece of prose and “dressing it up” with bouquet after bouquet of “flowers,” often to the point that the actual story (or room) is buried under this showy language.

This is really common. Some of you may be shaking your heads and thinking “Surely not!” but it is. It’s so common that some smaller sub-groups of writers in fandoms and the like have specific names for types of purple prose they see from new writers (for example, one fandom has “lavender unicorn syndrome” referring to young writers delivering overly complicated and verbose descriptions of protagonists).

But here’s the thing: At it’s core, purple prose isn’t bad. Actually, let me restate that: The concept behind purple prose, the intent, is in the right place. People like purple prose, or at least select audiences do, much like select people like a bouquet of flowers.

However as stated above, too many flowers and too large a bouquet can become a distraction from what we’re truly there to see. The real balancing act is in knowing how much purple prose our audience expects, and working that into our greater scene without delivering too much or too little.

For example, the book I’m reading with it’s “rule of three” approach to purple prose? I find it extremely overwrought. But the book is from the late Simon & Schuster, so clearly someone there found it acceptable and hoped there was an audience for it (though since S&S has gone under, they may have been wrong about that, or at least the numbers of it). It’s far too much for me, since I prefer to see the symphony of characters and events on the stage rather than trying to see it through a massive bouquet of flowers in front of the orchestra pit, but that’s me as an audience.

There are people out there that love purpled stories. They find them sophisticated and intriguing. Some don’t even care about the actual story; they’re there for the complex prose, and not for the story it tells.

Which at long last brings us back to the question proposed by the title of this post: Is there too much purple in your prose? Well … that depends. Who are you writing for? Some, like myself, are fine with a moderate of purple prose. We don’t mind the occasional whiff of flowers as we walk through a scene, it’s a nice inclusion that adds a bit of spice to the discussion, action, or whatever else is going on in that scene.

Others? They want a bit more purple prose. They want the attention not just to be momentarily bumped by the loquacious language, but to be yanked. They want to stare at it for a bit.

Others still, though far fewer in number, could care less about the actual scene and the characters in it. They want to breathe in that bouquet of flowers over and over and over again, the scene and story being little more than vehicles to deliver the reader to another set of flower to inhale.

So the question then becomes “What audience are you writing for?” Now, I’ll note at this point that there’s not just one “kind” of purple prose. Like bouquets of flowers, there’s a lot of variety in what you wax about and how. Word choice, how it merges with the prose around it, those are all things you can think about to make your purpled prose more appealing and less clunky.

But which audience are you writing for? If your aim is to attract the attention and interest of those who aren’t looking for a lot of flowery prose, then you shouldn’t be including a lot of it in what you write. Conversely, if you want to appeal to that audience, then you need to make sure you’re waxing poetic on a lot of things in your story.

Now, I do want to talk about one more thing before we close this post out. As important as it can be to recognize what sort of audience we desire, as well as how much purple, flowery prose we want to festoon our story with, there’s one last thing to consider.

Is that purple prose stilted, or is a clean form of prose.

There’s a reason there are jokes about “eyes like cursed amethysts” or names like “lavender unicorn syndrome.” Because that’s purple prose that’s jarring, either because of its composition, where it’s placed, or some other reason. A few paragraphs above we mentioned avoiding clunky or overwrought prose, and in all cases of prose, yes that’s true. But when it comes time for you to add a little flourish of prose to your story, or in other words, a bit of “purple,” that’s when the time has come to take extra care not to shy away from the style and approach you’ve already used so far.

For example, the book I’m currently reading does try to make the character’s internal narration as overwrought as its descriptive prose sometimes. It’s still distracting, because there’s a lot of it, but at least the ridiculous, over-the-top descriptions are consistent with the viewpoint character.

That’s one large mistake that a lot of new writers make when attempting to add some spice to their scene: They break the context, style, and rhythm of what’s come before, and it draws attention away from what’s around it to the jarring change the prose has just undergone.

We don’t want that. We want our descriptions, even our flowery ones, to feel natural. Like they’re part of the story in process. So, when you do sit down to get evocative with a description, make sure that what you write fits the prose around it. That it fits the narration you’ve established so far, the viewpoint, the vernacular.

With that, I think we’re done for today. Remember, flowery prose isn’t automatically bad, but it can be overwrought, out of sync with the rest of your story, or even just too frequent for the tastes of your audience. Don’t just throw complicated word replacements into your story. Instead, work within the confines of your narrative and voice to deliver something that, like the scent of a bouquet of flowers in a carefully laid out room, adds a bit of zing without overwhelming or distracting your reader.

Good luck. Now get writing!

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One thought on “Being a Better Writer: Too Much Purple in Your Prose?

  1. I just want to say there is purple prose and then there is ten thousand leagues under the sea where there is unnecessary purple prose namely naming and describing every fish under the sea for page upon page.


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