Purple Prose – what is it and when can you use it?
- The simplest definition of Purple Prose is writing that is too elaborate, ornate or hyperbolic. It is often called flowery writing.
- Purple Prose describes a passage of writing that is excessively wordy, often using too many long and difficult words, as well as too many adjectives, adverbs and metaphors.
- It is writing that draws attention to itself, rather than what it is supposed to be portraying. This can distract the reader from the point of the writing ie the characterisation or plot. And it can slow the pace of the story.
- Purple prose can also make readers feel that the are not clever enough to be reading this particular piece of writing. If you come across one word that you don’t understand, that’s fine. The context usually helps. But a string of words that you don’t know (and makes you think you need a dictionary) disrupts the flow of reading.
Purple prose should not be equated with Literary Writing. This is a style using figurative and symbolic language, such as similes and metaphors, irony and analogy.
The phrase Purple Prose comes from the Latin purpureus pannus which first appeared in a publication by Horace 65-68 BC. Purple was the colour of the aristocracy at that time, symbolising royalty, grandeur, power and pretentiousness.
There was a famous literary feud back in the late 1940s between two great writers: William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway. Faulkner was said to be a prime example of a writer of Purple Prose who was critical of Hemingway’s more journalistic style.
Faulkner said of Hemingway: “He has never been known to use a word that might cause a reader to check with a dictionary to see if it is properly used.”
To which Hemingway replied: “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.”
So, should YOU use Purple Prose in your fiction?
The short (Hemingway) answer is NO. But, as with adjectives and adverbs, the more sparingly their usage, the more effective they are.
And the overriding guidance is always to think of your audience – what is right for them and what is the best way to communicate with them?
I’ve purposely not included any examples of Purple Prose because, as a former journalist, I don’t want to encourage it! But there are examples on the Web if you want to have a look.
If you feel you may be using Purple Prose unintentionally, then here’s a checklist you might like to try:
- Check your sentences for length. Are they too long? Can you read them out loud comfortably? Are they too rambling, too many commas?
- Check that each sentence is moving your story forward, that each has a purpose.
- Look at EVERY adjective and adverb. Do they add something vital to the nouns and verbs, or are they superfluous? What are the really important modifiers, the ones that enhance your nouns and verbs?
- How does your work look on the screen or paper? Are there long blocks of narrative? Can you break that up with shorter paragraphs and dialogue?
- Read the whole piece out loud. Does it flow? Or are certain words stopping that flow?
- Concentrate on your characters and plot. If those are good, then the writing, style and voice should follow.
I hope some of you have started the 52 Writing Resolutions from last month. Don’t worry if you fall a little behind at this stage – there’s plenty of time to go!
And if you need something to get you going each day, there are 366 prompts in my book Let’s Get Writing. I did try them all out as I was writing the book and now I’m going back and doing one a day again. I find first thing in the morning, they usually take between one and five minutes, and then I’m ready for the rest of the day.