Writing Excuses 12.13: Beautiful Prose, Purple Prose
Key points: “We’re all purple on occasion, it’s a guilty pleasure for a lot of us.” What’s the problem? Patches of purple prose in an otherwise normal story that breaks the flow. Good writing in the wrong place. Overuse of bad metaphors, fancy long words, and thesaurizing! Avoiding it? Take a fresh look, or let someone else read it. Watch beginnings of books or chapters, where we often overdo things and try too hard. Instead of two paragraphs on 20 foot stilts, try elevating all your prose a couple of inches. Metaphors are better than similes. Watch the adverbs and adjectives — use the right ones, don’t overdo. Adverbs often mean compressed storytelling — expand it! Replace verb and adverb with a better verb. Think about the story purpose behind your description. Be judicious, use expressive prose where you need an impact. Use purple prose, especially in dialogue, to set a character apart.
[Mary] Season 12, Episode 13.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Beautiful Prose Versus Purple Prose.
[Piper] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re… I don’t have enough words to be purple. Come on.
[Brandon] We were all waiting for it.
[Howard] I… I was busy writing in a spreadsheet.
[Brandon] All right. Purple prose. Let’s talk about purple prose. This is one of those accusations that authors love to fling at each other. You’re being purple. The truth of it is we usually are. This is something that most authors will lapse into in their career, so don’t feel bad if you do this and you’re like, “Oh, I was purple in this chapter.” We’re all purple on occasion, it’s a guilty pleasure for a lot of us. We want to talk about what it is, how to avoid it, and specifically why it’s bad. So, what is purple prose? Dan, you have an example for us?
[Brandon] The second example.
[Dan] I do. The second example?
[Dan] Okay. Just to get you into the swing of things, one of the classic lines of American literature is “It was a dark and stormy night.” Which is not, by itself, purple. But it’s kind of held up as this example. So there’s a contest every year called the Bulwer-Lytton contest named after the author who wrote dark and stormy night. This is one of the 2016 dishonorable mentions, which I think is beautiful.
“Penguins, damnable penguins,” Cooperman muttered bitterly, staring hard into the maelstrom of cheap gin and bargain-basement vermouth swirling hopelessly in the low ball glass he held in his pale, doughy hand, the shards of rapidly melting ice crystals cruelly reminding him of those endless winter nights in the Antarctic weather station, and of Kwakina, with her lithe, lubricious figure, and tuxedo-feathered form.
[Chuckles turning into laughter]
[Piper] Not only was that purple, but the alliteration…
[Dan] Yeah. So.
[Brandon] Early on, we were reading some of these, and Howard’s like, “Wait. Is that purple? What does it mean?” The thing is, purple, there is no scientific definition of it. There are lots of things… It’s more this like I know it…
[Howard] It’s like obscenity. I know it when I see it.
[Dan] I know it when I see it. I… The… The word, actually, the phrase comes from the Romans, actually. A Roman poet named Horace who in the year… What was it? Like way BC. He was complaining about how some writers would add extra, unnecessary words, and long words, into their writing the same way that people would sew purple patches into their clothing as a way of pretending they were richer than they really were.
[Piper] I did not know that.
[Dan] Well, now you know that.
[Brandon] You have told us.
[Dan] One of the things that that points out is that, at least in his definition, the problem was not with purple prose itself, but with patches of purple prose cropping up in an otherwise normal story. Which I used to do all the time. I remember at one point in our writing group, when we were first starting, Brandon said, “Okay, Dan, you can’t be Gene Wolfe for two sentences…”
[Brandon] No, no.
[Dan] “And then be yourself again for the rest of the chapter.”
[Brandon] That was my editor saying it to me.
[Dan] Oh, really?
[Brandon] I shared that in writing group, in an example where I thought you’d…
[Brandon] So, I kind of look at purple prose as having kind of three categories, right? Category one is what Dan just explained. You have purple prose that breaks the flow by drawing attention to itself in an otherwise more straightforward narrative. The second definition, though, and this is the one that I wanted to explain to Howard, is really good writing in the wrong place will dilute the power of the writing during emotional moments. This is why these examples, if you go read on this contest, they’re taking mundane things and describing them like the powerful moment of description that you need more during a turning point, or more during a moment where you need those words to bring you power. The third is overuse of bad metaphors, overuse of words that are just inserted to be extra long, or overly… Thesaurusizing. Those are three separate things. The middle one’s interesting because it can be good writing in the wrong place. The first one’s interesting because it can actually be elevating a little bit, but breaking flow. Then, the third one is just…
[Dan] The third one is just ridiculous. The third one… This is the other example that I wanted to read here. A lot of the old pulp writers did this all the time. Robert E. Howard was famous for it. Nobody had eyes in a Robert Howard story. They had orbs of vision, and this kind of thing. So here’s a beautiful sentence from Robert E. Howard, The Eye of Argon. “The disemboweled mercenary crumpled from his saddle and sank to the clouded sward, sprinkling the parched dust with crimson droplets of escaping life fluid.”
