In this guide we’ll look at the definition of purple prose and consider examples of its use. If you’re worried your writing is dangerously close to the purple zone, we’ll help you transform it into tight, effective prose that agents and editors will fall in love with.
Purple Prose Definition
Purple prose is flowery and ornate writing that makes a piece of text impenetrable. It is characterised by long sentences, multi-syllabic words, excessive emotion, and a plethora of clichés. It’s typically melodramatic and often too poetic. It’s frowned upon because it breaks the flow of a story, slows the pace, detracts from the text, and leaves the reader perplexed or, even worse, bored. It can pop up in patches throughout a story, or it can weigh down an entire novel.
Purple prose is most likely to creep into your writing if you’re trying too hard to impress your readers by emulating the style of your favourite author. Or perhaps you’re just being a little over-zealous with your word choices.
We’re all guilty of over-embellishing our writing from time to time. We’re writers – we love words, so who can blame us for getting a little carried away when immersed in a powerful new scene? But if we want our writing to be taken seriously, we need to make sure we don’t go too far.
Purple Prose Examples
Many authors have been accused of the sin of writing purple prose over the years. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ oozes mushy sentimentality, with sentences such as, ‘Even so, beloved Eva! Fair star of thy dwelling! Thou art passing away; but they that love thee dearest know it not.’ Even though it was written in 1852 when such contrivances were more accepted, this is still considered one of the most purple of the classic texts.
Another great example is this short extract from Jim Theis’s 1970 fantasy novella, The Eye of Argon which seeps purple prose from every pore.
‘Glancing about the dust swirled room in the gloomily dancing glare of his flickering cresset, Grignr eyed evidences of the enclosure being nothing more than a forgotten storeroom. Miscellaneous articles required for the maintenance of a castle were piled in disorganized heaps at infrequent intervals toward the wall opposite the barbarian’s piercing stare.’
If you’re worried your writing might be tinged with too much purple, take a look at the following red flags, and read how to make your writing leaner and more readable.
Purple Prose Red Flags:
1. Too Many Adjectives And Adverbs
Writers love adjectives, but if used excessively they become a distraction, interfering with your story and making your prose a deep shade of purple. William Strunk and E.B. White, in The Elements of Style, say: ‘Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs.’
Scrutinise every adjective in your writing and consider how it earns its place. If you can do without it, delete it. For example, if you’re describing a lawn, only use the word ‘green’ if that’s out of the ordinary. Or find a stronger noun that doesn’t need an adjective at all – for example ‘light rain’ could be replaced with ‘drizzle.’ And try to avoid using two adjectives if one will do, as increasing the number of adjectives before a noun severely reduces its clout and makes your prose even more purple. The same goes for adverbs. Does the drunk person ‘walk erratically’ or do they ‘stagger’?
Pro tip: Use your thesaurus with caution. It will throw up all sorts of unnecessary distractions your story doesn’t need. Only use a thesaurus to help you recall known words.
Good writers use adjectives and adverbs sparingly. Cut them with care and decide if your sentences seem less purple as a result.
2. Excessive Sentence Length
Every definition of purple prose highlights the excessive use of long, winding and overly dramatic sentences. By the time your reader has reached the end, they won’t remember where they began. The following example is by Victorian writer, Jerome K. Jerome in his book, Three Men in a Boat. He was writing at a time when authors were paid by the word, so perhaps we can forgive him for this lyrical, but rather convoluted and distinctly purple sentence.
‘The river—with the sunlight flashing from its dancing wavelets, gilding gold the grey-green beech-trunks, glinting through the dark, cool wood paths, chasing shadows o’er the shallows, flinging diamonds from the mill-wheels, throwing kisses to the lilies, wantoning with the weirs’ white waters, silvering moss-grown walls and bridges, brightening every tiny townlet, making sweet each lane and meadow, lying tangled in the rushes, peeping, laughing, from each inlet, gleaming gay on many a far sail, making soft the air with glory—is a golden fairy stream.’
Did reading that make you a little breathless? Be kind to your reader and keep an eye out for overly long sentences. Limit the number of clauses and play with length, mixing up shorter and longer sentences to give your writing a sense of rhythm.
3. Excessive Emotion
Some authors unwittingly make their prose purple by sledge-hammering emotions onto the page, especially when describing a visceral reaction to a situation. Trust your reader to get it without telling them twenty times in twenty different ways. Of course, much depends on the genre of your writing. Romantic fiction readers will be more tolerant of a little emotional embellishment than steely-eyed crime fiction fans.
