Wednesday, November 24, 2010

New Riders of the Purple Prose

by Debra E. Marvin

What’s so bad about purple prose? I ruined my eyesight on it in the seventies. Of course, I still miss my olive-green, paisley newsboy cap too. (We're talking the sixties there) I hung on to the hat for twenty years before it went to Goodwill. They came back in style the following fall.

Back then, I read a lot of Barbara Cartlands. Who doesn’t love a ‘rake and a rogue’? When I’m a multi-published author, I’m going to start wearing a tiara too, but I’ll probably hold off on the feather boa. My cat would shred it.

Wikipedia explains: Purple prose is a term of literary criticism used to describe passages, or sometimes entire literary works, written in prose so overly extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw attention to itself. Purple prose is sensually evocative beyond the requirements of its context. It also refers to writing that employs certain rhetorical effects such as exaggerated sentiment or pathos in an attempt to manipulate a reader's response.

I think Wikipedia is approaching purple right there.

Description is best when using the Goldilocks Method. (Oooh, this description is too much . . . this is too little . . . but this . . . this is just right!) Description pulls you into the story world, into the point of view character’s experience. But, beware! Details affect pacing and vise-versa.

Problem is, everyone has a different purple prose limit. Depends on the genre, or our attention span at that moment, and probably on our gender and age.
One person’s purple prose is another person’s . . . well . . .

His skin, white despite the faint flush from yesterday's hunting trip, literally sparkled, like thousands of tiny diamonds were embedded in the surface. He lay perfectly still in the grass, his shirt open over his sculpted, incandescent chest, his scintillating arms bare. His glistening, pale lavender lids were shut, though of course he didn't sleep. A perfect statue, carved in some unknown stone, smooth like marble, glittering like crystal.

Sometimes we writers pour out creativity, go to sleep satisfied, and then we read it over the next day and want to vomit. Other times we wake up, shall we say, after twilight, and are worth a trillion dollars despite spewing purple on the page.
Bulwer-Lytton in later lifeBulwer-Littyn Image via Wikipedia
The Patron of Purple Prose is Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who began his 1830 novel Paul Clifford with this sentence:
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents -- except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

(Always reminds me of Snoopy from Charlie Brown. Do you know what I'm talking about?)

While browsing and snooping for this post, I found this on Romancing the Blog:
"Some readers, of course, are perfectly happy to read lines like The sea stirred and move on. Not I. I want some meat on my bones, some bang for my buck, not single words masquerading as sentences and single sentences masquerading as paragraphs." She gives us:

There is, one knows not what sweet mystery about this sea, whose gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath, like those fabled undulations of the Ephesian sod over the buried Evangelist St. John. And meet it is, that over these sea pastures, wide-rolling watery prairies and Potters Fields of all four continents, the waves should rise and fall, and ebb and flow unceasingly; for here, millions of mixed shades and shadows, drowned dreams, somnambulisms, reveries; all that we call lives and souls, lie dreaming, dreaming, still; tossing like slumberers in their beds, the ever-rolling waves but made so by their restlessness.

Romancing the Blog writer, Rebecca Brandewyne, continues: "Overwritten? What do you think? Send your critiques to Herman Melville, in care of Moby Dick". For more, see:

In some ways I agree. Sometimes I don't mind being pulled out of the story if the phrase is so delicious that it makes me want to re read it. Sometimes I want my brain to hurt from sensory overload. But that should happen only once in awhile, or the overall impact becomes mushy, or worse, laughable.

What do you think of this one?:
He is handsome and healthy, the most outstanding among ten thousand.
His head is purest gold; his hair is wavy, black as a raven. His eyes are a pair of doves bathing in a stream flowing with milk. His face is a garden of sweet-smelling spices; his lips are lilies dripping with perfume.

I’d think twice before blasting that little paragraph, if I were you. This guy Solomon and I have the same writing mentor, who happens to be a best-selling author.

I tend to go minimal and work up slowly, using the most boring, cliché-ridden, flat, elementary, adverb-laden, pedestrian, redundant . . . need I go on? Call it blech.

(Here’s the set up – this is historical romantic suspense, 1837 Scotland.)

I start with:
Ewan left and walked down a few streets on his way to the University.


Hundreds of hours and brain cell implosions later I had this:

Ewan strode down Rottenrow toward Balmanno Street, watching for, and occasionally glimpsing sight of the university's clock tower. The Highlands had long since softened into rolling hills to the north. Here under Glasgow, they rumpled in rises and falls, lying hidden under its stone buildings, cobbled closes, and the rare patch of green--on their way to disappear beneath the curving, deep-watered River Clyde.

This is purply prosey for me, and I'm disliking 'strode' at the moment. But I’m okay with the overall paragraph and the picture it paints. It is one of only a few narrative paragraphs and arrives just as the reader needs to take a breath, because it is the opening of a scene and comes after an intense dialogue exchange. I always try to avoid using any form of lie/lay but haven’t replaced that yet. You want to fix that for me? I’d appreciate it. I'm sure I'll be changing the whole paragraph again, anyway. I keep taking one comma out and putting it back in. Hmmm.

For readers: do you recall a time when description pulled you out of the story, or made you sigh with pleasure?

For writers: how purple is your prose?

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  1. My prose can be pretty purple if I let it. I've found it's easier to scale back than it is to add. But really it's just a matter of reading and re-reading it until, as you said, Deb, it's "just right."

    Loved your examples by the way. Just the single paragraph of Moby Dick made my eyes cross. It's no wonder I never made it through that book.

