editing, Literary critique, Uncategorized, Writers Co-op, writing technique

Purple Prose

Screen enough stories for publication, and the feeling that you know something becomes hard to shake. You read too many stories. The stories are bad, or good, or very good. Why? Bad stories, forget those. But good or very good? What detracts from the author’s best efforts to tell a very good story? I have the feeling that one culprit is purple prose.

Purple prose is prose that is too elaborate or ornate. Another way to explain this is: The extravagant phrasing of tedious prose really hardly ever enhances the mostly mundane meaning.
For those of you who winced at that, all I meant to say was that purple prose kills the clarity.

I see it too often. Here’s an example that glitters with purple prose.

Saphira’s muscled sides expanded and contracted as the great bellows of her lungs forced air through her scaled nostrils. Eragon thought of the raging inferno that she could now summon at will and send roaring out of her maw. It was an awesome sight when flames hot enough to melt metal rushed past her tongue and ivory teeth without harming them.
Note that I’m not talking about style. That’s Christopher Paolini’s style. But it’s still purple prose.

Let’s read that as the editors at Reedsy.com would have it, without the color purple.
Saphira breathed heavily, her nostrils expelling warm air. Eragon sat and marveled at her power. It was amazing that Saphira’s fiery breath could melt metal, yet she was immune to its harm.

Don’t be afraid to tell your story without embellishment. If you edit unnecessary superlatives out of your work and what’s left is the story you want to tell, that’s very good. All that glitters may be mere distraction.


14 thoughts on “Purple Prose

  1. mimispeike says:

    Some elaborate (don’t know if you’d call it purple) stuff is priceless. I’m thinking of scholarly introductions to second, third, fourth editions of Victorian/Edwardian classics. I try as much as I can to get some of that into Sly.

    I am very tempted to write a preface stealing some of that delightfully pretentious gobbledegook. The nineteen-thirties intro to a reprint of Henry James’ The Ambassadors is a particularly fine example. I enjoy the hell out of it.

    If I can lay hands on that book I’ll copy one or two of the best paragraphs. It’s to die for.

    When an author feels . . . blah blah blah blah . . . it behoves him to . . . blah blah blah. This is the spirit of the thing, but the Henry James scholar does it so much better.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. At 18, Christopher Paolini was his indulgent parents’ Wunderkind. His first volume was filled with purple prose and the sweet romance of a self-involved virgin, but Mommy and Daddy believed he was a literary genius, and so there was a second volume.

    At about the time the third volume debuted, he was ComicCon’s darling when he publicly compared his trilogy to Tolkien’s and found Tolkien’s wanting.

    Maybe purple prose + arrogance = commercial success.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. I’m still a sucker for Orwell’s advice (point n° 3 especially), of whicb a reminder:

    Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print;
    Never use a long word where a short one will do;
    If it is possible to cut out a word, always cut it out;
    Never use the passive [voice] where you can use the active;
    Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent;
    Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

    Liked by 6 people

  4. Perry Palin says:

    Looking around for something to read, I picked up a mystery my wife had just finished. She gave it a fair review. Three chapters in I set it aside for its jarring purpleness, its mixed metaphors, and its strained similes.

    Description is good and necessary. I struggle to know where purpleness begins. I think I know it when I read it.

    In my writing class last winter I wrote a story that my fellow students/reviewers lauded for its lyrical pacing and description, especially in two paragraphs that were a set-up for the following section where the narrator’s life changes and is described in more direct and declarative terms. I intended that, and it worked, at least for those first readers

    The instructor wanted to strike an adverb in one of my sentences. She said it was unneeded and nowadays, she said, we don’t use adverbs. I told her that I was generally against adverbs, but I needed that one right there for the meter of the line. “Ah,” she said, “I’m glad you’re looking after the sounds and the rhythm of your sentences.”

    I like those authors who can describe only a pair of shoes in a way that leads the reader to a true picture of the rest of the character’s clothing.

    Liked by 5 people

  5. Michael DiMatteo says:

    Thanks for that email. Great advice and a great reminder for me.


    P.S. – I’ve not gotten too far but had an idea…as I’m a high school teacher, maybe reach out to some seniors that may be gamers and see what they come up with. Thoughts? Could be an interesting perspective.

    Michael DiMatteo

    The Best of Times (bestoftimes31.blogspot.com)


    “What man is a man who has not made the world better”

    Get Outlook for iOS

    Liked by 1 person

    • Michael,
      Thanks for the link to your blog page.

      I sent you a story, submitted for the Gamers anthology, titled “Not Good at Gaming,” The lady who wrote the story intended the title to be ironic. 🙂
      Let me know your thoughts?


  6. DocTom says:

    Hello All,
    Not sure if it really fits under Purple Prose, but the use of uncommon (or very rarely used) words when there are much more commonly used alternatives can drive a reader up the wall (as pointed out by Curtis citing Orwell’s advice). If you’ve ever read the work of China Miἑville you know what I mean. His works are highly imaginative, but he has a tendency to show-off his extensive vocabulary. Truthfully, you cannot read his stories without a dictionary at standby, and it had better be a British dictionary too! I know a few people who just gave up on his novels, since turning to the dictionary every other paragraph does tend to destroy the flow of reading. Yet in a fashion similar to Paolini, he’s been lionized for his writing and has a huge number of fans.
    Other than that, I guess the pros and cons of Purple Prose really depend on the audience you’re aiming at. Some love ‘literary’ fiction with dense, involved descriptions of the simplest event, emotion, or setting. It tends not to work well in genre writing though. That is unless you’re Snoppy, then it’s always a “dark and stormy night”!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Always a little annoying to have writing that calls attention to itself. Writing that’s easy to read but evocative and precise is what I admire, Hard to achieve though – the ease might be in the reading, never in the writing.

      Liked by 1 person

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