The Perils of Purple Prose

We’re wrapping up our look at Fatal Flaw # 1: Overwriting. Fiction writers often overwrite, and have trouble seeing how this manifests in their work. Our savvy editors have covered repetition and redundancy, how much detail to include and leave out, and just plain clunky writing. This week editor Robin Patchen dives into purple prose to show you what that is and how to avoid it in your writing.

What do you want people to experience when they read your novel? Do you want them to marvel at your fabulous writing skills? Are you hoping they’ll be impressed by your outstanding grasp of grammar? Perhaps you want to dazzle them with your exceptional vocabulary?

Or do you want them to experience a story?

Truth is, often times, you can either impress people with your prose or you can tell them a story, but you can’t do both. So many of my editing clients’ manuscripts are riddled with prose so filled with flowery language that the meaning is lost. I find myself offering the same advice over and over, my take on Nike’s slogan: Just say it.

Throw Away Your Thesaurus

Okay, don’t throw it away, but hide it in the far corner of a cabinet. Focus not on how to impress your reader but on what your character actually sounds like. Are you writing from the point of view of a thirteen-year-old girl? Get in her head. (I know it’s scary in there, but do it anyway.) Is your character a middle-aged insurance salesman? His voice is going to sound much different from that of a young mom, or a soldier, or a New York City taxi driver. What kinds of words does your character use in daily life? Does he speak in long, complex sentences, or does he have a more straightforward style? Is he funny? Snarky? Bitter? Maybe you have one of each in your novel—excellent.

But I bet, in real life, none of them speaks in purple prose.

Following, you’ll see two paragraphs about the same event. The genre: contemporary fiction. The character: a twenty-eight-year-old schoolteacher.

BEFORE:

The tempest bore down, the sky temporarily the victor in its ever-present battle with the verdant fields below, enraging lands and inciting them to bombard their treasures skyward. And I, the lowly pawn in this game not of kings and conquering foes but of sky and earth, sought refuge in my humble home. My paternal figure had commanded me when I’d first taken possession of the modest abode that in the miniscule space beneath the risers would I find shelter from the storm, so there now I went, huddled astride cardboard receptacles filled with the paraphernalia of my fleeting existence.

Ah, what future could there be for me now? Perhaps in the Immortal’s perfect knowledge, He has been right to close my eyes to what lies ahead. Had I but known this torrent was bearing down, would I have had the courage to go forth? Yet as the whirlwind neared, I surrendered to myriad misgivings about my present circumstances. Would that there had been a beau, one true amour, to live out these last few moments of breath. Alas, alone I reclined and wondered—might there be some purpose in this storm?

AFTER:

If I had known that the tornado blowing through that May afternoon would be nothing compared with the storm that would brew in my life in its aftermath, I may never have left my shelter. Maybe that’s one of God’s greatest gifts—that shielding of our eyes from the future. There’s a stretch of highway west of Oklahoma City where I swear it’s so flat and straight you can see all the way to Amarillo. If we could see that far into the future, we’d never hit the gas. In the same way, if I could’ve seen what lay ahead for me, I might still be hiding in that closet.

But God’s so much smarter than I am. Think what I would have missed.

Obviously, I wasn’t thinking about my future when I was crouched in the closet beneath my stairs. Well, not beyond wondering if there would be a future. Tornadoes will do that to you.

As you may have noticed, the passage hasn’t been just edited, it’s been rewritten. The more purple the prose, the less of it you get to keep during your rewriting process. And in this case, the prose was beyond repair. What did I do to repair it? First, I considered who the POV character was. In the first passage, what can we learn about the character? She’s most likely a woman, based on her desire for “a beau, my one true amour . . .” What else can we learn about her? Hmm . . . she has a great vocabulary.  That’s about it.

Next, let’s consider the genre. If this story were a historical, different language and sentence structure might be called for. Not the way I wrote above in the Before segment—please, never like that! But perhaps it would be different from the way we speak today. So what do you think? Did the Before paragraph scream contemporary fiction to you?  Didn’t think so.

Another thing to consider when looking at your favorite “purple prose” passages—what are the circumstances? From the Before paragraph, we can deduce that a dangerous storm is on its way, and our POV character is in its path, afraid for her life. So, put yourself in our schoolteacher’s shoes. You’re about to be hurled by an F-4 all the way to Kansas (and you’re not wearing your ruby slippers). Would your thoughts mirror those in the Before segment? Mine wouldn’t either. (Of course having lived through a similar circumstance, my thoughts were more like, “Please don’t let it hit us. Please don’t let it hit us . . .” but that would get boring after a few paragraphs.)

Finally, think about what you’re trying to accomplish with your scene. In this case, these are the first few paragraphs of a novel, so it’s important that they set the right tone—for both the novel and the character.

