So, one of my most popular Medium articles is “What is Purple Prose, Beige Prose, and Blue Language?” While it seems a bit of a cliche that this writer is writing about writing, you gotta work with what you’ve got. If you’ve got it flaunt it. Shake what yo’ momma gave ya. If you smell it, dwell on it.
I’ve had too much coffee.
Regardless, this article has managed to snag the top SERP position. So it seems like something a lot of writers wonder about.
A couple of weeks ago, I got this comment from reader Coach about purple prose:
Like you rightly said,” if teenagers will go crazy over it en masse, it’s probably purple”, nay, not just teenagers, everybody who loves reading enjoys the allure in purple prose, that is what makes a novel notable, and worth reading. They used to call those with the skills to write in that way, word smiths, didn’t they?”
I have a slight (major) habit of being a bit sarcastic, and I don’t truly think that teenagers have terrible taste in books. I love it when kids enjoy reading. And I can understand why someone would like the Twilight series. However, I think Coach definitely has a point here, and I believe that the crux of his argument is where so much of the confusion about purple prose, what it is, and isn’t, originates. To understand and appreciate Coach’s argument, we gotta do a bit of time travelling.
Way, way back in the day, fiction was often ornate, lyrical, and alluring. Check out this quote from Virginia Wolfe’s Mrs. Dalloway, written in 1925:
“This late age of the world’s experience had bred in them all, all men and women, a well of tears. Tears and sorrows; courage and endurance; a perfectly upright and stoical bearing.”
Virginia Wolfe, and many of her contemporaries and those who came before her, perfected a stream-of-consciousness writing style. Stream-of-consciousness is often lyrical and ornate, and follows a particular punctuation pattern, because the reader is inside the character’s head, listening to their thoughts. The writing needs to flow a certain way for stream-of-consciousness to be the most effective.
Check this out from the same book:
“Clarissa had a theory in those days . . . that since our apparitions, the part of us which appears, are so momentary compared with the other, the unseen part of us, which spreads wide, the unseen might survive, be recovered somehow attached to this person or that, or even haunting certain places after death . . . perhaps—perhaps.”
Is this purple prose?
Hint – it is not.
In my experience, a lot of readers will often insult writing that is intended as a stream-of-consciousness piece because they are unfamiliar with that particular style. That’s the best case scenario.
The worst case scenario is when someone isn’t a fan of dense, elaborate, Latinate language and automatically deems the piece “purple.”
So, why are pieces that are chock-full of elaborate language, and stream-of-consciousness pieces, often misidentified as purple?
Two words – Ernest Hemingway.
Roughly around the same time that Virginia Wolfe was writing and publishing books, Ernest Hemingway started becoming a household name. In the earlier part of the 20th century, many writers had an elaborate style similar to Ms. Wolfe’s. That elaborate style, full of dense language and packed margin-to-margin with Latin derivatives, was considered “mainstream.” How interesting, considering what most mainstream fiction looks like today.
Ernest Hemingway and others of his ilk broke that mold. And they did it with very straightforward, almost sparse text. Let’s take a look-see at Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms.”
“Poor, poor dear Cat. And this was the price you paid for sleeping together. This was the end of the trap. This was what people got for loving each other. Thank God for gas, anyway. What must it have been like before there were anesthetics?”
This form of writing minimalism, and Virginia Wolfe’s writing type, are style choices. They are neither wrong, nor right. They just “are.” And readers often prefer one to the other.
Sometimes though, minimalist writing fans will call writing that is more explicit and descriptive as “purple.”
It is my contention that they are confusing a different, legitimate writing style choice with their personal preferences.
How and why Hemingway’s minimalist style became the mainstream definition of fiction writing, well, that’s beyond the scope of this article for today. But again, what’s the big difference between lyrical writing that is alluring and sticks with the reader, and purple unicorn poo?
Sometimes, intention is everything. If you are worried that what you’ve written is purple, ask yourself this question:
Why do I want to write it that way?
If your answer is in any way at all related to this intention:
Because I want to appear more literary, high-brow, sophisticated, and blind the haters with my mad language skillz etc, etc. –
It’s probably purple, and please, try, try again. You can do it. We all get carried away trying to blind the haters sometimes.
If you are reading a piece that seems purple but are unsure if it is truly guilty of purple prose or if it’s just your Ernest Hemingway Fan Girl (or boy) trying to escape and become a literary critic, here’s how you can tell.
Be aware, that it’s important to understand that purple prose usually doesn’t persist throughout an entire piece. If you think something is purple, but the ENTIRE piece is written that way (and by piece I mean an entire book or story) what you’re looking at might actually be a stream-of-consciousness piece, or the writer’s true writer-ly voice.
In most instances, writers are guilty of purple patches. A purple patch is when the writing draws attention to itself, and draws away from the narrative. It’s clunky, disruptive, and simply doesn’t “fit” with the rest of the work. In other words, it disrupts the pacing of the story.
Another caveat though – be aware that a specific character’s dialogue may read overwrought. Keep in mind that the way a certain character talks is usually purposeful, and not necessarily indicative of purple prose.
The mahogany-haired adolescent girl glanced fleetingly at her rugged paramour, a crystalline sparkle in her eyes as she gazed happily upon his countenance. It was filled with an expression as enigmatic as shadows in the night. She pondered thoughtfully whether it would behoove her to request that she continue to follow him on his noble mission…
Do you see how hard that is to get through? Notice how heavy it is on the adverbs, too. True purple prose such as the above example is lacking in elegance, style, or sophistication that is present in works that may be flowery, but are classics. Also notice in the example how every other word is unwieldy, and could be substituted for a simpler, but more elegant word. See below.
The young girl with the chestnut hair looked at her love with a glance that was filled with both shadows and light – a heavy and dark expectation. Her usual serenity was broken by the indecision of whether or not she should follow him. Her feet shifted, and her voice became caught on the hook of her vacillations. But he spoke and dispelled the burgeoning silence.
Take note that the above example is slim on the adverbs, heavy on Latin derivatives, but makes good use of action, emotion, and conflict. The purple prose passage before that is devoid of any meaningful action (except for glancing and having a sparkly eyeball) and is nothing but specious, lumbering description.
Another effective way to avoid purple prose in your writing is to take care to focus on the plot and subplots of your story. When you’re not sure where you’re going, it’s easy to lost in a field of purple, flowery garbage.
Outlining your stories gives you a fighting chance of keeping the story moving along, so you can avoid becoming distracted and writing overly-ornate descriptive passages. It’s good to describe things; just don’t go on and on for whole paragraphs and pages of the text. Outlining will also help you write faster, but that’s a bit beyond the scope of this article. Say “yes” in the comments if you’d like me to cover outlining next.
How about you? Do you think purple prose is a writing faux pas or a style choice?