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?

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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?”

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