So taking into account the character, the genre, the circumstances, and the author’s purpose for the scene, the rewritten passage conveys language that should better appeal to readers and make them want to read more. In the After segment, you can hear the character’s voice. Your paragraphs should sound like your characters’ voices and reflect your writing style. Personality on the page—that’s what you’re looking for.

And nobody loves a smarty-pants.

Your turn:

Do you struggle with the temptation to write purple prose? Do you ever stop to look up words in the dictionary that you come across in a novel you’re reading? How do you feel when you encounter a lot of words you don’t know? How can writers balance their creative use of vocabulary with the need to be clear and simple in their prose?  Any thoughts?

Has this month’s look at overwriting helped you spot your fatal flaws? Share something you learned about overwriting that you didn’t know before!

32 Responses to “The Perils of Purple Prose”

  1. A.E. Albert January 28, 2015 at 7:00 am #

    When I first began my book, I found my writing simplified as I progressed. You’re right the story takes the forefront and how you tell it is not the priority. Don’t get my wrong, editing took about 10 times longer than to actually write the book. I’ve decided to go back to the beginning and simplify my narration.

    • Robin Patchen January 28, 2015 at 9:59 am #

      That’s a good idea. I like a literary writing, but when the writing stands out above the story, it should be simplified. And even simple language needs a lot of editing, as you know. Thanks for stopping by.

      • Paula Marie January 30, 2015 at 1:08 am #

        I love highly literary works IF they’re well written. The late 19th Century and early 20th Century gifted us with elaborately written novels (and poems) of detailed description and exceptional beauty, a great depth of emotion, and very intriguing plots. They’re not called “classics” for nothing! Think of “The Great Gatsby,” “Lolita,” “Wuthering Heights” and Edgar Allen Poe. The trouble is, most of us today don’t know how to write like that, so we end up with paragraphs such as the one above and suffer from Purple Prose!

        • Robin Patchen January 30, 2015 at 10:22 am #

          I think you’re right, Paula. And those authors were masters. I think there can be just as much beauty in more simplified writing as in those more verbose classics. The key is to write in our own voices, not to try to take on voices of other writers. Seems to me the prose turns purple when we’re trying to impress our readers with our brilliance rather than just tell them a story.

  2. Linda Poitevin January 28, 2015 at 8:13 am #

    While I agree with the need to get rid of purple prose, I don’t think ditching your thesaurus is either necessary or advisable. Mine sits prominently on my desk and is used often, because as bad as purple prose might be, constant repetition is just as boring in my book (both literally and figuratively speaking!). The trick is in knowing how to use a thesaurus to add variety rather than obfuscation to your work. 😉

    • Robin Patchen January 28, 2015 at 10:02 am #

      You’re absolutely right, Linda. I meant that a little tongue-in-cheek. I think it was Mark Twain who said never use a five dollar word when a fifty cent word will do. Unless you have a highly-educated, erudite character, you want to skip those five dollar words. The keys is finding just the right word, the one your character would choose in that sentence at that moment.

      • Rachel Starr Thomson January 28, 2015 at 1:54 pm #

        I love that Twain quote! Totally agree.

      • Virginia Llorca February 1, 2015 at 12:19 pm #

        I notice when someone uses a Thesaurus word and it is just not quite right.

        • Robin Patchen February 2, 2015 at 6:27 am #

          Me, too, Virginia. Usually the first word that occurs to us is the right one. Maybe the second. Not the fourteenth in your Thesaurus. That’s trying too hard.

  3. Curtis January 28, 2015 at 9:16 am #

    I only *thought* I’d seen purple prose before.

    That first sample paragraph was so dense I couldn’t even make sense of it at first–I managed to figure out that the character was under the stairs, hiding from a tornado.

    If that tornado was an F-4, that paragraph had to be an F-5 or worse. Great example of how not to do it.

    Thanks, Robin.

    • Robin Patchen January 28, 2015 at 10:03 am #

      Thanks, Curtis. It was fun to write. Perhaps a bit over-the-top, but only for the sake of making my point. Plus, like I say, it was fun.

  4. Laurie Tysinger January 28, 2015 at 12:00 pm #

    Thank you for this. It was a great reminder for me. I seldom use a thesaurus, but tend to be wordy by nature. Perhaps it is all the Tolkien I grew up reading. I am always looking for new ways to become more succinct, and this was quite helpful. See what I mean? Even my reply is wordy! o.O

    • Robin Patchen January 28, 2015 at 1:40 pm #

      Laurie, I’m pretty verbose myself. That first example–I wrote that one, too. It’s a job to retrain ourselves to be succinct. I think in time, it becomes instinct. At least I hope so.

