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Monday, March 19, 2018

Purple Prose: What it is, How it Works, How to Get Rid of it



What it is


"Purple Prose" is a term for melodramatic writing that's trying to be poetic. Often it's chock-full of adverbs and adjectives (that are also often unnecessary adverbs and adjectives) and modifying phrases, and often it's a bit wordy. There are a lot of aspects that can make something sound like purple prose--sentence length and type, amount of words used to describe something, what words are used to describe something, overusing multi-syllabic words, overusing abstracts . . .  Any of these things in and of themselves isn't innately bad or wrong. It's how they are used that creates purple prose.

But rather than trying to describe all of it, it's usually best to just let you read some examples to get a feel for purple prose.

Disclaimer: I've been crazy busy in the industry lately, so I'm grabbing examples from elsewhere on the internet to save time writing one. These examples come from here and here.


1. It was a dark and stormy night. I had just finished my second cup of outrageously expensive Starbucks Guatemala Casi Cielo that was a Christmas gift from by best friend, Tom. The vibrant, stimulating aroma hung in the air as if it were a dense fog suppressed by the thick foliage of ancient oaks. My eyes dilated as the soothing scent wafted by, enticing my senses. I was keenly aware that I could now prolong my evening with the assistance of the adrenaline-boosting beverage that still danced with my taste buds at each swallow. I gradually allowed my eyelids to droop as I pontificated the next scene in my novel. Within seconds they flashed open. My sixty-five-year-old bladder sent up a signal flare to my over-stimulated brain, and I dashed out the room hoping to reach my anticipated destination with time to spare.


2. The young, precocious child of elementary school age was commanded by his endearing and loving mother to put on a change of clothes. He lumbered up the crooked and creaking stairs to his massive wardrobe that could rival Narnia’s. It was very old and worn, made of a dark and foreboding walnut, reliefs of ancient Roman and Greek gods festooned its rough visage. He opened it gingerly and it creaked and groaned in ominous protest.


3. Nox's eyes, green as an emerald diamond found in a long forgotten, stony mine, peered into my own brown, luscious, chocolate colored eyes from her regal position on the seat next to me.

Her tail wriggled softly, like a long, slithering snake having some sort of terrible seizure....did snakes even have seizures? I pondered this strangely elusive and private thought as I stared, almost enamored, at my wise and all-knowing feline companion of four entire years now.

"How big d'you reckon the floods shall be, my pet?" I curiously asked, reaching one dainty, delicate, elegantly thin hand out to pat my closest and dearest friend on top of her soft, silky, round head.

My four-legged companion let out a rather peaceful meow that instantly seemed to bring my tried and tormented soul to peace. Her quiet, soft, and very musical meows always tended to elicit a calm feeling throughout the entirety of my body, even down to the very most microscopic cells teeming within my very body at this exact moment in time.

My silky companion stood and offered me quite a graceful stretch, her back arching as high as the waves in the ocean rose.


( 😱 Aaaah, my brain!!)

Characteristics


Notice these characteristics:

- Melodramatic--trying to make something way more than it is. Overreacting, over-emotional, overwrought, overwritten. Usually this happens when the writer is trying to make something more powerful and meaningful than it actually merits in concept.

"Nox's eyes, green as an emerald diamond found in a long forgotten, stony mine"--we are talking about a cat's eyes.

" . . . his massive wardrobe that could rival Narnia’s. It was very old and worn, made of a dark and foreboding walnut, reliefs of ancient Roman and Greek gods festooned its rough visage. He opened it gingerly and it creaked and groaned in ominous protest."--we are talking about an ordinary wardrobe that carries no significance to the story.

"My sixty-five-year-old bladder sent up a signal flare to my over-stimulated brain, and I dashed out the room hoping to reach my anticipated destination with time to spare."--we are talking about peeing!


- Overuse of adverbs and adjectives. For a full explanation on this problem, why it's a problem, and when to break the rules, see my post here. Remember, too, in purple prose, the adverbs and adjectives are often unnecessary.

"The young, precocious child of elementary school age was commanded by his endearing and loving mother to put on a change of clothes. He lumbered up the crooked and creaking stairs to his massive wardrobe that could rival Narnia’s"--almost no noun is left unmodified.

"I curiously asked, reaching one dainty, delicate, elegantly thin hand out to pat my closest and dearest friend on top of her soft, silky, round head."--at least 10 modifying words in one sentence.