[Piper] Life fluid?
[Dan] Life fluid.
[Brandon] Okay. I have to stop you. The Eye Of Argon is not by Robert Howard.
[Dan] Isn’t it, though?
[Brandon] No. Is that from The Eye of Argon?
[Dan] Yes, that is.
[Brandon] The Eye Of Argon is famously misattributed…
[Dan] Oh, okay.
[Brandon] Yes. It is by a guy named Jim Thighs or Theis or something.
[Dan] Oh, a parody of Robert Howard?
[Brandon] It is not a parody. It is a novel that he wrote, but it came out in the 70s and it was meant to be… You’ll often find dramatic readings of Eye Of Argon at science fiction cons. It’s kind of like the Ishtar of… It’s this huge thing that people have picked up on. So. It is not Howard. Let us make sure we got it right. Howard did this all the time.
[Dan] Howard did this, which is why the guy copied it. One of the things to point out about this is that the first half of that sentence is not bad. It’s when he gets to the part where he just… He needs to say, “He was bleeding,” and instead said, “Sprinkled the parched dust with crimson droplets of escaping life fluid.” Like you don’t need all of those extra sentences. They’re not serving any purpose other than calling attention to themselves.
[Howard] The reason I asked, when I walked into the room, is that this is a tool used for good comedic purpose all the time. So… That’s why the line is fuzzy for me. That particular one wouldn’t come across as funny, but if you put a bad metaphor in it… you put a bad metaphor in it, it could be hilarious. Crimson droplets of escaping magenta toner, only with a little bit of cyan in it to make sure it’s red.
[Howard] Then suddenly with… Wow, that went to a crazy place.
[Brandon] I mean, I use this for laughs in the entire Reckoners series that I wrote, which is a character’s bad at metaphors. I want to transition this, though. We can define it the best we can. I think we really have. The question is, how do you avoid this? How do you fix it if you’re doing it?
[Piper] Sometimes, you just have to read it out loud and see if you laugh at yourself. In some ways, it’s… A fresh set of eyes, I would say, whether you’re doing it yourself by reading your own work out loud or some other way so you can read your work fresh. Or get someone else to read it. Does it really stand out to them as overdone or over-the-top? Sometimes, that’s the best way to do it, because, as you said, in one case, it’s in the context of everything else that’s there. Is it just a color that stands out as horribly obnoxious as compared to the rest of the palette that you’ve created?
[Brandon] Yeah. I would agree with that 100%. In fact, the things to be really careful about our when you’re starting a book or starting a chapter. Because this is where you’re trying to get yourself into the scene. A lot of times, particularly new writers, they’re like, “I must make my first few paragraphs memorable.” They work on those paragraphs so long that they balloon and blossom into something very purple. Often times, where purple prose comes from is when you’re trying too hard.
[Brandon] You’re trying to be impressive. The problem is, you want to try those things. You do want to practice this. If someone says your prose is purple, it’s not… I mean, it can kind of be a compliment, because you’re trying… You’re figuring it out. Instead of having a few scenes like this, though, you want to adapt some more literary styling to your prose, if this is what you want to do, and you want to read people who are really good at it, and elevate all of your prose by a couple of inches, rather than trying to put the one or two paragraphs on stilts so they are 20 feet high.
[Dan] One of the rules that I always tell myself as I’m writing is that… And this is just my own rule. Metaphors are better than similes. For example, the opening line of Neuromancer, “The sky was the color of a television, tuned to a dead channel.” That’s a metaphor. If he had broken that out and expanded it… The sky was dark and gray, like a television tuned to a dead channel. That’s automatically worse. I find, whenever I am using “like a,” I’m trying to reexplain something I’ve already said. That is part of that ballooning.
[Brandon] I’ve noticed this in my own writing, too. The cutting out the likes. Which, again, you’re not going to be able to do all the time. But when I do, the phrase turns better.
[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop for our book of the week, which is The Devil’s Daughter.
[Piper] The Devil’s Daughter is book 1 of the Hidden Sins series by Katee Robert. It’s about an FBI agent working with a local sheriff to catch a serial killer. Part of the reason why he needs her is because she is the key to investigating a cult. She’s actually grown up as part of that cult. Her mother’s the leader.
[Piper] I so can’t wait to read this book. Well, I should divulge. I got an ARC.
[Piper] So it’s sitting on my bookshelf, as my reward for finishing my next manuscript.
[Brandon] Excellent. Who wrote it?
