Storyville: Avoiding Purple Prose in Your Fiction
So, I’m either the perfect person to write this column, or exactly the wrong person to do it, because quite often in the past my own writing has been called “purple.” I disagree with that assessment, at least in regards to my current work, the last couple of years. But there you have it. Let’s dig in deeper, shall we, and see what this is all about?
WHAT IS PURPLE PROSE?
I’ll pull this directly from Wikipedia, because I think it’s a pretty good definition:
In literary criticism, purple prose is prose text that is so extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw excessive attention to itself. Purple prose is characterized by the excessive use of adjectives, adverbs, and metaphors. When it is limited to certain passages, they may be termed purple patches or purple passages, standing out from the rest of the work…Purple prose is criticized for desaturating the meaning in an author's text by overusing melodramatic and fanciful descriptions.
And you know what? I agree with that definition. If I’m reading something and I can feel that the author is trying too hard, and giving me too much setting or language when it’s not necessary (in my opinion, or that of the reader in general) I’d say it’s purple. Let me expand on that a bit.
WHEN IS IT NOT NEEDED?
My biggest complaint, or the place I see purple prose being the most damaging is when there is excessive detail or language when it’s not needed.
For example, if you are writing a story about migrating birds and the ways that a widowed man is tracking them, trying to find meaning in life, understanding the depth of love and intuition and nature, then I would probably expect some passages that are dense and layered when it comes to certain aspects of that story—the birds, perhaps, shown in all of their original glory and habits. The flora and fauna, right? Perhaps in a few places where he meditates on the mistakes he has made, or the woman he has lost, especially in the hook, and at the end where we need that denouement and epiphany. Where would I not need it? When he’s standing in line to renew his bird watching license, when he’s getting gas at the station down the street, or when he’s brushing his teeth.
Another example that I often see is with language. Think about your character and everything they are—where they live, what they do for a living, their education, and their personality. Typically, you wouldn’t have a simple farmer waxing poetic over the beauty of his grain or potatoes. Likewise, would you have a Stanford professor of philosophy talking in street slang? Probably not (for a variety of reasons). You wouldn’t allow a child to speak in terms that should be reserved for an older individual who has lived a long life and experienced a great deal—that just won’t fit, right? Not just word choices (just say green, don’t say chartreuse, for example) but comprehension, insight, and philosophy.
When it comes to melodrama and cliché, likewise, you need to look at your story and think about what you’re saying there. Prose can lean into the purple if you are riddling your paragraphs with clichés—phrases we’ve seen over and over again, to the point that they lose any original meaning. Too familiar? Change it. Make it your own. The same with not only some individual words, but insights as well. We know how much you love your husband, how much your soul aches, but find a new way to say it. What words trigger that eye roll? Love, soul, beautiful? How can you show that emotion without descending into bad romance and erotica?
FIFTY SHADES OF OMG
Speaking of bad romance and erotica, I wanted to quote a few lines from the Fifty Shades of Grey books. Not only is this prose purple at times, painfully over-written, but it’s not in the least bit sexy. Mary Gaitskill puts James to shame:
"Desire pools dark and deadly in my groin." "I'm all deer/headlights, moth/flame, bird/snake—and he knows exactly what he's doing to me." "An image of her shackled to my bench, peeled gingerroot inserted in her ass so she can’t clench her buttocks, comes to mind."
I apologize for that.
EXAMPLES THAT WORK
So, for me, I think the best way to show you how dense, lyrical prose CAN work without being purple is to quote a few authors that I think do it exceptionally well. Now, you may disagree with me, but to me, this is taking it right up to the edge without crossing that line. If you’re a minimalist and not a maximalist, you may not enjoy these quotes as much as I do, but because these moments are important (setting up voice, a crucial scene, an important reveal, situation rife with sensory detail) I think they work.
Let’s start with some Will Christopher Baer:
I must be dead for there is nothing but blue snow and the furious silence of a gunshot. Two birds crash blindly against the glass surface of a lake. I’m cold, religiously cold. The birds burst from the water, their wings like silver. One has a fish twisting in its grip. The other dives again and now I hold my breath. Now the snow has stopped and the sky is endless and white and I’m so cold I must have left my body.
—Kiss Me, Judas by Will Christopher Baer
This works for me because Baer is setting up this novel, and this is the voice we’ll get throughout. We’ll eventually learn that this is a memory, and that at the time he was drugged, so that allows for the slightly surreal recitation here.