- Unnecessary adjectives and adverbs.

"I pondered this strangely elusive and private thought."--unless you are writing a story about telepaths, all thoughts are private, so you don't need the adjective.


- Modifying phrases. Adjectives and adverbs are modifiers--they modify or describe something. In purple prose, often there is an overuse of modifying phrases.

"My silky companion stood and offered me quite a graceful stretch, her back arching as high as the waves in the ocean rose."


- Overuse of abstract concepts and words. I talked a bit about abstracts last week and why they are a problem. Abstracts are intangible, but the audience needs the concrete to sink into and experience your story. Throw in lots of abstracts and you lose a lot of power.

"The young, precocious child of elementary school age was commanded by his endearing and loving mother to put on a change of clothes"--precocious, endearing, and loving are all abstract.


- Wordy. Wordiness is another beast in and of itself, but it's most often saying things in more complicated ways than they actually need to be said. It uses more words than necessary and more multi-syllabic words than necessary.

"Her quiet, soft, and very musical meows always tended to elicit a calm feeling throughout the entirety of my body, even down to the very most microscopic cells teeming within my very body at this exact moment in time."--that's a lot of words, and a lot of fancy words to say, "My cat's meowing always calmed me."


- Sentence length. This is more of an issue that relates to the context of the passage, so it's hard to pin down and sum up here. Often purple prose overuses long, dramatic sentence structures. Other times though, short sentences and sentence fragments are used to try to bring more drama and impact to an otherwise average moment in a story.

Notice in the first example how many of the sentences follow about the same dramatic length.


- Overwrought word choice. Usually in purple prose, more complicated and seemingly poetic words are used in (or added to) places where the average, normal word would work fine.

"Nox's eyes, green as an emerald diamond found in a long forgotten, stony mine, peered into my own brown, luscious, chocolate colored eyes from her regal position on the seat next to me."--dude, Nox has green eyes, you have brown. We get it.

(Side note: your brown eye part is a viewpoint error anyway.)


- Overuse of comparisons and figurative language. Not everything in writing needs a fancy metaphor. And not everything even merits a metaphor. You don't need to doll up an average work night.

 "The vibrant, stimulating aroma hung in the air as if it were a dense fog suppressed by the thick foliage of ancient oaks." It's coffee.

How it Works and How to Get Rid of it

Why We Use Purple Prose

Everyone has written purple prose before, and if someone tells you they haven't, they are probably either lying or don't know how to discern it.

I'm convinced that writing purple prose is a learning phase that almost all writers go through.

So why do we write it in the first place?

Usually it comes from wanting to make something more dramatic, more poetic, or more meaningful. Sometimes it comes from wanting to give something more emphasis.

Look at the examples above. Each "writer" (these are people who intentionally wrote purple prose) wanted to capture something ordinary and make it more.

Coffee on a late night while writing a novel.

A boy obeying his mother and going to change his clothes.

The viewpoint character's relationship with a cat.

The idea of capturing something ordinary and making it significant is absolutely a poetic ambition. Wanting to write beautifully is a poetic ambition. Wanting to make something dramatic, meaningful, and more emphasized is a fine goal for any kind of creative writer.

But seasoned writers and schooled poets know that purple prose doesn't cut it.

Purple prose takes something and tries to make it all those things in the way it is written. It's adding fluff and ornamentation to an average idea, a so-so image, a cliche concept.

But masters understand it is the idea, image, and concept that makes something significant.

It's not floofing up something average so that it appears to be more than it is. Masters can see right through that stuff, and see that the idea, image, and concept are actually nothing.

Coffee on a late night while writing a novel.

A boy obeying his mother and going to change his clothes.

The viewpoint character's relationship with a cat.

Practiced writers know, content come first, description comes second.

If you take a poetry class you should (hopefully) learn that poetry is more than the chosen words.

It's the idea. It's the image. Or it's the concept.

That doesn't mean you can't take something average and make it into something significant. But it's the content of the subject or, it's the content of how it's rendered (that might sound like an oxymoron, but I'll explain in a second).

It's the Idea

The best writers have fresh ideas. It might be their worldviews. It might be unique observations they've picked up from life.

John Green is a great example of a writer who understand that it's the ideas that can make writing great. And it's one of the key reasons people fall in love with his work.

