The Oxford Dictionary defines purple prose as ‘writing that is too elaborate or ornate’. To expand on this, the term ‘purple prose’ is used to describe writing that over-uses imagery (or uses it in a way which doesn’t enhance the reader’s experience), draws attention to itself with an overuse of words, or otherwise breaks the reader’s immersion.
Example 1: Liz Bureman explaining purple prose with a tongue-in-cheek passage:
‘On occasion, one finds oneself immersed in the literary throes of a piece of prose where there is very little in the way of advancement of the plot or development of the characters, but the pages are still filled with words. Since the esteemed author has allowed their writing to take a turn for the dry and dull, they gallantly attempt to overcompensate for the lack of stimulation by indulging in elaborate turns of phrase.’
Example 2: From Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight:
‘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.’
It’s clear from reading Example 1 that Example 2 is the epitome of purple prose. Meyer has over-described Edward’s appearance while using ornate, flowery language. In those four sentences, Meyer has crammed in an unreasonable amount of imagery for the reader to digest.
Seriously, if you managed to read ‘thousands of tiny diamonds’, ‘sculpted, incandescent chest’, ‘scintillating arms’, ‘glistening, pale lavender lids’, ‘perfect statue’, ‘unknown stone’, ‘smooth like marble’ and ‘glittering like crystal’ without covering your desktop/laptop/tablet/phone in steaming bile, congratulations!
Purple prose will immediately shatter a discerning reader’s immersion. An author who over-indulges themselves by writing sentence upon sentence of superfluous description only has themselves to blame when the reader is sucked out of the story’s world.
It’s also worth noting that purple prose can act as a defence mechanism for authors who have lost track of their narrative. If they’re not sure where the plot is going, why not throw in five pages of ornate and archaic description which basically boils down to ‘The barn was dilapidated’?
Bear in mind that the author’s role is to entertain the reader. To entertain the reader, the author must hook them, pulling them into the plot, characters and world of their novel. Writing purple prose runs the risk of breaking the enchantment for the reader; this might be enough to convince them to put the book down permanently.
When to break the rule
Honestly? Never break this rule.
Using vivid description is encouraged – this can help to root the reader in your world. Just be aware of your writing and don’t get carried away. While purple prose can be difficult to avoid in a first draft (I’m guilty of this), there is absolutely no reason that it should survive the brutal edit for subsequent drafts. If your description doesn’t enhance the reader’s understanding of a character or the plot, it shouldn’t be in your final draft.
It is possible to write poetic, beautiful prose that avoids the pitfalls of purple prose. If you’re looking to achieve this, my recommendation would be to read Cormac McCarthy’s work.
If you have any thoughts, please do leave them in the comments section. I would love to start a discussion around writing tips. My opinion is subjective, and it would be great to have some additional opinions for readers of this blog to consider.