Thursday, July 05, 2007


I've mentioned this before, but let me draw greater attention to Purple Prose.

One definition:
A term of literary criticism, purple prose is 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.

I'll raise my hand and claim guilt for this. I can't help it...occasionally I put on my Bradbury cap and wax poetic. Then, the sound of the tale, its texture, sweeps me along.

Here's an example of me at my worst:

Levon gently closed the door to his room and stared at the moonlight spilling through his window. He bathed in it, feeling the radiance stream over his skin, rushing along the hairs on the back of his hand. Intuitively he turned his hands palm up and gathered moonlight until it filled his palms and ran through his fingers. Then, he brought it to his face and let it run over his skin.

Another author narrowed the definition for purple prose, stating that it tended to be cliched, stilted. That is ran on past the point functionality. Another author stated that it "had too many adjectives". Hmmm. Not quite sure about that one. Someone else argued that if a reader becomes aware of the writing, if the writing distracts from the flow of the narrative, then it's purple prose.

As a teacher, I can say that teens are great at purple prose. They lack the experience to edit themselves, to keep from filtering their emotional content. "It rained hard, storm clouds hurling water at the earth as lightning crashed and thunder roared through the black velvet night. The wind blew with fury and the rain pelted in sheets the slick streets."

One thing, people hate hearing the word applied to their own writing. Their eyes widen, their brows slide together, their jaws clench and they begin defending their work by insisting that they are deliberately following
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche. Hey.

I think we need to look at cliched writing next, don't you?


Travis said...

I'm guilty of this. Many of my first drafts are dreadfully overwritten.

It sounds good when you're writing, you know? It sounds smart and sophisticated. The words flow through your brain and you think you're writing something brilliant.

Then you read it out loud and realize that your tongue trips over a lot of the phrasing and it doesn't sound so good after all.

SQT said...

It all sounds better before it hits the page doesn't it?

Vwriter said...

Morning Stewart:

I know that this will come as a surprise, but I have a slight disagreement with your evaluation of the excerpt that you quoted from your own work. There are probably a great many ways to approach editing and re-shaping what you wrote. The one would be strip it down and paint it. That would be an economical way to go about it, and we could label the result not only functional and utilitarian, but it would also be a relatively risk free edit.

The difficulty with that approach to re-shaping what you wrote is that at some point during the stripping- not very far down with this passage- there is a grain that is rich and deep and actually approaches beauty. The interplay between moonlight and the man himself is the grain. The rushing of moonlight through the hairs of his skin is the opportunity for poetic wordplay.

Admittedly moonlight is a difficult metaphor to work with because it is oddly an early target for beginning writers (like me). It is very much like the eternal variations of fruit bowls attacked with brush and paint by student artists.

I asked my brother- whose whole life revolves around painting- why even accomplished artists still paint bowls of fruit. "It's not the subject," he told me, "it's the treatment. And think of the risk. They paint what everyone paints, and yet when they their treatments are succesful they bring new beauty to the world from something common."

I don't think that beauty is always brought into the world with a spare brush.

In the example of your quotation from your own story, I believe that it is close enough to bringing forth a beautiful, compelling description, that instead of stripping it down and coating it with functional paint that looks quite clean and glossy the first few years after it has been accomplished, that you might consider that this description (after the few edits for inappropriate word choice and a hand lent to its meter) could be gently worked to bring forth the beauty of its underlying grain. It will not be as quick an edit as an economical artist could (stip and paint is so much faster), but it would be very much worth the time spent.

The difference- I think- is that when we err on the side of economy we create stilted, boring prose. When we err on the side of attempting more complicated beauty, we can create writing that is unnecessary, turgid, and even convoluted. Either excess is unfortunate.

By the way, you maintain such a wonderful balance between light and heavy topics on this website that it is one of my favorite spots to visit on the web and I recommend it to every writer and reader that I know.

Sidney said...

Ah, purple prose can be lovely at times. It's a fine line, I suppose between say the poetry of regret of "Something Wicked This Way Comes" and "It was a dark and stormy night..."

Charles Gramlich said...

This is kind of a pet peeve of mine. One person's purple prose is another's work of beauty. I like purple prose, myself. I write it, unapologetically. I want to read it. Some of my favorite writers write it, Ray Bradbury, Robert E. Howard. I think some people label beautiful prose "purple" because they are jealous that they can't write it themselves. They don't have the poetry to do so. There is a place for all kinds of prose styles in this world. I don't want everyone to sound like Hemingway.

Donnetta Lee said...

I don't care for true purple prose, but guess everyone is guilty from time to time. Some rather flowery writing seems to fit, but most doesn't. But, then, maybe Charles is right. Maybe I'm jealous because I can't write it!

JR's Thumbprints said...

I like "Purple Rain" by Prince.

Sphinx Ink said...

I agree with Charles--descriptive, even flowery, writing isn't necessarily purple prose. A good test is the one you cited--if the prose breaks the flow and draws attention to itself, it's "purple." I like the use of beautiful language, as long as it doesn't become self-consciously ornate. On the other hand, I have friends who skip descriptive passages in novels and only read the dialogue and any necessary descriptions of actions.

spyscribbler said...

I don't think your excerpt is that purple, either. :-) A little tweak here and there, and you've got yourself a fine description!

It's a tough line to draw, though!

Stewart Sternberg said...

Travis, now that you've admitted guilt, we need to see about sentencing.

SQT sometimes it sounds good and sometimes it sounds your head or in print.

Rick. I agree it's not the subject but the treatment, and I agree that with a little fixing, that example I gave could be fine. The point though is whether or not the writing distracts. If your brother paints a bowl and then paints a large purple star on the side, the star is going to take attention away from what he is doing with the bowl.

Sidney,Charles,Donetta Sphinx,I agree. I am an enormous Bradbury fan, because of the poetic feel of the prose. I'm not sure it's a matter of jealousy that some prose is considered purple. Let's face it, there are just some people out there who can't write. Poetic language when it works with the whole is not purple.

JR...Purple Rain..hmmm. Yes well...

Spyscribbler thank you. By definition if it is my writing, it can't be purple prose.

Anonymous said...

Hmm. I guess I like more florid prose. I just finished reading the Secret Life of Bees and she is very flowery at times, which I find pleasing. BTW, I didn't think your own purple prose was that purple. It sounded lush to me. As Travis pointed out, usually the passage we most fall in love with is the one that has to go. Good post. And cliches in writing would be a good post, too, but I find it easier to distinguish between cliches and purple prose. A cliche is a cliche is a cliche.

Ramon said...

"Read over your compositions, and where you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out." - Dr. Samuel Johnson. (1709 - 84)

Stewart Sternberg said...

I LOVE that quote from Johnson, Ramon. Of course, there are some especially conceited among us who would be striking out everything.

Gem thanks..I am a fan of beautifully written prose..hmm..something just occured to me. Time. I wonder if there is a time factor that turns nicely written prose into purple prose...that something is poetic in the forties that may then be perceived as awful twenty or thirty years later.

Vwriter said...

Yep. I believe that is the point. Concepts like purple prose are highly subjective and frequently overly judgemental. That's why purple prose is still best defined by "what the other guy writes."