What Causes “Purple Prose” and How to Banish It
- HomeWhat Causes “Purple Prose” and How to Banish It
My general approach to both writing and editing is less is definitely more. I like tight writing that doesn’t waste any ink or a reader’s time. This means I rely on my beta readers to let me know if I was being too subtle and need to state something explicitly. It also means that no one will ever accuse me of getting too “purple” with my prose.
This common literary term means that something has been over-written, or there are too many words happening in a sentence, paragraph, or — heaven forbid — an entire book. In this article, we’re going to explore methods for avoiding “purple prose” in your own work by:
- Examining the reasons why writers can go overboard and how to combat them.
- Discussing English as a language and how to communicate clearly.
- The importance of respecting your audience and their reading level.
- Tips for deciding when to be expansive and when to get to the point.
Why Over-Writing Occurs and How to Fix It
I’m going to give you the answer to the second part first. Short and simple: EDIT your work. But that advice is also vague, and you already have a sense that this is true. So, we’re going to look at different reasons you could become a “purple-etrator” and how to “mauve” on to a new and better draft.
Purple Prose Cause #1: A Misinterpretation of the Phrase “Show, Don’t Tell”
Like the term “purple prose,” you’ve probably run across the advice “show, don’t tell” before. I can’t tell you the number of times that I have seen people misunderstand how to apply those three words to their work. They seem to think it is synonymous with “paint a picture with your words,” but in reality, they are fundamentally different.
“Show, don’t tell” is worth an article all on its own, so I’ll keep it brief here. “It made her sad” is telling. “She pouted” is showing. Notice how my “show” example uses fewer words than my “tell” example? It won’t always be the case, but it certainly can be.
Instead, many writers believe that to “show” something means to describe it within an inch of its life. They want the reader to see precisely what they perceive in their own mind. The problem is that no matter what you put on the page, you can’t be sure the reader is ever going to “see” what you see. Our brains constantly fill in details based on our individual experiences and interpretations. Furthermore, it can get tedious. Every hue in a woman’s hair, every minute twitch of a face, everything on someone’s plate – ugh. Snoozefest. On the other hand, writers may end up opting for overwrought imagery, but there are specific times when this approach works.
Purple Prose Fix #1: “Showing” Comes from the Intersection of Action and Emotion
Let’s start with the simple idea that a character named Samantha enters her home and removes her coat. “Enter” and “remove” are both plain verbs that convey the bare minimum. That means it’s a wasted opportunity. The words are just taking up space when they could be showing the reader something about the character’s emotional state. Let’s look at a few synonyms for each verb that can pull double-duty. In these cases, “showing” is going to add to the overall word count, but will also be doing the emotional heavy-lifting. This can save you from needing to add “tell” sentences in as well.
Samantha feels flustered – Her front door swung open, knocking into the wall and leaving a dent in her haste. She cursed as she wrestled with her coat and missed the hook on the wall twice when she tried to put it away.
Samantha feels depressed – She leaned against the door frame, heaving a sigh before shuffling in. Her coat slid off and she hung it in the closet. If only she could free herself so easily from all her burdens.
Samantha feels happy – She bounced through the front door humming the last song she’d been blaring on her car radio. As she called out a greeting, she shrugged off her coat and tossed it onto a nearby chair.
In each of the cases above, many of the individual verbs conveyed both an action and the character’s emotional state at the same time. They don’t all have to carry that sort of weight but thinking about emotions as you choose your verbs will add interest and variety to your writing.
Purple Prose Cause #2: Over-application of World-building and Scene-setting
Your character enters a room and you describe every piece of furniture, the quality of light, the clothes of the other people present, their facial expressions, the music playing, and the smell of dinner wafting in from the kitchen. This is called scene-setting, right?
WRONG. This is called boring your reader to tears before anything happens.
World-building is going to be most important for speculative fiction writers. I am putting it alongside scene-setting for the sake of discussing descriptions because both are prone to the same mistakes. It may seem like giving the reader every little detail upfront will allow them to feel immersed in a scene. Instead, with too much front-loading, it can be difficult to know which details are important. There’s only so much we can hold in our minds at once. Many readers only skim big blocks of description, so all your hard work choosing exactly the right shade of yellow to describe the firelight could be wasted.
Precision in writing isn’t just about choosing the perfect words, it also means you have to be mindful of how and when you let the reader in on details. If you give people too much to think about at one time, they will likely miss the things that are actually important to the plot or characterization. They don’t know where to focus.
