Friday, October 16, 2015

Writing Basics: What Is 'Purple Prose'?

Perhaps you have seen authors or writing experts use the phrase "purple prose" to describe superfluous writing, or writing that is too excessive or ornate. Almost every how-to writing book or guide suggests writers avoid purple prose like the proverbial plague, but I am kind of on the fence on this one.

meme credit © Lynette Noni --

Before we focus on my personal feelings about purple prose, let's first look at the concept in depth and see why some of the best writers in the world say purple prose ruins writing.

Purple prose is writing that is so fluffy and decorative that it detracts from the flow of the primary narrative; or, in other words, writing that pulls the reader's attention from the actual story and to its beautiful self.

So many writers are against purple prose for this very reason: they do not think the primary narrative should be jeopardized by fluffy, unnecessary words.

In his widely renowned text Elements of Style, author William Strunk, Jr. writes:
A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. 
In essence, Strunk is saying that "good writing" should be concise, or brief. Let's look at prose that ranges from "concise" to "purple."
Concise: She opened the door.
Mid-range: She eased open the large wooden door.
Purple: She wrapped her hand around the old iron knob and turned, sending the large mahogany door creaking open on its ancient rusted hinges.
The concise example is brief and gets the point across. The mid-range example gives us a few more details about how she opens the door and what the door itself looks like. Finally, the purple example walks us through how she opens the door and gives us an elaborate set of details describing the door.

Now, here is the rub (for me, at least).

While the concise example tells us all we really need to know, the mid-range and (more so) the purple examples show us exactly what is happening.

Let's look at what comes next in the quote from Strunk:
This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.*
*Emphasis is my own for effect. 

"[T]hat every word tell." Huh. Doesn't that sound a lot like Strunk is informing us that we should tell instead of show? Doesn't that sound contrary to other types of writing advice we see on showing v. telling?

Okay, okay. Perhaps claiming that Strunk is misleading is taking my point a little far, but you see what I mean.

Liz Bureman, editor and writer at The Write Practice, has the following to say about purple prose:
"[P]urple prose is basically when a writer hits a wall and has nothing interesting like plot or characterization to write about, so they instead decide to beef up the syllable count of their words and throw in a few pages of unnecessary description. When used straight, purple prose is frustrating as hell to read, because most readers are savvy enough to know when they’re being led on."
I have to disagree with Bureman here. I do not think that authors use descriptions because they have "nothing interesting like plot or characterization to write about." Many authors use descriptions to flesh out the world in which their characters live, and I for one greatly enjoy reading vivid descriptions of strange, beautiful, scary worlds. For me, the setting is half of the story. To avoid crafting a rich setting is like carving the flesh from a story and leaving me with the bones. Sure, from the bones I can tell what you have going on in your story, and I can follow the plot with expediency and purpose, but your story will have no juice for me. 

In fact, when I hear/see authors talk about eliminating purple prose, I am reminded of the writing of 2nd grade students:
A dragon lived on the mountain. He was a mean dragon. Everyone tried to fight him, but he killed them. A prince tried to fight him, but the dragon killed him too. The king tried to kill the dragon, but the dragon spit fire on the king and burned him to death. Finally, a fairy princess went to the dragon's mountain and sang for the dragon. The dragon got sad because of the words of the fairy princess's song, and he felt bad for killing everyone. He decided to be a nice dragon.
meme credit © CharlieX8 from DeviantArt

Okay! I definitely know what is going on in this story, and I have been given all of the main plot points. Yay!  Is there plot? Yes! Do we see characterization and growth? You bet! But . . . it still feels like something a second grader has written because there are no compelling details to establish the setting of the world (details which may even make us more emotionally invested in the story).

So many authors and writing gurus assert that purple prose is to be avoided at all cost, but I think purple prose has its own place in writing. In the concise, mid-range, and purple examples above, for example, I would much rather read the purple example than the concise or even mid-range ones.

Many readers criticize a lot of my favorite authors -- George R. R. Martin and Charlaine Harris, for reference -- because of the excess of "purple prose" in their works. Don't know what I mean by criticized for purple prose? Check out these 1-Star reviews from Amazon:

A Feast for Crows -- George R. R. Martin
Living Dead in Dallas -- Charlaine Harris

It is hard to actually put your finger on what purple prose looks like because everyone has such different views on what constitutes as "too much" detail. For example, I don't mind occasional (and often elaborate) descriptions of clothing, rooms, settings, weather, etc. My only requirement with details is that they don't get too outlandish or distracting. 

Here is where identifying purple prose becomes uber subjective.

While I may not mind elaborate details, I don't want them cropping up all over the place. There is a time and a place for elaborate detail, and that place and time is not everywhere all the time. Basically, don't be afraid to craft your world using rich descriptions and elaborate details; just make sure that you are not cluttering each page with fluff. It would be a shame to have an entire book full of beautifully crafted descriptions that no one ever reads because everyone gets tired of the "all details/no plot!" scheme by page 20.

The amount of detail I encounter in a George R. R. Martin or Charlaine Harris book is the perfect amount for me. However, I recently read a short story by Carey Corp entitled "The Way Life Was Forever" that contained such distracting details that I struggled to finish it. Here is an excerpt:
"The vaults of our colony. The skies surrounding the monoliths are blue-black, revealing no hint of the impending sun, but the thickly shadowed landscape has already begun to wake. The chirping of crickets reaches a fevered pitch, and the night resonates with the scuttling of small diurnal creatures beginning their day."
That last sentence really got to me . . . I had to reread it several times because it was so "fluffy." I had a lot of other issues with this short story (first person narrative; present tense; misleadingly short), but the biggest issue for me was the excessive description and false-sounding amplification of vocabulary (read as "Right click>Synonyms>Pick word you wouldn't normally use").

In short, purple prose is elaborate descriptions that detract from the primary narrative of a piece, and it is difficult to clearly identify or label purple prose because the concept of too much description varies with each reader.

What are your thoughts on purple prose?
Do you prefer concise writing, or do you like a little (or a lot of) elaboration?


Phoenix Greenhaven said...

I find this post rather intriguing. I never thought about something like this.

Valerie Moore said...

I'm glad to know there is a descriptive description for too much elaboration, aka, Purple Prose. And I've just posted a comment in Purple Prose! Seriously, I agree that details flesh out the bones of a piece. Still, too much detail can be a slippery slope. It's a writer's dilemma. :)

Majesta Miles said...

A lot of people don't think about purple prose, but it is an issue for some authors/readers.

The concept is interesting to consider when you are working on your own creative pieces. Just don't stress over it :)

I am glad I could draw attention to a new concept for you! I felt the same way when I first encountered the term.

Majesta Miles said...

+Valerie Moore, I definitely agree with you that excessive details can be a slippery slope.

The excerpt from "The Way Life Was Forever" that I mentioned in my post is an example of purple prose in that it has over-inflated details instead of excessive ones.

Purple prose is something that is widely discussed, and yet the degree of "too much detail" varies from reader to reader.

Cheryl Mackey said...

I try to keep it midrange as possible. Too much or too little description makes my eye skip scenes, which isn't ideal.

Majesta Miles said...

I agree. I know many people who skip scenes or even entire chapters because they feel like they want to get back to the action. As an author, the thought of writing in such a way that my readers want to skip pages makes me cringe.

Adil Vp said...

"To avoid crafting a rich setting is like carving the flesh from a story and leaving me with the bones." - Quite remarkable statement...

Majesta Miles said...

+Adil VP: Thank you!