As you write or edit, think about whether the magnitude of the reaction matches the event. Will your main character’s breast heave that violently at the sight of her love interest? Or will Philip’s teeth really gnash and his brow drip with sweat on hearing that Sally has been promoted ahead of him?
Think of other ways to create authentic tension without resorting to purple prose.
If you’re unsure how to go about this, identify the essence of your scene; what really matters? Make it exciting in its own right and don’t rely on flowery language to jazz it up. The story, not the distracting writing, should be the thing that grabs the reader’s attention. And if you’ve forgotten what’s going on, then so will your reader!
4. Generic Or Clichéd Images
A reliance on clichés is considered the number one crime in creative writing, and for good reason. Clichés are lazy shortcuts to expressing an emotion or situation, suggesting the writer hasn’t been able to think up their own words. They’re old and boring and offer nothing to surprise or shock your reader. Examples of purple prose across the internet cite the deployment of clichés as a key feature.
Every first draft will have the odd cliché skulking in its shadows, but if you spot one, get rid of it. And then say what you’re trying to say in your own words. Clichés will only hint at your inexperience, so be brutal and delete those tired old phrases without mercy.
If you’re struggling to spot clichés in your writing, ask a friend or beta reader to read it through or consider signing up for one of our creative writing courses to help you identify problem areas such as this.
5. Lack Of Clarity
All of the above conspire to create writing that lacks clarity. Imagine for a moment you’re the reader of your book. You’re walking through a forest, surrounded by new and exciting sights, but as you progress, the path turns to mud. It sucks at your boots, slowing your pace. Brambles run their thorns along your bare arms and mosquitos nip at your cheeks. The birds screech, laughing at your sluggish progress. You’re desperate now to get to your destination, but come upon a patch of tall nettles. You beat your way through, your shins stinging …
I’m getting a little carried away here, but do you get my point? When a piece of prose becomes too purple, the overly-ornate text becomes an impediment to the reader’s progress and they’ll simply turn back and go home, or put your book down. As an author, it’s your job to take your reader by the hand and guide your reader to the end of the story without unnecessary hurdles to impede their progress.
The following extract from Sean Penn’s debut novel, Bob Honey, is a perfect example of an author’s purple prose affecting clarity. Even though the book is a satire, the text is as impenetrable as my imaginary forest.
“There is pride to be had where the prejudicial is practiced with precision in the trenchant triage of tactile terminations. This came to him via the crucible-forged fact that all humans are themselves animal, and that rifle-ready human hunters of alternately-species prey should best beware the raging ricochet that soon will come their way.”
I think Mr Penn is trying to say something about hunting animals, but I really can’t be sure.
So, how do you make sure your writing never lacks clarity?
Leave plenty of time between writing and editing so you can read your work with fresh eyes. Does it make sense? Do you understand what you’re writing about after time away from it? Is anything confusing? Think how you could make it clearer using the advice listed above. If you’re still not sure, ask a beta reader to help, or consider using our editorial services.
It takes skill and experience to write with clarity, so remember, as you write, focus on your story, and keep your reader in mind. Do you really want them to battle their way through that forest, arriving battered and bruised at their destination, or would you rather they enjoyed the journey?
How To Write Tight, Effective Prose
Even if your writing isn’t that purple, or only purple in patches, thinking about the above will help your writing become tighter and more effective. Keep your reader in mind as you write. Ensure every word, sentence, paragraph and scene drives the story on.
Pro tip: Take a narrow-eyed look at your dialogue tags too. Keep them simple, so if possible, use ‘said’. Nothing makes a reader cringe more than a character ‘blustering’ or ‘interjecting’.
While you’re busy trimming your work, keep an eye out for modifiers too, like the word ‘very’. Find a better, stronger word, and your writing will be less purple because of it.
Professional, publication-ready writing is lean. The author has taken the time to cut unnecessary adjectives, adverbs and dialogue tags. Only the essence of the story remains, making the text easier to read because not one word is wasted.
Read more tips on writing perfect prose here.
A Final Thought On Purple Prose
Writing purple prose is a part of the writing journey, and we should never be ashamed to spot it in our work. But we need to learn to recognise it when we see it, and be brave enough to get rid of it. Experienced writers have learnt that the big idea is what makes something meaningful, not the language used to embellish it. The idea should always come first. Don’t try to be Daphne du Maurier. Be you. Play with language until you find your voice and then pare your writing right back until it gleams.