Purple Prose Fix #2: Choose the Most Vital Details and Ignore the Rest
Every detail shouldn’t be given the same amount of “weight.” People often go to great lengths to describe a place, even though it is only used in one scene in the entire book. If your character never revisits a place, don’t bother telling the reader all about it. Otherwise, you are setting up an expectation that this location is important. The reader may struggle to hold onto your details at the expense of something that comes later in the book. If you know the character’s cigar case is going to jog a powerful memory later on, by all means, tell the reader about it. But if it is just a thing they hold for a moment, the filigreed scrawl and the way it catches the firelight are just fluff. I have read books where I know precisely what each character ate for every meal. Don’t be that writer.
You need to be careful about deciding what the most important details are so you don’t get bogged down in too many descriptions. Knowing a suit is “threadbare” is way more important than figuring out if it is mahogany or burnt umber. Like choosing a verb that “shows” more than one thing at a time, try to figure out how to focus on details that can convey more than one type of information at a time. This can go a long way in creating more economical descriptions that will keep your reader enthralled and still get the point across.
Purple Prose Fix #3: Sprinkle Details Throughout the Action
Word choices that might seem too complex when the sentences are lined one after another may feel intriguing when interspersed with other types of prose. The same way that “familiarity breeds contempt,” too much of the same thing leads to dullness.
So, once you’ve decided what is actually important, spread the details throughout the action of the scene. When I say “action” here, I don’t necessarily mean verbs. Characters speaking to one another is also a type of action in your story. It’s a wonderful vehicle for peppering the scene with details at easy to digest intervals. Action tags are a wonderful way to sneak those vital details in without the reader even realizing it. Want to let the reader know the room is full of expensive furniture? Have someone lean on something as they speak. (Bonus points if you choose a double-duty verb like “slouch” or “perch” instead!) If someone gets emotional, send them pacing across the Persian rug instead of mentioning its presence up front. Which leads to the next tip…
Purple Prose Fix #4: Attach Descriptions to the Character’s Emotions
I was critiquing the introduction to a chapter recently that involved a detailed description of a castle keep. The first thing the writer told me what how the towers “loomed” over the scene. It’s a fantastic word because it conveyed a sense of both height and bulk, and showed the character felt intimidated. By giving me insight into the character’s emotional state, this choice offered more than just what the character saw in front of their face. You get to set the scene and add characterization in one stroke of the pen (and use fewer words!).
This is also a great way to add “voice” to your narration. Use how a character feels about what they are perceiving to color the word choices. Is that smell coming from the kitchen a stench? Or is it comforting? Is it something they can recognize? Is it something they want to eat? Or is it roasting meat and they are a vegetarian? When was the last time the character ate? Do they have a physical reaction to the smell?
Purple Prose Fix #5: Avoid Redundancy
Unfortunately for the castle keep writer, he then went on to describe the palisade that connected the pair of towers as “tall and wide” right after using “loomed.” I already had that information from the much stronger word choice he’d already used. Throughout the next three paragraphs of description, he often followed that pattern. This led to rampant redundancies before finally grabbing my attention with the assassin hiding in the shadows.
This wasn’t the only author to fall into this trap. I have seen it tons of times. A writer finds many ways to express the same thing, and rather than choosing, they keep them both. You’re usually not doing yourself or the reader any favors by stating the same thing again. There are exceptions, for instance, details that are vital to understanding something that is going to come next. Most of the time once is plenty, so choose one way to express something and run with it, or you may be seeing purple.
Purple Prose Cause #3: The Author’s own Amusement Gets in the Way
I get it. Bending words to your will is fun. Writing long and meandering sentences with numerous instances of multi-syllabic words, including a veritable cornucopia of colorful metaphors dripping with similes like a tree after a rainstorm involving lots and lots of commas, not to mention conjunctions because of how tricksy and complex you are being, this can all be super amazingly fun to write. And like the preceding sentence, it can also be exhausting for a reader. If you are just writing for you, then by all means, purple away. But if you want to be a commercially successful writer, you will probably need to rein it in sometimes.
On a deeper psychological level, writing also functions as an act of control in an insane world. If you ask the average wordsmith why they write, they probably won’t give you this answer. But I believe it lies at the heart of many of the other reasons people do. As a writer, you get to picture something in your mind, then grapple with it until it is on the page and it is what you want it to be. Feeling like you described something perfectly or captured a character’s essence is a heady experience. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that the reader is going to enjoy it as much as the writer.
