The Stories Begun

{March 1, 2011}   I take my prose black, none of that purple stuff.

I was first introduced to the term “purple prose” by my best friend in an e-mail.  Thankfully, I was able to gain enough of the definition from context to survive the rest of the e-mail’s content without confusion, but I do recall asking for a more detailed definition.  What I received in response was a particularly hilarious rant about Christopher Paolini and his tendency towards flowery, unnecessary description.  To this day, I cannot see a Paolini book without smiling in amusement at that rant from years ago.

But, since I am neither as angry about Paolini nor as funny as my best friend, I’ll provide you with the Wikipedia definition, which I like quite a bit:

Purple prose is a term of literary criticism used to describe passages, or sometimes entire literary works, written in prose so overly extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw attention to itself. Purple prose is sensually 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.

I had been warned about prose such as this before my best friend made me aware of the term, but I found I liked the term for the problem.  Something about the phrase “purple prose” indicates the exact problem: the overdone yuck factor of this lengthy writing.

Now, please don’t suppose that all lengthy description is purple prose, or that I hate all lengthy description.  That would be quite the hypocritical situation or a cause for massive amounts of self-loathing if that were the case.  Purple prose isn’t lengthy description, it’s unnecessary description.

Perhaps one of the best examples I can use is fan-fiction.  Fan-fiction tends to be filled with purple prose for a couple reasons: one, many websites that publish fan-fiction require chapters to have a certain amount of words (so as to prevent spamming) and two, many fan-fiction authors haven’t learned the art of trusting the reader.

Trusting the reader is one of the main causes of purple prose, I think.  If an author cannot trust a reader to a) come up with the “correct” image (and there’s a problem right there, super-insane author if there’s only one image a reader is “allowed” to have), b) come up with something close enough to the author’s intent (better), or c) have an imagination of their own to fill in purposeful gaps (ah hah!–that’s what you want), the end result of that author’s efforts is didactic writing.  Purple prose is, by nature, didactic.  It’s paint-by-number; it allows the reader to fill in the colors provided to them, but not to change–or, better yet, create–any of the lines.  Trust is paramount in the author/reader relationship and it starts from the moment writing begins.

I am one who has trouble with this (though purple prose isn’t generally my issue).  Thankfully, there’s editing.  Never fear.  As in life, trust can also develop in writing if you are not the type to trust right away.  Just make sure that you trust eventually–no one likes to be talked down to and most despise passages that are four times as long as they need to be (then again, Lord of the Rings . . .).

Another pervading reason for purple prose is scale.  As you might have guessed, I am aware of the epics the last seventy years or so, but am not an avid fan. What you may not be able to tell from this post, and I cannot blame you, is that I do so dearly appreciate these epics (even if they are somewhat disgustingly descriptive).  So, with that in mind, addressing scale.  Do you remember when Paolini announced that he couldn’t make his trilogy a trilogy?  I do.  I was furious.  As I a bibliophile and someone who liked the series well enough, you’d think I’d be happy!  But, in fact, I wasn’t.  I already felt like Paolini’s style was bordering on too descriptive.  Also, his books felt like trilogy books, and here he was breaking the last book into two parts. I’m not sure I can describe how a trilogy book feels, exactly, and for that I apologize.  The best way I can describe it is that there is a certain rhythm in the prose of a trilogy and, if Paolini had done one thing well, it was maintain that rhythm.  Breaking that pattern, that narrative flow, was not a good decision.  I knew that this couldn’t bode well for the future of the series.  Indeed, it did not.  The third book was interminable.  I’m not sure how I feel about reading the fourth book (which is taking forever to come out, a fact I take to be indicative of these same issues). 

So, coming back to how this relates to purple prose, the scale of Paolini’s plot was so grand (after all, it’s an epic) that he felt he had to write a certain way to match it.  This writing style is what has caused so many of his problems (though the blatant stealing from LOTR and Star Wars*, plus others, would still be there were he to fix the style).  Were he to have approached the epic as “just a story,” I firmly believe the books would have evened themselves out enough to maintain the trilogy that he set out to write.  Lord of the Rings, while it is well-balanced as a trilogy, has similar problems of writing on such a grand scale as to make it inaccessible to many and full of purple prose, with all due respect to Tolkein.

