Purple Prose

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The Concept 

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.’

 

Explanation

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!

 

Importance

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.

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Show, Don’t Tell

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Thanks for joining me for my first official blog post! This will introduce the rough format that the rest of the Prose Demystified posts will follow. The idea is to briefly introduce the ‘rule’, provide an example, and give examples of situations in which it might be effective to break the rules. The aim is to keep this process as concise as possible.

So, without any further ado, let’s deconstruct an extremely common piece of writing advice: show, don’t tell.

 

The concept

‘Show, don’t tell’ is the idea that writers should show the reader what is happening in their story, by engaging their senses, rather than telling them what is happening with a news report style script.

 

Example 1 (telling): Milly broke through the treeline. She felt sad.

Example 2 (showing): Skeletal branches clawed at Milly as she forced her way through close ranks of trees. Tears tracked pale lines through the dirt on her face.

 

Explanation

So, which passage is more engaging? Bear in mind that both are rough drafts, which could definitely use some editing to tighten them up, but it’s clear that Example 2 will engage the reader much more that Example 1.

The reason behind this is that Example 1 tells the reader what is happening from a distant, unemotional viewpoint, while Example 2 engages the reader’s senses via the character’s actions, drawing them into the prose. We have the ‘skeletal branches’, a vivid image which the reader can picture (engaging the sense of sight). The branches scratching at the protagonist engages the reader’s sense of touch. Finally, the second line in Example 2 shows the reader that Milly is displaying classic signs of sadness (tears), instead of simply telling the reader that Milly is sad.

 

Importance

When you show rather than tell, you are drawing the reader into the story, making them a part of the action. Instead of explicitly stating what is happening, you are allowing the reader to work out how the character feels based on their physical responses, actions and thoughts.

This is engaging as it relates directly to our everyday lives. Rarely will a friend or family member come up to you and say, “I’m sad, please help.” You’ll work this out from their body language, their actions and their speech (or lack thereof). You do this because you care about them – you share a bond. Showing instead of telling, allowing your readers to emotionally investigate your prose, will help them to build a similar bond with your writing and your characters.

It’s also worth noting that engaging your reader’s senses is a surefire way of drawing them into the world of your story, allowing them to vividly picture your scene. Just don’t overdo it – there’s no need for all five senses in each sentence!

 

When to break the rule

Contrary to the advice of countless creative writing teachers, there are times when it’s beneficial to break this rule. A prime example is if you’re writing in a time lapse (without the use of everyone’s best friend, the humble asterisk) and you don’t want to bog your reader down with unnecessary details. Imagine, for example, that you’re writing about a character recuperating after a serious illness. Instead of describing the weeks/months of recovery in heavy detail, to allow the reader to picture it, I would say it’s acceptable to simply write:

 

“Her muscles still throbbed with movement, a dull ache which she thought might never leave her. Three weeks in bed had made little difference.”

 

Why is this (in my subjective opinion) acceptable? Because your reader doesn’t need to know every detail of her bed rest, and they probably don’t need to experience it vividly. Note that there are still elements of showing mixed in with the telling – the feeling of ‘throbbing’ and the ‘dull ache’. If you were particularly attached to the idea of portraying the protagonist in the depths of her illness, you could include one or two intense moments of suffering, but it might not do much to advance the plot, cement the character or engage the reader. As a writer, brevity can be one of your most effective tools.

This is a controversial point, but I also believe that there are (admittedly rare) occasions when telling can be more effective than showing while writing prose. This brilliant example comes from The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch.

 

When none of his newcomers seemed appropriately enthusiastic, the Thiefmaker cleared his throat. ‘I’d have the miserable fucking bastards killed, savvy?’

They were indeed.

 

In this example, Lynch achieves a wonderful effect by intentionally telling rather than showing. He doesn’t waste time describing the facial expressions or physical reactions of the trainee thieves (the ‘newcomers’). He tells us that they didn’t seem ‘appropriately enthusiastic’ and that ‘They were indeed’ savvy to his threats. This gives the prose a punchy quality and doesn’t waste words trying to drag the reader into specific details.

The dialogue in this excerpt is showing the reader, via the medium of tone and word choice, the personality of the Thiefmaker.

Interestingly, the telling which surrounds the dialogue also shows the reader some vital characteristics about the Thiefmaker – in three short lines, it shows us that the Thiefmaker is tenacious (as he doesn’t accept the lack of enthusiasm). It also implies that the Thiefmaker is such an intimidating character in the eyes of the trainee thieves that they are afraid to speak back to him!

So, that’s all for today. I hope you enjoyed the first post of Prose Demystified!

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.

Welcome!

Thanks for joining me!

As a new or established writer, I’m willing to bet you’ll have heard most of these phrases:

Show, don’t tell. 

This needs a stronger voice. 

Avoid purple prose. 

Make your voice active, not passive. 

And so on.

For a writer new to the craft, this can often sound like a string of nonsensical code words. Even for those who know what the terms mean, finding convincing examples of each situation can be difficult.

The purpose of this blog is to demystify the above terms, and the writing process in general, with simple and clear explanations of common writing advice.

Along the way, I’ll be offering my opinions on the best times to go against the conventions. These are my opinions and they don’t form any kind of concrete rule.

Which brings me to my next point. I’m hoping that my posts here will help budding writers to gain confidence to go against the rules, to create truly groundbreaking fiction. This will also mean going against the rules in this blog at times – please, don’t be afraid to do so. I’m of the opinion that rules can help at the outset of your writing journey, but some established writers cling to them as crutches, and this only stifles the unique qualities of their prose.

I would love to hear your thoughts on each post – if we can start a discussion with multiple viewpoints, even better! Please feel free to leave a comment.

If you can tell stories, create characters, devise incidents, and have sincerity and passion, it doesn’t matter a damn how you write — Somerset Maugham