[Piper] Katee Robert. The release date was January 24, so it is out there, and ready for all of you to go enjoy.
[Brandon] Perfect. So let’s… I want to dig into this further. Ways that you have fixed purple prose in your own writing, ways that you can be aware, maybe, if you’re being too purple. One of the ways that they talk about it in literary circles, in classes in the university, is watching the adverbs. Adverbs, adjectives, watching and seeing how often you’re using these. But it turns into this thing where students are like, “I can never use these.” Well, some writers never use them, and that’s their style. Most language uses adjectives and adverbs. You just have to be using the right one, and not searching to modify every known and every verb. This is a catch thing. If you look and you say, “Oh!” That sample you read from Eye of Argon, it’s never just a thing. It’s a cloudy thing, it is a gleaming thing. If every noun or verb gets a modifier, you’re going to start to feel purple really quickly.
[Howard] I have found that the adverb question, for me, anyway… When the narrator is using adverbs, when narration is using adverbs, I’m compressing the storytelling perhaps too much. The example that I use is surreptitiously. You don’t say, “He crossed the street surreptitiously.” You say, “He crouched behind a can. Looked left, looked right. Then quickly made his way across the street.” Now we can see that it is surreptitious behavior. Because the… But if we’re pressed for time, then we use… Then we use the adverb.
[Brandon] The other thing I would point out in that is that sometimes you could replace the adverb and the verb with an actual verb that means… Crossed quickly can become ran…
[Dan] [garbled] across the street.
[Brandon] Or scampered. But that can lead to purple prose also. Because… If it starts calling attention to itself, if people are always scampering instead of just walking, then people are looking at your prose.
[Howard] Well, this is a case that… The scene that I am imagining is a case where… He’s not just walking. He’s moving across the street in a specific way, because there’s a story purpose behind it.
[Howard] That’s… If there is a story purpose behind it, the adverb is really unlikely to work because we need more information. We shouldn’t have compressed that piece.
[Piper] Romance is actually very prone to purple prose… And it can be subjective, right? Like some readers may find it very purple, and other readers may absolutely love it. I’m reminded of a scene from Anne of Green Gables, the television series, the old PBS one, with Megan Follows, where she like falls back after having read this incredibly dramatic romantic scene and like hugs the book to her chest. Then, when she tries writing herself… They had like Rollings Reliable Baking Soda at the end of it, she’s horrified that they’ve taken this beautiful purple-prose-ridden scene of hers, and the only contest that it could win, or the only publishing that it could get was for Rollings Reliable Baking Powder contest. It is just… Romance tends toward it, because you want to be super romantic and super dramatic. The question is, do you want it all the time? That’s like eating chocolate cake, that’s uber-decadent, every meal of the day. It’s more…
[Howard] The word sexy. Okay? You don’t get to use that word in a romance, because that word isn’t going to make me feel anything. You need to describe what is happening there so that I can have that experience, so I can tell, “Oh, yeah, wow, that is sexy.”
[Piper] And a little bit goes a long way, I think is one of the things to do. If you’re going to be expressive about something, do it judiciously, so it has impact.
[Brandon] One of the things you’ll notice, if you read the very stylized writers who are very, very good at this. Ursula Le Guin and people like this, is some people have that kind of luscious, decadent chocolate cake prose that… But most of them are just really good at using the right concrete word powerfully in the right moment. One of my favorite from contemporary fantasy is when Pat Rothfuss goes on on this idea of “It was a silence of three parts.” When you read his scenes like this, he’s not using these big words. He’s not using… But he’s making a really cool metaphor in this “It was a silence of three parts.” That sentence itself… You say, “Wait. How can silence be split in three?” It is conceptually beautiful, the way he describes that without ever going into adverbs, adjectives, long words, making things like chocolate cake. Writing like chocolate cake.
[Dan] A lot of the people that we really call out as great writers are the ones who use very spare language. One of my very favorite books is All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy. If you’ve read McCarthy, he’s very Hemingway, as minimal as possible. But there’s one part in the middle, and it’s about a page and a half, that is just gloriously lurid. Where he’s describing a herd of horses running across a mesa. It is colorful and gorgeous and stands out precisely because it is surrounded by this very spare language…
[Dan] That gives it meaning.
[Brandon] That sounds like the opposite of what we been telling them to do. So why does it work for him?
[Dan] Well, it works for him because, first of all, like I said, he hasn’t prepared us for it. He is keeping the language very tight. He never says more than he has to say.
[Brandon] See, but that could very easily for a writer…
[Dan] For a writer, turn into…
[Brandon] For a new writer, turn into this sort of thing where “Now, I’m going to do this flowery scene,” which is exactly what we told them not to do. Now, I’m agreeing that this is something you do occasionally, but why?
