Anyone who’s studied literature, taken a writing course or joined a book club has no doubt encountered the expression ‘purple prose’. For those who haven’t, Google defines it as:
“Prose that is too elaborate or ornate.”
So why purple?
In Ancient Rome, where the expression finds its origins, purple was the colour of the Emperor and the Gods. To declare someone’s writing ‘purple’ is to highlight its ostentation – but that’s not really a good thing.
Many writers fall into the trap of thinking big, fancy words and lavish descriptions are the way to show their competency as a wordsmith.
While some readers may be impressed by sprawling sentences and a vocabulary that sends them searching for the thesaurus, many will simply roll their eyes and toss the book away.
If you’re a descriptive writer and worry about toeing the line of pretentiousness, then check out these five easy steps for keeping your manuscript a more palatable shade of mauve.
Step #1: Remove Excess Adverbs and Adjectives
One of the first pieces of writing advice you’re likely to receive is to avoid using adverbs.
They’re often labelled cheap, lazy and redundant and add unnecessary bulk to your writing. As such, excessive use of adverbs and their adjective cousins are a big red (or purple?) flag.
A picture does tell a thousand words, but you don’t need to use every one of them to describe a scene.
If, like me, you’re the kind of writer who clearly envisions your novel like a mental movie, it can be tempting to transpose everything you see into words. However, this heavily descriptive approach isn’t always as effective as it might seem.
Not only does over-description bring your narrative’s pace to a halt, it also robs your reader of something important: their freedom of imagination.
Part of the appeal of reading a book as opposed to seeing a movie is the ability to conjure your own interpretations using the framework provided by the author.
Reading prose that is almost didactic with description can leave the reader feeling frustrated and overwhelmed.
While it is important to set the scene, you need to be careful of when and how you use descriptors. Are they adding necessary information? Or are you just writing in tautologies?
‘Fiery hair’ evokes the same image without the addition of the extra adjective ‘red’. Similarly, the verb ‘run’ doesn’t need to be qualified by ‘quickly’ or ‘fast’, as such an act is generally done with speed.
Opting for stronger single words (‘fiery’ vs. ‘red’; ‘sprint’ vs. ‘run’) can remove the need for adverbs and extra adjectives, reducing the ‘fluffiness’ of your work without losing visual impact.
Step #2: Watch Your Metaphors
Metaphors and similes are fantastic tools to bring some vivid imagery to your work.
(A refresher: a simile describes something as like another; a metaphor flat-out declares that it is the other thing. For instance: The moon was like a silver thumbnail. vs. The moon was a silver thumbnail.)
While the metaphor provides a stronger, more memorable visual, both devices are equally important – when used with care. Given the powerful descriptions they evoke, too many used too close together runs the risk of making your prose too ornate.
To use metaphors and similes effectively, the rule of thumb is less is more: the less frequently these devices appear, the more impact they will have.
A well-placed metaphor will make the reader pause to acknowledge it. But relying too heavily on this form of description is more likely to elicit groans and eye-rolls than nods of appreciation.
Another pitfall of excessive metaphor use is how easily metaphors lend themselves to cliché. Describing people as ‘old as the hills’ or ‘a diamond in the rough’ means you’re quickly understood, but due to their overuse, these aren’t particularly interesting expressions.
As such, many writers seek to avoid cliches by morphing them into less common descriptions. Instead of a diamond in the rough, our hero might be an unpolished gem, which is the same sentiment with different wording.
Doing this, however, has the potential to backfire if your substitutes branch out into the obscure and weird. By trying too hard to avoid using a clichéd metaphor, your writing can appear as exactly that: trying too hard.
If you’re going out of your way to say something in a fresh, new way, it’s going to sound forced, or like you are consciously trying to be clever. This can easily get your reader offside and is a common indicator of purple prose.
If you want to use an unusual metaphor, make sure it’s in line with your character’s voice and makes sense in the context of the narrative.
Saying that the dog was as old as Grandma Paula’s undies tells the reader a lot about the dog, Grandma Paula and the overall tone of the story, without a cliché in sight. (Just don’t rely on it for every paragraph.)
Step #3: Aim For Grade 9 Readability
With just 2% of the world’s adults reading at the top level, it stands to reason that some of the best-selling books cater to more average comprehension skills.
A testament to the success of accessible fiction is a glance at the top-selling authors of 2019: J. K. Rowling is once again perched at #1, having edged out crime fiction writer James Patterson by a cool $22 million.
