Weekly Musing: Purple Rain. Wait, I Mean Purple Prose.

A topic of some discussion every once in a while amongst writers is Purple Prose. The definition of which is a bit nebulous. Purple Prose is generally defined as extravagant, flowery, and ornate language loaded adjectives and metaphors. Some would argue that such prose ultimately draws more attention to itself rather than the story. Still further it has been argued Purple Prose slows a story’s pacing and can come across as pretentious. As you can imagine Purple Prose is heavily discouraged if you want to write anything other than literary fiction. Apparently then it’s okay and pretty much expected.

But is Purple Prose a truly bad thing? The definition given seems quite subjective. What may be too many descriptions for one reader may very well be just right for another. Also the usage of the term flowery is problematic. It conjures up images of sweet-nothings whispered on a page, but could not constant descriptions of a depressing wasteland, such as can be found in Benjamin Percy’s The Dead Lands, also count?

Granted too many intricate sentences and long paragraphs containing them is tiresome and tedious. Purple Prose is probably why many modern readers have difficulties reading the classics. Many of those authors certainly suffer from an overabundance of flowery, tedious sentences which can tax even the most patient of readers. Yet those works endure. Much of their appeal comes down to themes explored and unforgettable characters, but I’d argue the biggest reason is due to the author’s usage of language. The poetry, cadence, and construction of sentences which conveys so much emotion. Can it be melodramatic at times? Of course.

When it comes to genre and modern works there’s this push to banish even the faintest hint of Purple Prose from works by beginning writers. To me this creates the potential to suck emotion from a piece and creates a situation where so many authors have the same generic sounding voice. It’s bland writing, bland reading, and bland characters.

As a reader the biggest thing I respond to, and the biggest thing that makes me jealous as a writer, is when an author digs deep into what the character sees and feels. Often this has manifested itself in what could be considered Purple Prose. I thoroughly enjoy it when an author uses several concrete, descriptive adjectives to show the reader what a character is seeing and feeling. Or when one uses metaphorical descriptions. For example, someone in my writers group once included the following sentence in their piece: “Blue eyes dancing with vigor.” Personally I loved visual. Logically eyes cannot dance, but that’s okay because the author was probably trying to get across this character’s eyes lit up with joy, that the character is probably a happy person, or has just seen something or someone which brought joy to his or her life. Yet one of the critiques was it was too purpley and should be rephrased.

Books which read as if the characters are reporting and only vaguely reacting to whatever’s going on are the ones I’m bored by and forget. Can an author inject more emotion without resorting to Purple Prose? Of course and I’m not saying it’s the only way to bring out the depth in a story. But to actively discourage it, scoff at it, or relegate it to literary fiction where pretention supposedly reigns supreme seems to be missing one of the fundamental points of literature: the joy and beauty of language. Think about many of the break out authors. Those who grab readers and are nominated or win prestigious awards. It’s due in large part with word usage. Writing and reading are all about words and a piece of advice I see over and over again is when revising be a better wordsmith. Choose strong verbs and adjectives. Sometimes in order to accurately convey what a character sees and feels more is needed.

When it comes to Purple Prose it really is a subjective thing. What may be overkill to one person may be just the perfect amount of beauty. Perhaps instead of pushing this notion of stripping down sentences to their bare bones, maybe more of an effort should be made to encourage bringing back the beauty of language. I know in this age of 140 characters or less, short posts are better than longer posts, texting, and short attention spans literature is unfortunately following suit. While literature should be a reflection of culture and society it has a critical job to improve language skills. Reducing everything to bite-size pieces like the Halloween candy already out in the stores, runs the risk of dumbing down language even further. Complex sentences, flowery language, metaphorical language may make us stop, pause, and re-read in order to comprehend is a good thing. The human brain should be challenged and in a small way Purple Prose can do that.

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