There are many different ways to write, and many different words to choose from. Those words can pack a punch, thrusting a clear visual in the reader’s face. And there are words that sort of whisper by, hardly saying or doing anything.
Then, there is purple prose. When I first heard this phrase twenty-some years ago, I had no idea what it meant. So, for those of you who don’t know, here’s a definition.
Purple prose is a term that describes profligate, overly complex, or flowery word choices that break the flow of the story. Purple prose generally evokes senses beyond what the story requires, which can sometimes make the reader feel manipulated or talked-down-to.
This is how I boil it down. Purple prose is a choice of words that aren’t there for the sake of the story, they’re there for the sake of themselves. The words go beyond packing a punch and leave bruises on the reader.
Let’s examine an example.
Tia stared pensively into the eyes of the heavy yolk of the setting sun, glistening tears flowing down her moist cheeks. The wind gusted in short bursts, howling eerily in her ears and tearing at the shawl draped morosely across her shoulders. She frantically clutched at it, fearful she would lose its memories of blissfully carefree days.
At first glance, what do you notice about this paragraph?
If you said too many adjectives and adverbs, heavy-handed similes, redundancy, and awkward images and emotion, you’d be correct.
In the above example, it sounds like the author is trying too hard to get her message across. This is probably because she doesn’t trust the reader to understand on his own, or she lacks confidence in her own skill to get the story across.
When I started out writing over twenty years ago, I wrote poetry – where you only have a few lines to tell an entire story. You can’t mince words in poetry, and you have to choose the most powerful words possible. When I wrote my first short story, it was filled with purple prose. I had taken my poetry-writing strategy and applied it to story-writing, and it didn’t work. At all. Then, I went to the other extreme and chose zero powerful words. That didn’t work either. It took me years to figure out that powerful words are absolutely necessary to any story, but they are applied in different ways depending on what you’re writing.
When I wrote my first novel, I was just getting used to the idea that I needed to use powerful words. The end result was erratic and awkward images and emotions. As I kept writing, practicing, and working, a balance slowly emerged. It was still a few more years before I could choose appropriate words on purpose, and even longer before I could recognize it in other people's work. But I kept at it, and my understanding of words grew stronger each day. I began to see a place for powerful, beautiful, and lyrical words outside of poetry.
The best example of powerful words I’ve ever seen is THE SPECTACULAR NOW by Tim Tharp. It contains of the perfect balance. That is, it doesn’t put them all together like in the example above. Instead, it spreads them out over paragraphs, strategically added to enhance the story in the best way possible. It takes an amazing amount of skill to do this, and I’m glad Tharp was recognized in the National Book Awards.
The best example of lyrical words I've ever seen is SPEAK by Laurie Halse Anderson. Anderson takes the troubled emotions of a teenager and lays them out for the reader in haunting, beautiful prose, but it never goes too far. Not once did the words distract me from the story. Instead, each word pulled me in closer until I felt I was the main character. That's exactly what words are supposed to do in fiction.
So, when you're writing, don't shy away from powerful, lyrical, or beautiful words. Use them, and put a strong image in your reader's face. Just be careful not to give him a black eye.