      Thanks for stopping by.

  5. Rachel Starr Thomson January 28, 2015 at 2:09 pm #

    Great teaching here! I run into purple prose a lot as well. This is an educated guess, but in many cases I think authors get it from reading a whole lot of 19th-century fiction and trying to adopt THAT voice. Because it’s authorly. Or something. All of your tips for getting out from under that voice are great. I would add that reading a lot of actual contemporary fiction helps as well, giving you the chance to change the default “author” voice in your brain.

    • Robin Patchen January 28, 2015 at 2:18 pm #

      I think you’re right, Rachel, that when we read contemporary fiction, we can begin to understand and even adopt a contemporary voice. While we might love classic literature–I know I do–we aren’t writing for 19th century readers. Styles and tastes have changed, and we authors have to write what will appeal to readers today if we want our work to be read.

  6. Rebecca Vance January 28, 2015 at 3:25 pm #

    I’m working on my first novel. My protagonist is a former child actress who was raised in the movie business. (Her father and uncle are directors). She dresses meticulously and speaks well. So, obviously elite. My question is, how to have her speak. Should she speak with no contractions? If so, that would get boring if overdone, wouldn’t it? How can I have her speak without resorting to purple prose? It seems like it could be a fine line. Thanks for the help, and thank you for the post. It is a big help to know what not to do. 🙂

  7. Robin Patchen January 28, 2015 at 5:17 pm #

    Rebecca,

    I’m not sure about the heroine not using contractions. I’ve never met a native English-speaker who doesn’t use contractions. Instead, try having her speak with more complex sentence structure and a higher-level vocabulary. Instead of, “Hey, how’s it going?” Have her say things like, “Hello, George. How is your wife doing?” While a blue-collar guy might say he needs to make a pitstop at the corner store, this gal would be more likely to think something like: “After her manicure dried, she would pop into the patisserie for a loaf of that delectable focaccia. Then a quick jaunt for a bottle of beaujoulis and she’d be prepared for her dinner party.” So it’s sentence structure, it’s vocabulary, it’s the cadence of her speech–and thoughts–that set her apart. Does that make sense?

    I wrote a character who was from the Ozarks. To write with his voice, I watched a couple episodes of Duck Dynasty. That was the accent I was going for. So find someone who’s similar to what you want–a real person or a character on TV–and listen to her. Emulate the type of speech. So many of us use a photograph to help us picture what our character looks like. Try downloading a video or audio clip to help you hear what someone sounds like. Let’s face it–in print, it’s the voice that matters more.

    I hope that helps.

  8. Peter Adamson January 29, 2015 at 2:40 am #

    I really enjoyed this post, Robin. I have to say that I enjoyed both the BEFORE and AFTER excerpts and I was pleased to note that you did mention that the BEFORE excerpt could sit nicely in a historical – in which the prose would have been fitting and perhaps, not considered so purple, depending on which period in history it was being read in – and the AFTER excerpt would, most definitely appeal to contemporary readers today. One could argue that the BEFORE excerpt would be classed as literary writing but, perhaps, not Man Booker standard.

    However, I almost collapsed when I saw ‘Throw Away Your Thesaurus’ and was glad to read you didn’t mean it. I use J.I. Roadie’s ‘The Synonym Finder,’ too.

    I don’t know about you, but I worry that far too many novels are being written in the first person. Also, almost all the examples used on blogs are in the first person. This is not a complaint, but it would be nice to see a potpourri of POVs.

    I started out writing my novel using an omniscient narrator, then I allowed a few people to get inside my head and switched to third person. When I listened to extracts of my work being read out, I realised the ‘voice’ just wasn’t right. So, I dumped 130,000 words and – after listening to an interview with Eleanor Catton (2013 Man Booker Prize winner) – I am now in the throes of returning to using an omniscient narrator. With regard multiple POVs, Eleanor made the point that it is impossible for a (third) person to read a person’s mood simply by their facial expression. Example: how often has somebody said to you that you look down, when , in fact, they caught in a moment of deep reflection, or you were just happy and content in your own space? I feel an omniscient works better for multiple POVs and helps me get their ‘personalities on the page.’ Moreover, I was able to work the plot better, and scene-weave smarter (many scenes have since been trashed), thereby not having to create POV upon POV to make the story unfold. With multiple POVs, there are mind-games going on simultaneously, and you need to get them out, there and then. I feel using an omniscient narrator will work best where there are multiple POVs. I should have gone with my initial gut instinct and not allowed people to get inside my head. Will I nail it? Time will tell. Fingers crossed!

    Thanks & best wishes,

    Pete.

    • Robin Patchen January 29, 2015 at 5:10 am #

      Thanks for your comments, Pete.