Not everyone likes Cormac McCarthy, but this is one of my favorite passages. I think it works because he’s slowing down the action here to really let the horror unfurl, to give us every glorious detail. Of course, he also does that for a burning tree in the desert.
A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners, coats of slain dragoons, frogged and braided cavalry jackets, one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained wedding veil and some in headgear or cranefeathers or rawhide helmets that bore the horns of bull or buffalo and one in a pigeontailed coat worn backwards and otherwise naked and one in the armor of a Spanish conquistador, the breastplate and pauldrons deeply dented with old blows of mace or sabre done in another country by men whose very bones were dust and many with their braids spliced up with the hair of other beasts until they trailed upon the ground and their horses' ears and tails worked with bits of brightly colored cloth and one whose horse's whole head was painted crimson red and all the horsemen's faces gaudy and grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of Christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools.
—Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy
The third example is from a pivotal scene in Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer.
A raging waterfall crashed down on my mind, but the water was comprised of fingers, a hundred fingers, probing and pressing down into the skin of my neck, and then punching up through the bone of the back of my skull and into my brain…and then the pressure eased even though the impression of unlimited force did not let up and for a time, still drowning, an icy calm came over me, and through the calm bled a kind of monumental blue-green light. I smelled a burning inside my own head and there came a moment when I screamed, my skull crushed to dust and reassembled, mote by mote.
—Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer
Such a great job here showing the horror of this moment. Out of context, it may be a little difficult to understand, but the sensations are amazing. Throughout this novel VanderMeer weaves science and disorientation together, showing us a slippery reality in Area X, grounding it quite often in things we can recognize and understand and then taking us to new places.
And finally, a bit of China Mieville, showing us the Weaver, as it dashes across an alternate reality, the web it uses to slip from one dimension to another:
Its substance was known to me. The crawling infinity of colours, the chaos of textures that went into each strand of that eternally complex tapestry…each one resonated under the step of the dancing mad god, vibrating and sending little echoes of bravery, or hunger, or architecture, or argument, or cabbage or murder or concrete across the aether. The weft of starlings’ motivations connected to the thick, sticky strand of a young thief’s laugh. The fibres stretched taut and glued themselves solidly to a third line, its silk made from the angles of seven flying buttresses to a cathedral roof. The plait disappeared into the enormity of possible spaces. Every intention, interaction, motivation, every colour, every body, every action and reaction, every piece of physical reality and the thoughts that it engendered, every connection made, every nuanced moment of history and potentiality, every toothache and flagstone, every emotion and birth and banknote, every possible thing ever is woven into that limitless, sprawling web. It is without beginning or end. It is complex to a degree that humbles the mind. It is a work of such beauty that my soul wept…I have danced with the spider. I have cut a caper with the dancing mad god.
—Perdido Street Station, by China Mieville.
Again, because this is a major character, and we need to see how weird and unique it is, we take the time here to slow down and unpack, to try and explain how the Weaver works.
What’s that you say? How about a bit of my own writing? Sure, why not. From my story, “Asking for Forgiveness,” (originally published at Menacing Hedge, and long-listed for Best Horror of the Year) which is dense and surreal in a few places, including this passage about the father:
Our father was a rumor, an echo, something only to be seen out of the corner of your eye. Our father was a woodsman, arms like tree limbs, beard as if born from bear, disappearing for days, for weeks, returning with so many things—tiny bird skulls, beads on a string, flowers for mother with purple blossoms and veiny leaves. The wood was stacked along one side of the cabin as high as it could go, the steady chop, the split of the timber, just part of the day, or so we were told. Our father was the cold creek that ran south of our home, filled with silver-backed fish with blood-orange meat, whispering every time we neared it, quenching our thirst, promises of sleepy peace if only we’d step a bit closer. Our father was the frosty moon that pasted the land with silence as our breath formed clouds of pain, feet bruised and bleeding, his laughter running over the mountain, guiding us down one ravine and up the other, wandering from hill to valley and back, some elusive destination always out of reach. Our father was time, stretched in every direction, elastic as a rubber band, as slow and anchored as a wall of granite, our eyes closing, waking up sore, grey where black had been. All lies. Everything she had ever told us was a lie. She never loved us, or it wouldn’t be like this.
Purple? You tell me.
I will say that while purple prose can be distracting, do not avoid setting in your writing. Do not stop trying to be original. If you can slow down and focus in the places where it matters, and then write other passages that are more streamlined, with a quicker pace, and less detail, in order to move the story along, I think you’ll be fine.
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