So, Your Prose Is A Little Purple?

Every once in awhile a reviewer, a reader, an agent, a random great aunt will tell you that your beautiful and amazing story is purple prose.

Most of the time they are wrong.

A lot of the time, your prose is just lyrical and some people don’t know what to do with that.

What Even Is Purple Prose?

First off, lyrical prose is NOT the same as purple prose, which is defined by Wikipedia (I know! I know! Not a good source) as “text that is so extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw excessive attention to itself.

The key there is ‘excessive.’

And excessive? That’s a subjective word. But a good way to think about it is that lyrical writing is done with a light hand, not a heavy one. It mixes regular sentences and dialogue with moments that sing off the page. 

Not every line should be a metaphor. Not every line should be a description. 

How Do You Deal When It’s TOO Lyrical?

A good way to deal with that is to have that lyrical moment and then follow it up with two moments that are not so lyrical. 

In Sandhya Menon’s When Dimple Met Rishi she does this well. 

“His eyes reminded her of old apothecary bottles, deep brown, when the sunlight hit them and turned them almost amber. Dimple loved vintage things. She followed a bunch of vintage photography accounts on Instagram, and old apothecary bottles were a favorite subject.”

Sandhya Menon

So she has the balance between lyrical moments of transcendent words and time with the more concise, forward-moving sentence. 

You want your descriptions that are lyrical to keep us in the story and to also transcend the story. You want them to be vivid but also somewhat concise. To avoid overuse you want to make sure that the description is accomplishing something such as giving us insight in our character or making the atmosphere/tone seem amazing. 

The problem is that sometimes elevated craft brings out naysayers, especially anti-intellectual naysayers and they call it purple prose. 

LET’S LOOK AT REAL PURPLE PROSE

A Reedsy blog has an example of purple prose as this: 

The mahogany-haired adolescent girl glanced fleetingly at her rugged paramour, a crystalline sparkle in her eyes as she gazed happily upon his countenance. It was filled with an expression as enigmatic as shadows in the night. She pondered thoughtfully whether it would behoove her to request that she continue to follow him on his noble mission…

Reedsy example of purple-ness

According to Reedsy (and a million other places), you want to stay away from purple prose because: 

  • 1. The writing draws attention to itself and away from the narrative or thesis.
  • 2. It’s too convoluted to read smoothly and can disrupt the pacing of your story.

The Reedsy blog goes on to say: 

“So why, despite its many drawbacks, do some writers continue to use such unnecessarily ornate language? The answer, ironically, is simple: to try and appear more “literary.”

“Think of purple prose as a cardboard cutout of a celebrity. From a distance it looks convincing, even impressive — but as you draw closer, you realize there’s nothing behind it. Purple prose is like that: beautiful from afar, with very little substance to it.”

Reedsy again.

And more importantly, that same damn Reedsy blog says this about what purple prose isn’t: 

“To clarify, the term “purple prose” doesn’t just automatically apply to any kind of dense or elaborate language. This is a common misconception, perpetuated by diehard fans of minimalism and Ernest Hemingway. Purple prose specifically refers to overblown description that fails to add to the text, or may even detract from it.”

“Purple prose” is often used as an insult for highly lyrical or complex language that some readers dislike. But don’t be fooled — actual purple prose lacks the elegance and cohesion of these examples, and distracts from the text rather than enhancing it.”

Still Reedsy

Sean Penn’s novel is a good example of purple prose. No offense to him: 

“There is pride to be had where the prejudicial is practiced with precision in the trenchant triage of tactile terminations. This came to him via the crucible-forged fact that all humans are themselves animal, and that rifle-ready human hunters of alternately-species prey should best beware the raging ricochet that soon will come their way.”

Sean Penn

So, how do you avoid PURPLE PROSE?

Write in your own voice if you’re worried about it. 

Also? If you’re worried about it, focus a bit more on your plot. 

Do This: 

Imagine you’re the reader. Would you get what’s going on right there in those words (the potentially purple words) if you were just reading this? Are those words the easiest path to understanding and to be submersed in the story? After they’ve read it are they going to put it down and say, “Why did the author spend forty-five pages talking about her underwear? Does it have anything to do with anything?” 

COME WRITE WITH ME! 

I coach, have a class, and edit things. Find out more here. 


NEW BOOK OF AWESOME- THE PLACES WE HIDE

I have a new book out!!!!!! It’s an adult mystery set in the town where we live, which is Bar Harbor, Maine. You can order it here. And you totally should. 

And if you click through to this link, you can read the first chapter! 

And click here to learn about the book’s inspiration and what I learned about myself when I was writing it.


NEW SESSION OF WRITE! SUBMIT! SUPPORT! 

Write. Submit. Support. for Novelists with Carrie Jones ONLINE

These six-month courses offer structure and support not only to our writing lives but also to the roller coaster ride of submissions. We offer support whether you’re submitting to agents or, if agented, you’re weathering submissions to editors. We discuss passes that come in, submissions requests, the feedback we aren’t sure about, where we are feeling directed to go in our writing lives, and more.

Find out if WSS is right for you at this FREE WEBINAR on Thursday July 23rd, from 7-8:30pm CDT.Founder Bethany Hegedus will share an inspiring talk on the literary life and will be joined by WSS instructors/TA’s, plus past and present WSS writers who will answer all your burning questions!

This is a great opportunity to meet this session’s faculty, talk with previous students about their growth throughout the program and participate in some inspirational activities led by Bethany Hegedus. *If you cannot attend live, no need to worry! All registrants will receive a video playback of the event!
Register Now for the Free Info Session!

WHERE TO FIND OUR PODCAST, DOGS ARE SMARTER THAN PEOPLE.

The podcast link if you don’t see it above. Plus, it’s everywhere like Apple Music, iTunesStitcherSpotify, and more. Just google, “DOGS ARE SMARTER THAN PEOPLE” then like and subscribe.

Join the 249,000 people who have downloaded episodes and marveled at our raw weirdness. You can subscribe pretty much anywhere.


Last week’s episode link! It’s about dirty feet and archetypes. Sexy! 

Last week’s bonus podcast with writer Holly Schindler!

This week’s link to our podcast sages, archetypes and Bud Lite