This is also why receiving criticism can hit us so hard. We’ve managed to create our own little world where we are the gods and ultimate masters of “truth,” then someone else comes along and kicks over our sand castle. This is why there is nothing quite so painful, or so vital, as getting your writing critiqued before you publish.
Purple Prose Fix #6: Get the Right Kind of Feedback at the Right Time
Of course, not all feedback is created equal. Different stages of the writing process require different kinds of critique. Some people are going to be better at big picture critique. Others excel at nit-picking and noticing every out of place comma. Getting more eyes on the page is never a bad thing, but you should also try to be mindful of getting the right people to read your work at specific times.
The most important step I’ve taken to ensure I get the right sort of feedback is to ask for it. So often, I see people who are so shy or grateful just to get any feedback that they don’t feel like they can ask anything more. I once told a writer to set deadlines for their beta readers and was told by several people they had no “right” to make “demands.” Piffle! In my experience, humans always work harder to meet clear deadlines than if it is some sort of amorphous “favor” hanging in the air. And if they aren’t willing or able to get back to you in a timely fashion, they can tell you up front and take the stress of waiting out of the equation for you.
Even if you don’t know the strengths of your critiquers or are just posting things in forums, you’ll get you more productive feedback if you state your expectations up front. Just plopping something in a Facebook group is likely to get you 10 people who correct your use of further vs. farther, and nothing real or helpful. On the other hand, if you tell someone to help you catch the times you head-hop before they ever lay eyes on the prose, they will be primed for that kind of critique. The same goes for purple prose. Ask for what you need and you are much more likely to get it from any person reviewing your work.
Purple Prose Cause #4: Figuring Things Out on the Page
There is nothing wrong with the “pantsing” approach. Getting everything out of your brain and onto the page can be a valuable step in the process. I personally write abstracts for every chapter before I start to get my thoughts in order. The same can go for world-building or learning about your characters. Writers may not know every little detail about their world or the setting before they actually get down to writing. Characters have a way of growing and changing outside of our expectations. And every step of the way is important to come to a high-quality and coherent final product.
Dumping everything out is vital, but keeping everything you dump can lead to redundancies and purple prose. The problem comes in when everything you write isn’t treated as a step but as the final product. I often read books that start too early in the character’s life story or do all of the world-building on the page. Sure, the writer needs to know all the intricacies, but readers usually don’t. So you have to…
Purple Prose Fix #7: Kill Your Darlings
This is another piece of rudimentary writing advice that sometimes is misunderstood. People may assume this means that a writer shouldn’t be afraid to let their characters die. Instead, this advice pertains to being prepared to cut out sentences, scenes, and even chapters that turn out to be unnecessary in the editing stage. It can be difficult to cut out the pieces that we have come to love, but being a good writer means making tough choices.
By all means, keep your first draft with all of the purple-ness and clever turns of phrase for yourself. Then, save a new copy and start hacking. You can also start a new document for just the things you cut to revisit them later and give them a new home in a different story. Your readers will thank you for it.
Purple Prose Fix #8: Get Focused
So, how do you decide which “darlings” stay, and which ones get the old red pen? To be both as concise as possible as well as giving your reader enough “flavor,” every word on the page must be in direct service to at least one of the following:
- Characterization – Who is your character, how they feel about the world, their goals, and how they deal with conflict. If you use multiple POVs, different characters may be prone to different word choices than others (voice).
- Plot – Moving the story forward or giving vital information that will come into play later.
- Mood – This can be the hardest one to figure out when enough is enough and can sweep the writer off into the purple sunset. Try starting with the bare minimum, then ask for feedback using specific vocabulary (dreary, cheerful, chaotic, etc.) for the mood you are trying to create and see if others think you’ve achieved it. If not, you can always add more. Or if you start with a lot and get to the editing stage, cut things out but keep them in another document so you can insert them back in easily later if need be.
- Theme – Stories don’t need to have a “lesson” or “moral,” but they do need to have a theme. Man vs. beast, loneliness, the lengths people will go for love – these are themes with no clear takeaway message. Rather, they are topics to explore from various angles. These sentences are vital to the relevancy of your story for the reader even if they don’t know it on a conscious level.
Purple Prose Cause #5: An Abundance of Choice
In various Facebook writing groups, I’ve seen people ask several times why non-native English speakers decide to use it as their fiction language of choice. Besides the fact that it is the most commercially viable creative language, and most of the media they consume is likely in English, I believe there is also a more intrinsically artistic reason as well. Simply put, English has more words at its disposal.
