Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

Blog / The Craft of Writing

Purplish Hues

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
Juliet Marillier

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.)

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9 Comments Purplish Hues

  1. Elaine T

    I thought I was the only one who’d ever read Dahlov Ipcar! I’ve got DARK HORN BLOWING on the pb shelf somewhere and the Tam Lin retelling floating around the house, also. Never got my own copy of the chess book, though. She’s different and deserves more notice.

    Other writers who can pull off ornate: The author of JONATHON STRANGE & MR. NORREL, whose name is escaping me at the moment. And because for years I couldn’t keep Robin McKinley and Patricia McKillip straight (I was young, ok?) I nominate McKinley in her high fantasies. Jo Walton, I think – see her Trollope-with-dragons pastiche.

    Tolkien’s isn’t all that ornate, although when he wants to, say in Gondor, he pulls it off well.

    OTOH, Lovecraft wrote purple prose. Probably Doc Smith did, too, judging from the excerpts I’ve seen. ER Burroughs.

    Formal prose isn’t purple. It’s just … er. . formal. I associate purple with adjectives on adjectives, and adverbs and no noun is ever plain. IMO a purple version of the Ipcar you quote above would be something like:
    “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. ” And so on, and so forth – I can’t keep it up very long. Prose that’s trying so hard to have an impact it overshoots into ludicrousness. The Bulwer-Lytton contest archives has some great examples.

    You like Marriller? I read her first book, and something about it was like fingernails on the blackboard. It’s been long enough since then that details are fuzzy, so I won’t elaborate more. if I wanted to check her out again, what would you recommend?

    How’d your presentation go?

  2. Rachel

    I loved DAUGHTER OF THE FOREST by Marriller. I liked that whole trilogy, although I hated the epilogue at the end of the third book and have carefully put it out of my mind.

    There was another of hers, WOLFSKIN, that I disliked because everything that went wrong depended on people not talking to one another, and I HATE plots like that.

    A lot of people love WILDWOOD DANCING, but the helplessness of the protagonist drove me nuts.

  3. Rachel

    Haven’t tried anything by Lord Dunsany in, I don’t know, ages and ages. Based on this, maybe I should give him another try now.

  4. Robert

    Much of his shorter writings are available on Project Gutenberg. If you want a particularly lush example, try “Idle Days on the Yann” in the collection of stories, A Dreamer’s Tales. It’s available at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/8129.

    If you after a longer story, you could try The Charwoman’s Shadow or The King of Elfland’s Daughter. But those may not be online.

  5. Elaine T

    http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=98232026 for THE KING OF ELFLAND’S DAUGHTER, if you sign up for a free trial. It was published one year too late to be considered public domain, drat it. But it’s been reprinted fairly frequently, so used copies ought to be around. Dunsany is unique and I have to be in the right frame of mind to appreciate him. I wouldn’t call the prose purple, either. Formal, yes. Influenced by the KJV, most definitely. But not purple. And all written with a quill pen, with no revisions.

    Glad you enjoyed my attempt at en-purpling the Ipcar passage. :-) Having thought about it some more and looked at the Literary Lab, it seems my definition is a bit different than he is using. Mine requires emotive words, which I tried to sprinkle liberally throughout the Ipcar sentences. I think purple is when authors use them without earning them. They’re there to be a cheap shortcut to the readers’ emotions. IMO and all that. Most of the examples are just unfocused.

    The Dave King comments remind me of a time when LM Bujold did it right beautifully in the 3rd SHARING KNIFE (IIRC), the bit where Fawn has explained the Knives to her brother Whit and he gets it, and shows it by comparing what the knife if for to canning. It was so right for a character like him with his background, as well as grasping the essential element of the knife.

    Jumping back to the examples being unfocused, I think that is the real problem with them, not the words as such, but the lack of work for them. It reminds me of some advice for fiction writers I’ve seen here and there to the effect of “Make every scene do at least three things.” Doesn’t matter what, but three things. Those examples are just taking up space on a page. And now I’m tempted to go look at the work of writers who got paid by the word to see what their work is like from that standpoint. In my so called free time, ya know?

    Since the Marillier you liked is the one where I just couldn’t enjoy the first installment although I wanted to, and the others I wouldn’t like either – I hate books where the problems are people not talking with each other and passive protaganists – maybe she’s just not for me.

  6. Matthew

    I definitely need to check out Ipcar, Marillier and Kay since McKillip and Shinn are two of my favorite authors and you are rapidly becoming another. I just finished “the City in the Lake” and it was so hard to put the book down — it felt like I actually had to search for a way back home just to do so!

    As for purple prose, it is nice to have a name for that now…! I seem to come across it a lot more now, especially in some of the “cutting edge” mysteries, for some reason.

  7. Rachel

    Well, thanks! I hope you like my other books, too. (I’m dying to know what everyone will think of HOUSE OF SHADOWS, of course. July seems like a LOOONG time away.

    I personally suggest DAUGHTER OF THE FOREST by Marillier, but as you see from other comments, not everybody does. But hey, give it a try!

  8. Rachel

    I almost always prefer novels to short stories, but somebody else told me about “Idle Days on the Yann” and now I’m dying to read it — so thanks for the link!

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