      I don’t really think people should throw away their thesauruses. I have the Synonym Finder myself, and I love it. The key, like I said earlier, is not to find interesting words or obscure words but to find the word your character would use in that moment.

      There aren’t a lot of books being written in omniscient POV these days. The only one I can remember reading recently was Night Circus. That was a great book that dealt beautifully with the omniscient POV. There’s something to be said for following your instincts. Best of luck with your novel.

  9. Annie February 1, 2015 at 9:14 pm #

    Oh dear, if I wrote like that I’d have to kill myself. But I agree, I’ve seen attempts by some writers to sound, what??? literary? Fancy? Not for me – I’m more interested in telling a story. That’s more fun anyway, and isn’t that why we write? Because we’re story tellers?

    Good post, thanks.

    Annie

    • Robin Patchen February 2, 2015 at 6:29 am #

      Thanks, Annie. But don’t kill yourself, just kill all that lousy prose! I’m with you. I’ll take a great story over poetic writing every day. The rare author who can do both–love that, too.

  10. Nancy A Caldwell February 6, 2015 at 6:39 am #

    This is a great post with valuable information that I would like to revisit and perhaps ask for some help in the future.

  11. Margo Mckenzie February 11, 2015 at 11:31 am #

    Thank you for this post. It gives me something to think about. I understand what you mean by overwriting, but to tell you the truth, I actually enjoyed the ” overwritten piece”. Elevated language should still have a place in the modern era. What’s wrong with the writer pushing the reader to work a little?

    • Nancy A Caldwell February 11, 2015 at 1:49 pm #

      I don’t mean elevated language, I agree that’s desirable. I mean when you describe something in a way that doesn’t fit the character, or scene. When you use what I call “over the top” syntax.

      • Robin Patchen February 11, 2015 at 4:55 pm #

        Nancy, I think you’re right. The prose has to match the person who’s thinking and speaking it. The thoughts of a NYC taxi driver are going to be very different from those of a Kansas soccer mom, even though they’re both carting passengers who are often ungrateful and grouchy. Those two drivers think differently, thus they would sound different. Excellent point.

    • Robin Patchen February 11, 2015 at 4:53 pm #

      I’m glad you enjoyed my purplish piece. I like that style sometimes. “Elevated language”–that’s a great way to phrase it. My biggest issue with the before segment was that it was hard to figure out what was happening. To me, the first rule of storytelling is that the reader gets it. If meaning is lost because of flowery language, I think it’s too much.

      True purple prose is like a 13-year-old girl at a party with the cool kids–it tries too hard, and so it doesn’t fit in. If the whole book were written like this, then perhaps it would work. Folks who like that kind of writing would read it. But purple prose sticks out, makes people notice the prose and therefore miss the story. It’s elevated beyond where the rest of the prose is. Does that make sense?

      Thanks for your comment. It’s great to hear a different take on this subject.

  12. lex July 6, 2015 at 9:41 am #

    My biggest problem with the “before” section was what seemed to be intentionally old-fashioned language. I’m not sure that makes it a great example. No one, even people who write in purple, do that very often.

    To be honest I prefer purple prose. I get insanely bored with simplistic writing, because I can’t actually see anything. Because the writer doesn’t actually EVER describe anything. They say what happens, but I wish wish wish they would go on about how they did it, and the environment, and add a thousand unnecessary details, because it immerses me in the world. I feel like I’m there. Thats the point, and in the end thats what makes the descriptions necessary. Simplistic prose is like a movie without set dressing.

    It baffles me when I hear that people hate it because its ‘complicated’, or ‘hard to follow’, or ‘difficult to understand’, when half the time its the fault of the reader. I could understand the before section, though it had a lot of weird language, and if I couldn’t understand it, that would be my fault. (unless it was intentionally nonsensical.)

  13. Klaus Schilling March 22, 2017 at 2:59 am #

    I like reading archaic purple prose and melodrama, best in omniscient narration; consequently, I will not, under no circumstances whatsoever, be deterred from writing in such a style remorselessly and deliberately.

  14. Jonathan S Griffin July 7, 2017 at 10:51 pm #

    Is it bad that I enjoyed the “before” more than I did the revised? Truthfully, I found the “after” dull, stale, boring. The first one seemed so though-provoking and meditative. I felt the revised lost that. We love to attack purple pros, but really I do think that there is a time and a place for it.

    • cslakin July 8, 2017 at 12:17 pm #

      I hear you. But the writing style needs to fit the genre, premise, characters, audience. Most readers today, reading commercial and even literary fiction, don’t want it because it feels like the author is trying to impress readers with his command of the language or his impressive vocabulary rather than tell a great story.

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