  2. I'd like to try paring down rather than building up. It's taken awhile to find out what works for me after 3-4 years of contest feedback and opposing opinions. I love the literary feel of narrative but it's often burned on the altar of pacing.

    By the way, Lisa, the fiction header is exceptionally fitting for my post today. thanks.

  3. I've always wondered where the "purple prose" phrase came from. Thanks for the insight, Deb!

    I'm planning the Thanksgiving desserts I'll take to my in-laws tomorrow and came up with this connection: A little purple prose is like a bite or two of a really rich dessert. Too much purple prose gives you that weird gagging sensation in the back of your throat.

  4. Deb, I also have looked up purple prose on wikipedia after being accused of it by a contest judge.

    I love pretty language and lots of description. It is poetic and literary, and I personally can't get enough.

    I sa, Viva la poupre!

    Seriously, though, I think there is a line between purple prose and literary writing. Purple prose, to me, is gratuitous, sort of a cheap version of poetic writing. Hard to define.

  5. Love your sense of humor, Debra:) It always shines through, purple prose or no... And I LOVE your excerpt!! If that is a taste of your upcoming offering (book), then I'll be the first in line. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!

  6. Oooh, Niki. Death by Chocolate may be the purple prose of desserts.

    Dina, I love falling into a world of literary description and getting lost in it. Hopefully we or our critique partners and editors catch those words and phrases that we impress ourselves with! I'm thankful the boundaries are just a little broader in historicals. Do you agree?

    Thanks Ladies!

  7. Hi Laura, thanks for your sweet comment. I'm going to write a serious post one of these days. Honest.

    I'm glad you enjoyed the excerpt. I had to go back in and think about a particular paragraph of description that I enjoyed writing and that one came to mind. Of course, that's a red flag in some ways. Or should I say a purple flag!

    At least I didn't say he had scintillating arms...

  8. I definitely agree, Deb. We get more latitude with historicals. In my contemporary my language is much crisper. When I do wax poetic its more in that sharper language of contemporary imagistic poetry. But I manage to get in some pretty words when I talk about things like dance, the ocean, and encounters with God. Plus, I managed to weave three actual poems into the book.

  9. Can't wait to read it, Dina. I love what you did with non-fiction, so I have high expectations with your WIP.

    Thanks for visiting on a busy day, everyone!

    I just had one of those Yoplait 100 calorie yogurts - "cinnamon roll". Okay, it would do in an emergency but I'm looking forward to the real thing tomorrow morning. Have a great family and food day!

  10. Great post, Debra. Nice work with the Glasgow scene. It is an excellent balance, something pretty difficult to achieve.

    Historical fiction, romance or not, lends more space for flowery prose than does most contemporary. Although I cringe at phrases like His face exploded (huh?), I also love strong verbs and the use of adjectives when appropriate. Even adverbs have their place. But an adjective for evry noun edges toward purple.

    Poetic and words used to make a story flow, to set the mood, the environment, the time period, are so crucial, and, as Dina said, edging toward purple can be so poetical and smooth. Often, the lack of a little pale lavender in the prose department makes a story distant, shallow POV, and choppy.

    It's all in the author's voice. Those of us with poetry and literary background probably tend to be a bit more flowery than those of us with less aesoteric callings. You're a scientist, so you're used to the precise and minimalist writing. Read a lot of nineteenth century novels and poetry and you'll get over that. :-)

  11. Thanks for the encouragement and great explanations, Laurie Alice.

    From one of our other online "water cooler discussions", I've discovered Mary Johnston's name and will be looking for her work as well.

    I do really love lavender prose (as you called it) but it doesn't come naturally for me. I think I'm afraid of approaching that boundary. I know when I write it during my 'free' writing (the creative, no-editor-on-my-shoulder kind) it shows up and brings out a nervous giggle.

  12. Interesting post, Debra.
    I tend to be minimalist in my writing and have to go back and add to bring the descriptions more fully alive. In my reading, I enjoy both minimalist and lavender prose (not purple, as one commenter said, it makes my eyes cross).

  13. Cheryl, do you read more historical or contemporary fiction? Any particular books stand out for you, where the description could be called rich if not purple (lavender seems to cover it--thanks Laurie Alice)

    Hi A J!
    I know just what you're talking about but I always find it easy to 'see' your settings, so they can't be that minimal. I'm hoping to have found just the right balance by the time I go through for final edits before submitting the story.

  14. Hi Debra,
    I pare down my purple prose in the final draft, but I love a lot of description if it's well done. But as to fashion it comes back but we move on unfortunately. I'm thinking mini skirts here...

  15. I can't really think of any particular authors w/ purple prose. I just know it when I see it. If my mind starts wandering half way through the paragraph, it's purple. I love great description if it's done well, but it also depends on what I'm reading. I expect it in some writers/genres and not in others.

    As for my own writing, I try to trim down my purple prose w/ each revision.

  16. I love my own "brand" of Bradbury-inspired purple, but can't read more than a few words of Melville. He makes my head hurt. LOL Great post!

  17. Fun post, Deb! Sorry I didn't get to responding sooner.

    I've read books where my eyes began twitching uncontrollably from the heavy purple prose. I've also read books where I kept thinking, "Would you use an adjective somewhere, anywhere?"

  18. This just reminds we writers that we are all Goldilocks in a way and what's just right for us is not just right for the next person. It should serve as a reminder that not everyone is going to love our work, so we can't take it personally.

    Thanks, everyone for your comments!


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