Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 63: Purple Prose
Words, glorious words! Fellow logophiles, were we not initially drawn to writing because of our sesquipedal amours? We love words. We love big words, arcane words, chewy words, beautiful words. We love combinations of words that are bold, poetic, eloquent, and sometimes even showy. So it’s little wonder many of us risk creating purple prose.
Purple prose (a rather delicious little phrase in its own right) indicates writing that is not just elaborate, but tooelaborate. It is writing that tries to be bold, poetic, and eloquent—but mostly just ends up trying too hard.
Let’s be honest: we’d all like to write with the same beauty and adroitness as Shakespeare, Faulkner, and Atwood (with a few heaping tablespoons of David Guterson, Frances Mayes, and Ann Voskamp thrown in there).
Let’s also be honest: our attempts to mimic these prosaic masters sometimes end up looking more like a child’s recreation of the Eiffel tower. A little sloppy, a little cockeyed, and quite obviously fake.
Today, let’s examine what purple prose is, how to recognize when you’re creating it, and how to write genuinely excellent prose in its place.
What Is Purple Prose?
The trouble is authors don’t always know when they’ve wandered into purple prose. There you are, just trying to create memorable and original sentences. You’re grappling to reach beyond the ordinary and cliched to find an authorial voice that is truly beautiful and pertinent.
But then you get your manuscript back from your editor all covered in red slashes that mostly read: Purple Prose. What??? How can your beautiful, hard-fought-for, uniqueprose be a bad thing?
At its essence, purple prose can be summed up in one word: overblown. Purple prose is an elaborate, gauche costume that, more often than not, simply covers up a lack of depth in the story itself. It is the essence of Shakespeare’s “sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
5 Ways to Spot Purple Prose
Purple prose is:
Pretentious prose spends all its time strutting about and striking poses. It pretends to be unassuming, but is really just consumed with make sure readers notice it. Largely, this is accomplished by throwing around a big vocabulary just for the sake of throwing it around. It flies directly in the face of Rules 2, 3, and 5 of George Orwell’s practicalities of sound writing:
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
The right word in the right place is always the right word. If “pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis” is that word, readers won’t flinch at it. But if “black lung” would have been the better choice, the longer, more pretentious word will always end up turning purple on you.
We want to write like Arundhati Roy in The God of Small Things:
It was raining when Rahel came back to Ayemenem. Slanting silver ropes slammed into loose earth, plowing it up like gunfire.
We do not want to write like this infamous satire on poor student metaphors:
Long separated by cruel fate, the star-crossed lovers raced across the grassy field toward each other like two freight trains, one having left Cleveland at 6:36 p.m. traveling at 55 mph, the other from Topeka at 4:19 p.m. at a speed of 35 mph.
Or like this:
She was beautiful like a starry night, like a racehorse, like a dream come true. She wafted through the room, fairy wings on her feet, spreading grace and goodwill like confetti at a ticker-tape parade. Queen of all our hearts, she was a veritable moon goddess.
Maybe there’s a decent metaphor in there somewhere, but mostly it’s just way, way, way too much. Not only will this kind of writing make it sound like the author is showing off, it will ultimately and ironically end up distracting from whatever it’s actually describing.
Metaphors are the heart of poetry. But no metaphor is far better than the wrong metaphor—or, worse, the wrong metaphors.
3. Overly Formal
Purple prose often originates because the author is attempting to write as properly as possible. We want to do it right. That means no contractions, no fragments, no unbuttoning the top-collar button.
This is especially tempting for authors who love classic literature. Austen, Tolstoy, and Brontës wrote in a far different style than we do today. It worked for them largely because that was how they talkedback then. And their writing still attracts us today because it is beautiful. You can’t beat a passage like this from Jane Eyre:
Do you think I can stay to become nothing to you? Do you think I am an automaton?—a machine without feelings? and can bear to have my morsel of bread snatched from my lips, and my drop of living water dashed from my cup? Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong!—I have as much soul as you,—and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you. I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh;—it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal,—as we are!
It’s so beautiful it makes you want to go out and start throwing around “thous” and “wherefores” and reckless comma/em-dash combos. But trust me on this: you’re not Charlotte Brontë.
In writing your modern-day tale of star-crossed lovers, resist the urge to have them all start speaking like Elizabethan courtiers. Write like you speak, like your characters speak.
Which brings us to purple prose that is…
The fundamental problem with purple prose is that it puts the prose at odds with the plot. You’re telling a story about a coal miner’s daughter, but you’re writing it like it’s about a ostentatious English professor.
Stories do not exist to showcase words. Rather, words exist to tell stories.
Before you ever start worrying about creating beautiful prose, you must first concern yourself with choosing the appropriate words for building your story. This starts with the tenor of the story itself and further narrows its focus to the specific personalities, attitudes, and backgrounds of your characters.
George Smiley is not going to sound like Romeo Capulet. Scout Finch is not going to sound like Elizabeth Bennet. Stephanie Plum is not going to sound like Tess of the d’Urbervilles. And vicey-verse (as the immortal Tigger would say).
All of these are great characters for the simple reason that they were allowed to sound like themselves and no one else. Whether in narrative or dialogue, purple prose distracts from characterization. Some characters will authentically talk using the words and phrases in the previous examples. If so, awesome. If not, remember your Hippocratic oath: “First, do no harm”—to the characters.
I remember clearly the day I was first able to use the delicious word “rapprochement” (complete with French pronunciation–in my mind, anyway). I remember my great pride; but mostly, I remember how dumb it was.
I wasn’t using the word because it was a perfect fit for my article (which had something or other to do with horses). Instead, I was using it because I knew it would make me look ridiculously suave and smart. Everyone who read my article would undoubtedly be thinking: “Wow, ‘rapprochement’! I have no idea what that means. This author must be so smart!”
Beyond simply making word choices that are sensible for your characters and your story, you must also be realistic in choosing words that will serve your authentic authorial voice.
Does this mean “rapprochement” must be irrevocably returned to the French? Of course not. But it does mean you need to be honest about why you’re choosing words. Is it because it’s a word you’ve fully mastered and integrated into your vocabulary—rather than just randomly pulling it out of a thesaurus (as I did)? Is it because it’s the rightword for the sentence? Is it because no other word could achieve quite the same effect?
Or is it because you want to look brilliant and awesome and loftily poetic?
Want to find and perfect your personal authorial voice? All you have to do is stop trying to write like someone else. You’re not Shakespeare or Plath, so don’t even go there. By all means, learn from them. Let Dickens teach you a few new words. Even steal a “wherefore” or two on the appropriate occasion. But do so only because the word choices are yours and are selected thanks to a rounded view of your story and the tools that will best serve to construct it.
We all write purple prose sometimes. In our necessary experimentation with words and wordplay, the purple will inevitably spill out sometimes. And that’s fine. Some of my best writing emerges only after I’ve carefully sculpted a passage that originated as a blob of overblown pretension.
What’s important is realizing what purple prose is, so you’re able to recognize it. After that, correcting purple prose requires nothing more or less than the single most fundamental technique of good writing: examining every word, deleting sub-par choices, and replacing them with vocabulary and phrasing optimized to help you create a powerfully effective narrative.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Do you ever struggle with purple prose? Tell me in the comments!