I learned this while I was on my study abroad in Barcelona back in my college days. I was enrolled in an internship program, and part of the requirements was to take a class about cultural differences. We talked about communication in terms of high- and low-context cultures and languages. High-context cultures rely on non-verbal (or written) communication to convey the true meaning and sentiment behind an act of communication. Tonal languages, for example, have much more happening than just the syllable spoken, and while written languages require tons of extra marks to show the right tonal interpretation. Anyone who has seen Italians having a conversation can attest to how much they gesture as if their language is one-half spoken and one-half signing.
English, and by extension English speakers, are the opposite. We are a low-context group, which means the exact words we use are paramount in conveying our meaning. Ergo, more words with different and exact meanings. The Oxford English dictionary contains over 170,000 entries for words in use today, plus 9,500 sub-entries and nearly 50,000 entries for obsolete words. That’s a LOT of language to work with!
And therein lies both the trap and the means to escape it. Not only do we have a myriad of adjectives and nouns to choose from. English also borrows heavily from other languages in the pursuit of precision. Which means a writer in pursuit of clear communication can also winnow their word choices down to something precise, like the exact shade of purple. Readers nowadays also have the advantage of often reading on e-readers that have built-in thesauruses to help them figure out vocabulary they don’t know.
Unfortunately, many writers believe that adding more words or overly complex and uncommon words makes their meaning clearer, but the opposite is often the case. There has to be a balance between the known and the unknown or you risk alienating readers.
Purple Prose Fix #9: Writing is about Communicating to an Audience, Not Proving How “Smart” You Are
There are mathematical formulas that help to classify pieces of writing by their “readability.” These scores are assigned grade levels, though they don’t necessarily reflect the amount of education a person with that score has received. For instance, the average adult in the US reads at around a 7th-8th-grade level, even though finishing 12th grade is mandatory. The scale goes from 4th-6th grade (very easy) to 13+ (very hard, college level) and is determined using both the number of words in a sentence and the complexity (number of clauses, conjunctions, etc.)
Seventh-grade sentences have around 20 words. This doesn’t mean you can’t have longer or shorter sentences, but if you go longer than that you had better have a good reason behind it. The juxtaposition of long and short sentences can be a very powerful tool for creating a mood. However, too many long sentences with the same structure over and over again gets tiresome.
The 20-word guidepost is why you will often see sentences in news stories that begin with conjunctions even though your English teacher told you never to do that. They are splitting the sentences in order to make the writing easier to digest by separating distinct ideas. The Hemingway App is an excellent tool for testing the grade level of your writing and highlighting specific sentences that need attention. It is biased against adverbs and can’t be taken as 100% right all the time, but it is a very good place to start.
Average Doesn’t Mean Bad
I have mentioned the 7th-grade figure in writing groups and people always line up to belittle the “average” American and our school system. (And of course, always hold themselves far above this standard without ever measuring themselves…) That is missing the point completely. Saying that people are “stupid” doesn’t change the fact that they are who you need to be targeting. Just because “above average” is viewed positively doesn’t mean that “average” is bad by definition.
It simply means that if you want to reach the most people, it’s a good yardstick to make sure you aren’t talking down to or over the heads of your audience. The first draft of this article was at a 9th-grade reading level. Not too shabby, but I still went into the Hemingway App and took some of the suggestions to get it down to 8th grade. No sense writing 4,000+ words of advice if you can’t understand me!
This is especially true if your goal is to create entertainment for other people, which is exactly what commercial fiction is. If you are only interested in writing for a small, elite audience who “get it,” then don’t be surprised if you don’t sell many books. It isn’t the reader’s responsibility to drag meaning out of the quagmire of your words. It’s the writer’s responsibility to create meaning out of thin air. A challenge, to be sure, but a challenge that anyone can meet with enough diligence, practice, and the strength to properly edit their work.
Do you have any tips for avoiding purple prose? Or maybe you’re a fan and have something to say in its defense? Do you have examples to share or a question about a particular passage that may need some help? Share with us in the comments!
Phoebe Darqueling writes both fiction and non-fiction for targeted audiences. As an editor, she is the go-to person for many when it comes to slashing their word count and adding clarity to marketing text, fiction, and academic writing. One of her favorite forms of fiction is the “drabble,” or a story in exactly 100 words. You can read examples on her author site. Two of her personal favorites aren’t there right now because they are currently under consideration by a publisher.
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