Speaking of James Patterson: despite writing primarily for an adult market, his highly successful books regularly receive a Flesch Readability score in the mid-70s. This translates to the readability of a 7th-grade student (or an 11- or 12-year-old).
Cutting down on wordiness and reducing the number of clauses in a sentence is a sure-fire way to keep your prose crisp. If your writing is too dense and elaborate (read: purple), you run the risk of your reader having to work too hard to get through the story.
Randy Ingermanson from Advanced Fiction Writing urges writers to remember that their mission is to create emotional experiences, and the best way to do that is to have your reader actually finish:
“You don’t need big words to be deep. To be deep, all you need is to have deep ideas. Almost always, short words are better than long ones. And short sentences are better than long ones. And short paragraphs are better than long ones.”
If you’re worried about the complexity of your prose, there are a number of free and accessible editing tools to help determine the reading level of your work.
When it comes to trimming sentences and opting for a more common word instead of an obscure synonym, just remember that this is not a case of ‘dumbing things down’.
It takes skill to write with clarity and precision. And opening your work up to more than the literary highbrow is never a bad decision.
Step #4: Don’t Overuse The Thesaurus
All writers have favourite words they like to pull out from time to time.
For me it’s serpentine; Twilight’s Stephenie Meyer is partial to the much-maligned vampire; and Brandon Sanderson loves a maladroit hero landing.
Having a thesaurus is great. Stephenie should probably use one more often, but it might be best for Brandon to slowly back away from his.
Like metaphors, uncommon synonyms should be used sparingly. And the more obscure the word, the less it should be repeated, lest it stick out like a sore thumb.
At the other end of the scale, however, scrolling through a list of synonyms and opting for a different one each time is not the best solution, either.
It is standard practice to avoid using the same word too close together, but before selecting a colourful alternative, consider whether it’s essential for the same imagery to be repeated. Chances are, you can probably cut it out anyway.
Too many weird and wonderful words will raise your readability score and also deepen that shade of purple.
As tempting as it is to replace stock-standard descriptors with something unique, showcasing your expansive vocabulary can sometimes leave your writing feeling a tad pretentious.
Don’t get me wrong: a broad vocabulary is a fantastic attribute for a writer to possess. But using wordiness to show your competency is more likely to have the opposite effect.
Restraint is the key. But that’s not to say you can only use bland adjectives like ‘sad’, ‘green’ and ‘bright’.
By all means, have a character express their melancholy, dive onto that chartreuse couch, and enjoy the warmth of the effulgent summer sun. But not all the time, and certainly not all at once.
Step #5: Ask Yourself, ‘Is It Necessary?’
Description can make or break a novel. Write too much and nothing ever actually happens; too little and there’s nothing but blank-faced puppets dancing in a sea of white.
As always, balance is the key – but timing is equally important.
Upon introducing a character or setting to the reader for the first time, many a writer’s first impulse is to describe the new addition in detail.
While having a clear idea of such things is integral to solid world-building, it doesn’t always have a place in the final manuscript.
A clear indicator of purple prose is lengthy description that gets in the way of narrative progression. Action is what propels a reader through the story, not how vividly you’ve described a lake or the style of a passing woman’s hair.
If there is something unusual about the lake, by all means, mention it – but don’t get bogged down in the details.
In order to avoid adding extra fluff to your novel by sharing descriptions and backstories of everything your protagonist encounters, ask yourself, ‘Is this necessary for the reader to know?’
If you’re writing in first person or third-person limited perspective, consider what the protagonist would and would not notice before launching into a long stretch of exposition.
If your main character is returning to a place they’ve been to time and time again, there’s no need to describe the setting in detail, even if it’s new for the reader.
Instead, look at ways you can introduce the specifics through action, or by noting changes or irregularities that the protagonist might pick up on.
Has a thick layer of dust settled on her bookshelf while she’s been away, coating the many photo frames with fuzzy grey snow? Are there fewer people on the streets of a usually busy market?
While it can be hard to part with descriptions you’ve lovingly crafted, a firm editorial hand can work wonders for pacing and dilute any purple tinge to your prose.
Before you start agonising over whether or not your prose is too purple or unintentionally pretentious, consider where you are in your manuscript journey.
If you’re still drafting, just go for it: write those flowery metaphors and lengthy descriptions of people and places. At the end of the day, it’s all helps you develop your craft and your story.
But once the words are on the page, it’s time to step back and scrutinise. Run your manuscript through an editing app. Note the frequency of your metaphors. Question whether passages of description are necessary.
Not only will it improve the flow of your narrative, it will also make your writing more accessible, and a greater pleasure to read.