The last common reason I can identify for purple prose is the one my purple prose most often falls under: lack of self-control.  These authors do not think their audiences dumb or unable to imagine adequately, nor do they get caught up in the grand scope of their work.  They just cannot stop themselves from describing every last detail because every detail is of the utmost important including the color of her underskirt and what kind of fabric it’s made of and the stone the castle was built from and where the quarry is and when it was mined from it and which generation of family living in the castle the prince is and WHOA THERE, BUDDY!!!!**  The problem is, when I catch myself doing this I have a hard time deleting all that history and hard work that I’ve put into the story.  (For all I know, this could be Paolini and Tolkein’s problem, but I doubt it.)  What I end up having to do is high-lighting that work in a different color and inserting what I need in the areas it belongs (which usually ends up coming much later in the story).  What material doesn’t belong usually ends up in a separate file on my computer, waiting for le grand éditer, when hopefully they will be worked in in appropriate moments.  Some won’t make it in (it will never matter that the red sunrise turns the so-dark-green-they’re-almost-black-hills into a rich brown never seen at any other time or place). Others, however, will (it’s a good thing to know that the prince is the first generation to live in the castle, even though it was his grandfather who ordered it built–there are likely some local superstitions about the castle because of that, explore that area of the story). 

If trust is paramount to the author/reader relationship, control of self is paramount to the author/work relationship.  Trying to control the piece is a bad idea; it never works and will end up fettering your abilities while working on an already hampered piece.  However, exercising self-control will allow your abilities to expand.  Those distractions that you are prone to will be less of a temptation and fade, you will gain strength in exercising your mental muscles, you will begin to know when to allow yourself free rein and when to allow yourself a minute to write down an idea before progressing with the current one.

Purple prose is not a terminal disease for an author, although I am afraid it can kill a book.  As is most often the case for any problem in writing, it is a lack of reflection on the author’s part.  Don’t forget to self-examine.  Self-examination is the soul of growth.  No worries.  You’ll get there.

Now go write something simple. 😉


*Two things: Original trilogy and thank you Wikipedia for providing so many links in this blog!

**Props (and some sort of bonus that I’ll eventually come up with for the first person) to whomever can come up with which story of mine I am referring to in this list.  It is a bit hyperbolic and some of these items never made it into any version I posted/e-mail. However (!), if you have ever talked with me about this story, you should be able to identify the items that didn’t make it to posting as well as the story.  (And if you don’t have enough hints by now, you likely are a stranger.  Welcome, stranger!  Thanks for coming by!)


Race Capet says:

Trusting the audience is also about symbolism. It’s one thing to want a reader to see everything as it’s pictured in your mind, but then you also want them to draw the right connections (these two being very intimately related, of course). I’m working on a play where I really want those who know the tarot to be able to perceive the symbolic associations of certain characters with certain major arcana, and it is too often tempting to hit them over the head with it (especially in visual references on the stage). I find it helpful to set a limit beforehand, such as “the audience is only going to get two clues for this character”, in order to force myself to pick those clues carefully and not smother them. In description, readers need the joy of painting their own pictures, and in symbolism they need the thrill of finding the subtle reference out for themselves. Mundane as an idea, I know, but difficult to execute in practice, at least for me!

rjlouise says:

I agree that being judicious with your symbolism is one of the great factors in trusting your audience. If you’ve chosen the right symbols and placed them at the right time, there shouldn’t be any problems, in theory. I like your idea of putting limits of the number of symbols allowed per character. Another way that works for me is having one symbol I want to be seen and have all my symbols tie into that particular image or object. Then, if I’m putting in too many symbols, I notice the repetition quite easily (I especially hate repetition). Also, I find that secondary symbols fall into place more naturally that way, but that may just be a lucky happenstance.

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