New Riders of the Purple Prose
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-Littyn Image via WikipediaThe 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: http://www.romancingtheblog.com/blog/2005/04/20/purple-prose-a-bum-rap/
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?