See, John Green isn't writing epic fantasy or detective stories or wilderness survival stories. He's writing "ordinary" stories. But what makes them great are the ideas, perspectives, or observations he infuses them with.

Take a look at these examples and notice that it's his unique ideas that make them beautiful, that make them significant, that make them feel like they could be poetry.


There are infinite numbers between 0 and 1. There's .1 and .12 and .112 and an infinite collection of others. Of course, there is a bigger infinite set of numbers between 0 and 2, or between 0 and a million. Some infinities are bigger than other infinities. A writer we used to like taught us that. There are days, many of them, when I resent the size of my unbounded set. I want more numbers than I'm likely to get, and God, I want more numbers for Augustus Waters than he got. But, Gus, my love, I cannot tell you how thankful I am for our little infinity. I wouldn't trade it for the world. You gave me a forever within the numbered days, and I'm grateful.


When talking about someone who will no longer be in your life:

The pleasure of remembering had been taken from me, because there was no longer anyone to remember with. It felt like losing your co-rememberer meant losing the memory itself, as if the things we'd done were less real and important than they had been hours before.


The weird thing about houses is that they almost always look like nothing is happening inside of them, even though they contain most of our lives. I wondered if that was sort of the point of architecture.


The idea is poetic.

Notice how none of these are actually purple prose, and yet they all feel significant.


It's the Image 

The thing about purple prose is that it's taking something ordinary and trying to describe it in a way that sounds amazing.

You can do that sort of thing, but it's the image that counts.

Notice how the purple prose examples are taking average images and trying to turn them into something dramatic by stacking on modifiers, fancy words, and over indulging in descriptions and figurative language. This is often what new writers mistakenly think it means to be poetic.

But great poets know it's the image itself that makes a moment amazing, not stacking on a bunch of modifiers.

I love the image of fog that J. Alfred Prufrock includes in his poem "The Love Song."

(By the way, did you know when you read poetry you aren't actually supposed to pause at the end of each line? They teach us that when we are young so we can better hear and notice the beats and rhythm, but you are supposed to read poems sentence by sentence like you would prose. This stanza naturally pauses at the end of each line, so it's not a big difference, but many people don't know that.)


The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.


Prufrock is making a stanza sound poetic by rendering an interesting image: how yellow fog is like an animal. The content of how it is rendered.

It's a famous poem, and notice that he's not throwing in a million modifiers and fancy words. He took the content of how something will be rendered and used specific, concrete language, with strong verbs, to put it on the page.

Notice how he uses a metaphor, figurative language to capture that image, instead of simply taking fog and trying to attach a bunch of stuff to it to make it interesting.

Good poems usually do this sort of thing.

Here is another. Notice how Dorianne Laux takes something ordinary but makes it significant through the content of how it's rendered--the images she captures. Notice the specificity and how she doesn't load everything up like people do with purple prose.


Girl in the Doorway

She is twelve now, the door to her room
closed, telephone cord trailing the hallway
in tight curls. I stand at the dryer, listening
through the thin wall between us, her voice
rising and falling as she describes her new life.
Static flies in brief blue stars from her socks,
her hairbrush in the morning. Her silver braces
shine inside the velvet case of her mouth.
Her grades rise and fall, her friends call
or they don’t, her dog chews her new shoes
to a canvas pulp. Some days she opens her door
and musk rises from the long crease in her bed,
fills the dim hall. She grabs a denim coat
and drags the floor. Dust swirls in gold eddies
behind her. She walks through the house, a goddess,
each window pulsing with summer. Outside,
the boys wait for her teeth to straighten.
They have a vibrant patience.
When she steps onto the front porch, sun shimmies
through the tips of her hair, the V of her legs,
fans out like wings under her arms
as she raises them and waves. Goodbye, Goodbye.
Then she turns to go, folds up
all that light in her arms like a blanket
and takes it with her.


It's the Concept

Some things feel dramatic, significant, or meaningful because of the concept. What the writer thought of to put on the page.

You could say this is similar to ideas, but to me, the ideas are the worldviews and insights; concepts are the content of what is happening or exists. Ideas are more like introspection and commentary. Concepts are more like plot, setting, character, and worldbuilding.

BBC's Sherlock has great character concepts that are in and of themselves significant.

