Purple Prose – How to Find It and Fight It

Purple FlowersThis article is by Brendan McNulty.

Wikipedia defines purple prose as “written prose that is so extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw excessive attention to itself.”

It’s one of those writing styles we’re always told to guard against. The best way to look at it is to see what is a necessary way of expressing something vs. overly flouncy and descriptive passages.

Some people think that this means that your writing has to be exclusively lean and clear, but I would disagree.

You don’t need to forsake complex or intricate writing in order to ward off purple prose.  Instead, the objective is to write in such a manner that you communicate effectively, without your word choice drawing attention to itself.

If your reader is distracted from the story by your writing, then you’ve failed.

Helping or Hindering?

So how do you differentiate what is expressive text from purple prose?

Most people have an inbuilt sensor that notes when something is unnecessarily ornate. However, I use these criteria to evaluate if something is too flouncy:

  1. Are the words you’re using helping or hindering the communication of the story? If they’re getting in the way, you’re being overly expressive and heading into purple territory.
  2. Is the way you’re communicating useful? Are you adding character flourishes? Are you conveying the mood more effectively? Or are these additions superfluous to the story?
  3. Long and clever words always make us feel smarter when we write them. But do they aid the reader in understanding the story?
  4. Is what you’re writing expressive? Or is it excessive?

These questions should help you to understand how far into the purple your writing is veering.

The Story Comes First

It’s also useful to look at successful authors, and to observe how their use of words impacts the stories they create.

Two authors that could never be accused of being unnecessarily ornate are Cormac McCarthy and Ray Bradbury. If you look at what they’ve written, and filter it through the lens of the above four questions, you can better understand the difference.

Cormac McCarthy, for example, writes westerns. This is a genre that easily lends itself to flowery language, with lengthy descriptions of sunsets, dusty boots, and the travails of the trail. However, he communicates the narrative to the reader effectively and directly, even though his writing could never be said to be staid. He manages to write hallucinatory, challenging prose without compromising the story.

That’s the most important thing to be aware of in safeguarding your work against purple prose:

Ensure that the story leads. If the story is paramount, then you won’t be using fancy words to obscure what needs to be communicated.  The story always comes first.

Have you come across purple prose in classic or contemporary literature?  Who are some of the worst offenders?

Conversely, which authors excel at avoiding purpose prose?

About the Author:

Brendan McNulty is the founder of Now Novel, an online novel writing course.

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Mike
Mike
3 years ago

“Cormac McCarthy, for example, writes westerns. This is a genre that easily lends itself to flowery language, with lengthy descriptions of sunsets, dusty boots, and the travails of the trail. However, he communicates the narrative to the reader effectively and directly, even though his writing could never be said to be staid. He manages to write hallucinatory, challenging prose without compromising the story.”

Really? You could plan an entire semester on purple prose around Blood Meridian alone.

Emily
Emily
7 years ago

There must be an equivalent to this in non-fiction journalistic writing. At times I find myself re-reading portions of article to make sure I know exactly what it being written. 🙂

Janice
Janice
7 years ago

Zane Grey books had a lot of purple prose though it was rumored to be in the perception of his wife who was the editor. His books were still pretty well-received; I guess people would be interested to read more descriptors when even TVs didn’t exist back then!

Joseph1980
Joseph1980
7 years ago

Fantasy writing tends to lead me into purple prose without me knowing it. It’s kind of second nature to flaunt your descriptive skills, and I usually need a third party reader to pinpoint my excessive descriptions.

Joseph1980
Joseph1980
7 years ago

Fantasy writing tends to lead me into purple prose without me knowing it. It’s kind of second nature to flaunt your descriptive skills, and I usually need a third party reader to pinpoint my excessive descriptions.

livin4mydream
livin4mydream
7 years ago

Before I read your article, I did not even know ‘Purple Prose’ was considered bad 😉 I was looking forward to finding out more about it, and I guess I did! It is true, and I agree with the other comments; in certain stories, it is okay when used in the right places. However, I tend to say it as it is, and find too much flowery description as boring and skip over it. But that is my personality with everything, get to the point quickly, or you lose my interest 🙂 Good write-up!

Gibbs
Gibbs
7 years ago

I tend to see purple prose in romance novels, particularly the love scenes. For instance, Anne Stuart’s novel described orgasm as “filled her with the hot wet tumult of his love.” I got to admit that it does add more flavor to the story, IF used sparingly.

J Dixon
J Dixon
7 years ago

Writers would understandably like to exhibit their talent once in a while, but I guess it does depend on the context of the story to determine whether purple prose is appropriate or not.

KuokMinghui
KuokMinghui
7 years ago

To me, my rule is very simple: imagery should only be reserved for descriptions. Describing the scenario is the most fundamental aspect. If one cannot get this right, then there’s no point in progressing any further because unless you’re writing a light novel, this is a must.
In terms of going further on the characters’ end, there’s no point in doing purple prose when it comes to situations in-plot while at the same time, a decent writer has to ask him/herself this question: how much is too much and how little is too little?
When it comes to characters’ nature, it’s fine to include certain imagery, but I would advise against over usage. Just a sentence or two will be enough.
The most challenging aspect of dealing with purple prose though is this: fighting/war scenes. You need imagery to portray the brutality and reality, but striking a balance can be really dodgy nine out of ten times.
Just an example here: a lot of people laud The Wheel of Time series for a good reason. Robert Jordan might have created a dry reading experience within the first two books or so, but once the plot hits the ground running, this is when we see how good Robert Jordan is when it comes to warring scenes.

Steerpike
Steerpike
7 years ago

I don’t know that I agree. I guess it depends on how you interpret some of these guidelines. Sometimes, you want the language to be a focus. You want the reader to notice not only what you’re saying, but how. Sometimes you may even want them to stop and think about the language you’re using. 
A non-fantasy example of this is Nabokov’s “Lolita.” In that book, the clever word play Nabokov uses, through his narrator, is part of the allure of the book. There are plenty of times as a reader you stop and think about the language itself, as well you should. For a fantasy example, think of Peake’s “Gormenghast” books. Here, too, how Peake says what he says is part of what makes the books brilliant. There are plenty of times that I stopped to think about the language, and I was pleased to do it. If Cormac McCarthy or (to use a fantasy example) Joe Abercrombie had written the Gormenghast books, they’d be terrible. I use those two authors as examples because I like both of them A lot. Abercrombie is one of the best we have going in fantasy right now. But his style isn’t Peake’s style, and it would be a mistake to think that advice regarding purple prose that fits into an Abercrombie work would also improve Peake. It would not. Think, too, of writers like Steven Erikson, Angela Carter, Caitlin Kiernan, and more.
I guess it all comes down to a subjective line we each have. If you’ve got a more expressive style that some would deem ‘purple,’ I say go with it, and develop your voice. Maybe you call attention to language in your writing. That’s fine. You’re in good company.

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