Thursday, November 21, 2013

Beyond the Purple: Dealing With Purple Prose in Your Fiction

Books are a unique kind of magic. They use words, sometimes written by people thousands of miles away and decades in their graves, to reach into the hearts and minds of readers to tell stories. The best books will run their fingers through the readers' minds, and play merry hell along their heart strings before grabbing hold of their collective guts and yanking. Good books do this by creating realism, using beautiful language, and many times through particularly vivid imagery.

Bad books, on the other hand, tend to fall victim to the disease of purple prose.

What is "Purple Prose"?

A three-lobed burning eye.
Generally speaking purple prose refers to a style of writing that is far too flowery and overdramatic. It's characterized by unnecessarily complex words, long running metaphors, and multiple spurts of description all in the same sentence. Purple prose, like pornography, is often tough to define. Most writers know it when they see it, though. So for that reason, here's an example.

"Jack stepped forward, punching Rob in the face."

This is normal prose. It's simple, straightforward, and it lets the reader know exactly what happened. It might be a little bland, but sometimes that's the sacrifice a story has to make to get the point across.

"Jack brought his right fist down, smashing Rob with a hammer-blow to the back of the head."

This is a little more vivid, and it gets the blood flowing. It's more specific as to the type of blow, where it landed, and the amount of force behind it. It's edging toward pulpy wording, but it's meant to excite the reader. This kind of language is typically good for action scenes.

"The blond giant snarled, the war cry of a lion, before swinging a mighty blow at his enemy that left his opponent staggering, reeling, blood spattering from his nose and mouth like a crimson rain."

Ummm... what? Because you read the previous two incarnations of this sentence you can take a guess what's happening. However, in this throbbing, turgid third sentence we have no names to describe who is doing what. There's entirely too much symbolism and description packed in, and the whole thing has become one big mess. That is typically what people mean when they're talking about purple prose.

Kill Your Darlings

With the strictest of prejudice.
Sir Arthur Quiller-Coach originally gave this fantastic, three-word piece of advice. It's since been repeated by William Faulkner, and it was the constant refrain of Stephen King's book "On Writing". These and other writers have fully endorsed pen monkeys the world over putting all of the pulsing purple prose they want on the page. Writers just need to delete it once they've gotten all that purple out of their systems. No matter how proud you are of a sentence, a turn of phrase, or a really great metaphor, you might still need to drown it in the Editorial River.

How Much Purple is Too Much?

Just give me a goddamn checklist already!
One person's purple prose is another's vivid imagery. It's why there are still arguments about whether authors like H.P. Lovecraft or Robert E. Howard were literary geniuses, or pulp-magazine hacks. As with so much else in writing it's largely up to the writer, the editor, and the beta readers to come to an understanding over how much purple is too much. It often comes down to personal style, the genre someone is writing in, and a dozen other factors.

That said, there are some things writers need to watch out for to make sure they don't bruise their language too badly.

#1: Does it Make Sense?

Whenever you finish writing something, leave it for a few days. A week if you have the time before a deadline. During that time start a different project, read a new book, watch a movie, and then come back to your story. It will shock you how many phrases or descriptions you used that were brilliant at the time, which completely snap the thread of your narrative and leave you asking "what the hell does that even mean?"

#2: Does it Fit With Everything Else?

Have you ever been reading a story or article, and right in the middle the writer gets really erudite for no reason? That happens a lot in purple prose. It feels like the author learned a new word, and wanted a chance to show off that he or she knew it. If you're writing about high school kids chances are you should use the word "backpack" or "messenger bag" instead of "valise". By the same token, if you've been using very straightforward prose for everything, don't start slapping a bunch of metaphors and similes down on the page.

#3: Does it Add Something?

Perhaps the most important question concerning pulsing prose is whether or not it adds to the story. In a fight scene or a love scene this kind of language might be used to increase a reader's pace, and to get the blood pumping. In a chase scene, or a confrontation with a squamous monstrosity, getting a little purple might churn readers' stomachs, or make sweat pop out on their foreheads. But if a writer is using this kind of language to describe getting ready for work in the morning, catching the city bus, or going out to get a newspaper then it can quickly become boring. Much like exclamation points, writers shouldn't go beyond the purple too often. Doing so will reduce the power this kind of prose possesses.

As always I hope that my readers found this installment of the Literary Mercenary helpful. If you want to plug in and follow all of my updates then drop by my Facebook or Tumblr pages. If you're curious about my own published work, stop on by my Goodreads page and show me some love. Lastly, if you'd like to support the Literary Mercenary then please share the blog with your friends and family. Or drop a few cents into the tip jar on the top right of the page. Or both. That would be good too.

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