As writers we hear a lot about “purple prose” and how bad it is, but what is it really, and how should we be looking for it when we edit?
A quick Google search will yield you the definition “prose that is too elaborate or ornate,” but personally I think that definition is a little narrow, and I think the actuality is a little more nuanced than that, largely because this definition ignores context. I would amend this definition to “prose that is too elaborate or ornate within the context of the text.”
I don’t have stats to back this up, so maybe this is just fake news, but I feel like recently there has been a lot of emphasis on veering away from denser prose, especially with the rise in popularity of Young Adult fiction.
YA is a style that, by its very nature requires less dense prose in order for its target audience to find it approachable. But beyond that, I think there’s also this mentality among some YA authors and some YA fans that books being released now are good because they put such heavy emphasis on plot and character over style or prose. Essentially the argument goes that these stories aren’t stuffy or boring like the things you’re forced to read in school.
I bring this up because I have, and as an author you might, run across people who are very much against story that features heavily stylized or very ornate prose. When they see it, they will complain its purple, but that isn’t necessarily the case.
If the style of writing fits well in your work, then don’t shy away from using the fancy-schmancy big words in your story. Purple prose is often relative. If you’re writing a fast-paced thriller and then suddenly have a scene that delves into using archaic wording to describe a setting, then you have purple prose. If your whole text reads that way, then I would argue that you’re not in “purple prose” territory.
When editing, there are some things you can look out for…
If the prose in a scene doesn’t fit with the style of the rest of the story, especially because it waxes poetic for no real reason, then you’re looking at purple prose. There are some times when you will want to change up the style of the writing in a story. For instance, at a highly emotional point in the story, you may want to use more poetic wording to showcase the character’s mental state. Or maybe you have a specific character for whom using a different style of prose makes sense. But if your character is looking at a wall, and you end up with a page-long description of its surface that doesn’t contribute to the story, then you’ll want to cut that bit.
Similarly, consider what the scene you’re reviewing adds to the story. This is always important to do, but it’s also an easy way to spot purple prose. If the descriptive segment is literally just a string of pretty words that doesn’t move the plot or give us insight into the character, then I would cite this as another instance of purple prose that you could trim from your story.
Finally, consider your target audience. If you’re writing for a younger reader or in certain types of genre, going with really dense prose might not be the best choice. You will have to weigh how accessible you want your story to be against what sort of writing style you’re going to use. If you want to write Ulysses, then write Ulysses, but don’t be upset if the majority of people don’t “get it.” This is less a method for eliminating purple prose and more a concession to considering the market, but I think that’s something that’s worth thinking about.
I bring all this up because I don’t think people should be scared away from writing intricate prose. There’s nothing wrong with being a Hemingway-like writer, but I feel, at least for the moment, that style is a bit overvalued. Personally I think there’s something to be said for achieving an elevated or elaborate writing style, if you can do it well.
But what do you think? Do you agree with my definition of purple prose, or do you think of it as something else? What are your techniques for spotting and eliminating it? And do you agree that we need a space for more ornate prose authors? Let me know in the comments.
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Thanks for reading, and catch you next time!