Molly: I can't say it because it's true. Sherlock. It's always been true.
Sherlock: Well if it's true then say it anyway.
Molly: You ba-----.
Sherlock: Say it anyway.
Molly: You say it first.
Sherlock: What?
Molly: Go on, say it like you mean it.
Sherlock: I - I love you.

Mycroft: Sherlock, however hard that was -
Sherlock: Euros, I won. I won. Come on, play fair, the girl on the plane, I need to talk to her. I won, I saved Molly Hooper.
Euros: Saved her? From what? Be sensible, there were no explosives in her little house. Why would I be so clumsy? You didn't win, you lost. Look what you did to her. Look what you did to yourself, all those complicated little emotions, I lost count. Emotional context, it destroys you, every time.

The concept of Sherlock having to get Molly Hooper to declare her love for him in order to save her life, is telling when it comes to these two characters. Molly Hooper trying to get Sherlock to say those words is even more telling.

To cap it all off, Euros argues that having emotions makes you destructive to those around you. Does having more emotion make you better or make you worse? Does Sherlock have powerful emotions? And if so, does that make him stronger or weaker? This is one of the main thematic arguments of season four. It is significant and meaningful in and of itself, but rather than get gaudy writing about the subject, the creators start with concept. They bring it forth through character and plot.

If you didn't start strong on those concepts, and you were trying to be powerful, dramatic, and meaningful about emotions, you'd probably end up fluffing stuff up.

It starts with concept.

When the concept is there, you don't need a million ornaments.

But something doesn't need to be weaved into the entire length of the story. You can have a single concept that is significant. Look at this line from The Hunger Games.

 District 12: Where you can starve to death in safety.

Isn't that a powerful, meaningful statement in and of itself? It started with setting.

In short, it's the content of that line, the concept, that's significant.

Not throwing in a bunch of modifiers and fancy words to something ordinary.

Great writing is bigger than itself, bigger than what's on the page. That one sentence about the setting tells the audience a whole slew of information.

To write powerfully, the story should be bigger. Purple prose on the other hand is about taking something and trying to make it big enough to take up the full page.

Obviously doing the former is harder.

So what do you do? Well, you start by brainstorming better ideas, images, and concepts. And then you write them in a pleasing way.

Easier said than done.

But begin practicing how to come up with them. Imagine something new. That might seem very hard for most, but it can be done.

Keep in mind too, that the more cliche something is, the more straightforward it needs to be. If you try to get fancy with something cliche, it can at worse turn into purple prose and at best be annoying. A level of originality is an important part of being powerful.

Finally, one last poem (because learning how to legitimately read and write poetry like the modern professionals is often a remedy for purple prose.) This one is a bit more lighthearted--or at least appears to be. Notice how Ronald Koertge incorporates ideas, images, and concepts in order to find significance.


I Went to the Movies Hoping Just Once the Monster Got the Girl

He was as hungry for love as I. He lay in his cave
or castle longing for the doctor's lovely nurse,
the archeologist's terrific assistant while I hid
in my bedroom, acne lighting up the gloom like
a stoplight, wondering if anybody anywhere would
ever marry me.

I war, hardly able to stay in my seat as the possibilities
were whittled away; her laughter at his clumsy gifts,
her terror at his dumbness and rage, his final realization
synapses lazy as fly balls connecting at last as he
stands in the rain peering through her bedroom window
she in chiffon and dainty slingbacks he looking at
his butcher shop hands knowing he could never unsnap
a bra

and in comes Jock Mahoney or Steve Cochran and takes
everything off in a wink and she kisses him over
and over, wants to kiss him has been waiting to kiss
him while the monster feels his own lips big as eels
or can't find them at all or finds four.

I almost shouted into the dark that life with Jock
or Steve was almost something to be feared. Couldn't
she see herself in a year or two dying at a barbecue,
another profile nobody with his tongue in her ear?
Wouldn't she regret that she had not chosen to stay
with someone whose adoration was as gigantic as
his feet?

I went to the movies hoping that just once somebody
would see beneath the scales and stitches to the huge
borrowed heart and choose it, but each time Blob
was dissolved, Ogre subdued, Ratman trapped, Giant
Leech dislodged forever and each time Sweater Girl
ran sobbing into those predictable rolled up sleeves
I started to cry too, afraid for myself, lonely as
a leftover thumb.

"What's the matter with him?" the cheerleaders asked
the high scorers as they filed out.

"Nothing. He's weird, that's all."


***

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