Purple Prose: Where’s the Line?

Budding authors looking to get published live in fear of the dreaded purple prose, painstakingly going through their rough drafts and debating the necessity of each and every adjective. With the preponderance of critique-less form replies from publishers and agents, the newbie author struggles to determine whether their prose was too purple or too stark and barren. What with the recent publication of some suspiciously lavender novels, and the resulting backlash from the Purple Prose Patrol, the world of eloquent writing is doubly scary for the entry-level author. Is purple prose inherently bad? Yes, it is; it jars the reader out of the world created by the author and either leaves them laughing or confused. But where to draw the line between pale lavender and ultraviolet is an issue that budding authors, including myself, struggle with, often without much support.

So what, exactly, is purple prose? According to Wikipedia:

Purple prose is a term of literary criticism used to describe passages, or sometimes entire literary works, written in prose so overly extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw attention to itself. Purple prose is sensually evocative beyond the requirements of its context. It also refers to writing that employs certain rhetorical effects such as exaggerated sentiment or pathos in an attempt to manipulate a reader’s response.

Television Tropes & Idioms echoes this definition, if you can ferret it out of the ultraviolet passage. Deb Stover, a prominent romance writer, has a definition that is more accessible and may be of better help to a writer:

One way of identifying purple prose is by your reaction when you read it. Does it make you laugh out loud because it’s so ludicrous? Or does it make you shake your head in disgust? If it does either, feed it to the Purple Prose-Eater. He’ll appreciate it a lot more than your readers will.

So where does that line fall? Of course, there’s no objective way to define that; much of the definition of purple prose is in the reaction of the reader, and every reader reacts differently. However, there are a few things that can act as tips that a passage is dyed purple. Take the following passage, for instance, from Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight (I didn’t record the page number, unfortunately, and I no longer have my copy, so apologies for the poor citation):

His skin, white despite the faint flush from yesterday’s hunting trip, literally sparkled, like thousands of tiny diamonds were embedded in the surface. He lay perfectly still in the grass, his shirt open over his sculpted, incandescent chest, his scintillating arms bare. His glistening, pale lavender lids were shut, though of course he didn’t sleep. A perfect statue, carved in some unknown stone, smooth like marble, glittering like crystal.

Now, there are several indicators that this passage is at least a little lavender, even if it doesn’t read like the examples given on Wikipedia or Television Tropes and Idioms. First, the sentences are generally long, with several clauses linked by commas. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it can make the passage seem long-winded. Second, it reads like thesaurus tossed in a blender. Even though different adjectives are used, because they’re all synonyms or very close cousins, it comes across as repetitive. Also, there are far too many adjectives; a few of the nouns are modified by at least two adjectives, and the rest have at least one. This lessens the impact of the scene, as well as making the reader groan. The last tip off is the use of certain phrases — “smooth like marble” for instance — that are used with all due frequency throughout the book. If you overuse a certain descriptor it can lead to Purple Prose-itis, rapidly followed by Gangrene of the Modifier. Generally, if you describe the character once, unless there’s significant changes to their appearance, it is acceptable not to describe them again.

Romance seems to be the genre most affected by Purple Prose-itis, though certainly not in its entirety, and no genre is truly safe from its grasp. While romance tends to resort to purple prose in erotic scenes due to the need for euphemisms, as hilariously detailed in Deb Stover’s article, any other genre may devolve into a lavender mist when confronted with an awkward, uncomfortable, or difficult passage. Science Fiction might face issues when trying to describe future technology in as brainy a way as possible. Fantasy, with the need to describe an entirely new and unique world to the reader, faces almost as many issues as romance. Mysteries might get purple while trying to describe a murder scene in detail, or some sort of forensic science. Horror could become purple while describing the terrifying thing chasing the protagonist. A historical or steampunk novel might be very purple to elicit the feel of writing of the time period. The list goes on and on.

The bottom line is that there is no line except for the one you draw yourself as an author. Some writers have been able to write extremely purple prose and be published and lauded for it (although most of them lived in the late 19th century). What is most important is bringing to life your world and your characters so that the reader feels that they are truly engaged in the plot. If a passage or phrase feels to you, or your test readers, stilted or jarring, it’s probably in your best interests to edit it. Otherwise, keep on writing how you write best and worry about the Purple Prose Patrol later.

Do you have an opinion on purple prose, or an example for us? Then drop a note in the comments section!

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Good post! Purple prose is something that I struggle against. Part of my problem is that I have both a background in creative writing and academic writing, and sometimes my academic vocabulary sneaks into my creative writing. I try to keep the language that I use in my creative writing as simple as I can. The really ornate stuff just sounds cheesy and amateurish.

    I offered an embarrassing example of my own purple prose several months ago in my old blog, if you don’t mind me linking:
    http://revisingleah.wordpress.com/2008/05/23/purple-prose/

  2. Personally I’m a huge fan of the so called purple prose. In particular I think certain types of horror and gothic romance lend themselves perfectly to excess in all it’s forms and using sensual and evocative language is a great way of creating mood and tension as well as expressing the passions of the author. Viva Effulgence!

    • It does have its place, I suppose; the kicker is whether it jolts the reader out of the story.


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