The OED declares that purple prose is writing that is “too elaborate or ornate.” But how ornate is too ornate?
Wikipedia says that purple prose is a term of literary criticism used to describe passages, or sometimes entire literary works, written in prose so extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw attention to itself. Yet I definitely notice Patricia McKillip’s beautiful sentences; I might very well say her prose draws attention to itself. But, I mean, in a good way! So if you notice ornate prose but enjoy it, does that mean the prose is not purple or does it mean that you have terrible taste because look at you, admiring all that purple?
The wikipedia entry goes on to say that purple prose is “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.” So then, I do agree that if you can spot a writer’s attempts to manipulate you, that is definitely a flaw whether the prose is ornate or not. For example, I think ALL of Steven King’s recent books suffer from this problem: the character you meet early on who is PARTICULARLY likable is ALWAYS going to die. In fact, I have pretty much stopped reading Steven King because the SUPER OBVIOUS manipulative thing is so annoying.
Did you know there is a site called Novel Writing Help? I have to say that I have my doubts about whether anybody is going to learn to write novels from a website, or indeed from any teacher, but this bit was interesting:
“. . . their [beginners’] prose is horribly overwritten — they use too many adjectives and adverbs, they say something in a paragraph they could have said in a sentence, they describe the setting too much and way too fancifully.”
Which instantly raises the question: how many adjectives and adverbs are too many? When are you describing the setting “too much” or “too fancifully”? I mean, we are not all going for stripped-down bare-bones simplicity in our writing, are we? Would anybody actually find this advice helpful?
It seems to me that if you’re using formal, elevated language and a poetic style and doing a fair bit of description, and if you do it well, then you are probably writing high fantasy. If you do it badly, then you’re writing purple prose.
How can you tell which?
Well, there’s a post on this subject from back in 2009, by Scott Bailey at a site called The Literary Lab. I really like this post! The examples are great! I ESPECIALLY love the re-written “Hills Like White Elephants” example. HERE is a really good example of “too many adjectives and adverbs”! AND “describing the setting too much”!
And even though Bailey is offering advice to beginners, such as:
“Sometimes writers, especially new writers, feel that in order to write in a writerly or serious or studious manner, they must put on their Prose Stylist hats and churn out pages of paragraphs that are as fancy as possible. Every phrase must paint a 1,000-word picture for the reader, and plain language must be chased off the page. Because, they feel, good writing is elaborate. This is a mistaken idea.”
somehow the tone of his advice does not come seem condescending, which is a nice trick.
And the examples he uses are just way more helpful than saying DON’T USE ADVERBS which is too often the advice that’s actually given.
Besides, I remember vividly hearing this advice while I was writing my first novel: DON’T USE ADVERBS. And you know what I did? I went and took a Patricia McKillip novel off my shelf and looked to see whether she used adverbs. Then I quit worrying about adverbs because hey, if she could do it, I could do it. (I actually do use fewer now, but way way more than the NO ADVERB crowd advises.)
Also from the comments of that post, which are worth reading through:
“Some writers (Proust, James, Dickens, Byatt, Wolfe, Tolstoy) create thick prose, with lots of layers of meaning and complex sentences. But every word counts; every word means something important and the cumulative weight of that dense prose is beautiful. Other writers simply lard on all sorts of extraneous junk in an attempt (usually quite innocent) to look like serious writers, and because that’s not their own writerly voice, it comes across as clumsy
and just not good.”
Which seems right to me: it’s not that you can’t do ornate, but that it looks fake if you’re, you know, faking it.
And also hitting that exact notion, one more link! I really got a kick out of this one, by Dave King.
Dave King there is also talking about how maybe you’ve gone purple if you’re describing things the pov protagonist wouldn’t notice or wouldn’t describe or wouldn’t care about, which is another interesting take on the problem with purple.
King also hits the idea that you can’t fake a formal style and trying to write like Tolkien when you’re not Tolkien may lead you into trouble, which gets back to my personal view, which as I said is that if you are doing ornate well, you’re writing high fantasy, and if you’re doing it badly, you’re writing purple prose.
Who does ornate very very very well?
Obviously, Patricia McKillip, right? Who else?
Here are some I’d choose:
Sharon Shinn (sometimes), e.g. THE SHAPECHANGER’S WIFE
Guy Gavriel Kay
By an amazing coincidence, all of the above are favorite authors of mine! Also, here’s one you might not have heard of: Dahlov Ipcar’s A DARK HORN BLOWING.
Here’s the first paragraph of the second chapter of Ipcar’s book:
“When I stepped into the shallow water and into the black boat, it seemed that my husband, my baby, my home, and all I had left but a moment before had fallen so far away that my thoughts could no longer reach there. I stepped into the black boat and my whole world faded away. High on the curved prow the carved dragon’s head turned and flickered its tongue at me. The small man put down his dark horn, and the long boat slid out into the current and glided
silently into the darkness with never a breath of wind or a sail or an oar to move her. She slipped through the black water that was so still it scarcely rippled at the boat’s passing.”
Notice that nearly every noun has an adjective? Does it bother you? My answer: no. It sounds just fine. It sounds, in fact, dreamy and evocative. In a good way. The repetition (“I stepped into”) and the simple phrases and the dreamy images (the dragon’s head turning, the boat gliding forward), the use of three-part lists (husband, baby, home; wind, sail, oar) — it all adds up to a beautiful style that may be noticeably poetic and flowery, but — I repeat myself here — in a good way. The casual reader may in fact NOT notice this style, noticing style may be more a writer’s thing. Anyway, I bet the reader isn’t going to stop and analyze this prose, but is going to be led by the style into the fairy-tale-like story that ensues.
And being led into the story is the whole point. If the prose style does THAT job, it’s probably not purple.
UPDATE: Elaine T. from the comments did a hilarious job reworking the Ipcar paragraph above! Here’s her version. Enjoy!
“When I timidly stepped into the shadow glimmering shallow water and into the ebon black boat, it seemed that my beloved husband, my dear baby, my comfortable home, and all I had left but a short moment before had fallen so terribly far away that my thoughts could no longer reach there. I stepped into the jet black boat and my whole beloved world now faded away into shadow. . . ”
I especially like the “timidly”. That is exactly the sort of adverb that seems to me to clutter up purple prose. (Not that I have anything against the world “timidly” as such.)