[Dan] Well the… The reason it works in context of All the Pretty Horses is that the character itself is… He is emotionally repressed. He doesn’t know how to connect to people, he doesn’t know what he’s doing in life, and the only time he really feels happy is when he’s watching horses run. So you get that emotional reaction when the language suddenly blossoms out. You see that scene in a different way than you see the rest of the book. So it works.
[Howard] That’s… For me, that is the perfect way to use words for double and triple purpose. Your choice of words really, really matters. I use purple prose from time to time with the narrator in Schlock Mercenary where I am giving a description and then it stops and we go straight to dialogue. Sometimes, the juxtaposition between the end of the description and the dialogue is itself jarring and abrupt and is part of the joke. I watched the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, all four of them, recently and realized…
[Piper] Aren’t there more now?
[Howard] There’s just the four right now. They may be making more, but that’s not what I have on Blu-ray.
[Howard] The character of Hector Barbossa speaks purple. The other characters don’t. It’s really kind of beautiful. Our introduction to him, Elizabeth says, “I’m here to negotiate the cessation of hostilities against Port Royale.” Barbossa, “There are a lot of long words in there, Miss. We’re naught but humble pirates. What is it you want?” “I want you to leave and never come back.” “I’m disinclined to acquiesce to your request, means no.” That’s our introduction to that character, and throughout the movies, when he opens his mouth, he goes purple. In the fourth movie, he even rhymed at one point. He’s… Spontaneous poetry. They get away with it because it’s characterization.
[Brandon] And because he owns it.
[Howard] And Geoffrey Rush.
[Piper] Now who is the character, out of the Harry Potter series, that was the teacher that came…
[Brandon] Right, right, right. The author.
[Dan] The second book. Fauntleroy or whatever his name was. That’s not his name.
[Piper] I was going to say Fauntleroy because that’s an FDA advisory person.
[Piper] But that character… He just… That’s what I think of when you’re doing…
[Piper] Lockhart. Yeah. That’s what I think of when you’re using purple prose on purpose to set a character apart. That’s when it can work.
[Brandon] And it can.
[Brandon] And, again, this is a matter of… It’s one of those things that if you are competent as a writer, you can start to own this and use it. Things that would be purple in someone else’s book will not be purple in your’s. Because of your styling. Because you are in control of it. It’s just like how the same paints in the hands of one person, in the hands of me, creates something that looks like it was done by a three-year-old, and in the hands of someone else, it’s this gorgeous piece. We do have to stop here, though.
[Piper] Oh, no. I have one more book.
[Brandon] Okay. You can have one. Go ahead.
[Piper] Okay. Jacqueline Carey is an amazing author who writes beautiful, beautiful prose that just borders on purple in her Kushiel’s Dart series. But the thing that she’s setting in this world is that it is a world that appreciates beauty and love above all things. So these repeated phrases throughout of “love as you wilt,” “all knowledge is worth having,” and, right from the very beginning, she has this incredibly beautiful, beautiful prose that in any other book by any other writer would be purple. Straight out purple. But because she said it, somehow, it works for her entire series.
[Brandon] Tolkien is good at this, too, I feel. You read some of these… Read Nora Jemison, I think she is fantastic at it. You’ll begin to see, if you’re paying attention to it and practicing it yourself, how you can do this.
[Brandon] We’re going to go ahead, and we’re going to pitch at Howard some homework to us.
[Howard] I’m pitching the homework at them.
[Howard] All right. One of the writing rules that is so often read to us is “Put away the thesaurus. Just write using your words.” Here’s your homework. Take a paragraph that you’ve written. Get out the thesaurus. Replace as many of the words in that paragraph as you can. Break it. Painted so purple that the color purple feels ashamed to have its name associated with it. Just go overboard. Then take a step back and look at it. Ask yourself why it broke. Sometimes, the way to figure out how something is broken is to deliberately go too far. This is your excuse to take it too far.
[Brandon] Excellent. That sounds like a lot of fun, actually.
[Dan] I look forward to reading all of those, on the website.
[Brandon] Yeah. Post those for us. We want to read those.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses.… Oh. You know what? What if they took paragraphs from our writing?
[Dan] Oh, yes! Oh that’s brilliant.
[Piper] Do that!
[Dan] You can do your own, but if you want to take something from one of our books…
[Piper] Anything by Piper J. Drake. I would love to see you take a paragraph of one of my things. Preferably one of the PG-rated scenes.
[Dan] If you can take something, say that you’ve broken it, and it’s actually just verbatim, and you can trick people, that would be fantastic.
[Piper] Yes. I want to see this. Please do.
[Brandon] Okay. Oh, this is going to be awesome.
[Howard] Okay. This is supposed to be homework, not a social media game.
[Brandon] Okay, okay. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.