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.|
"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.|
How Much Purple is Too Much?
|Just give me a goddamn checklist already!|
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.
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