Monday, November 26, 2012



Or: The Pitfalls of Pleasing Yourself

The comments: "This is where I stopped reading because it's confusing/slow/flowery/overwritten/clichéd." Or "You have a lot of purple patches." 

What they mean: Your choice (and maybe amount) of adjectives does the opposite of what you intended. Rather than create a vivid, immersive scene, your description stops the story's momentum. 

Think of it this way:
Your story is a world. The path before the reader is made of stepping stones over a lake (of real-world distractions or worries). Each stone is a word the reader steps on to go through the story and experience what your character experiences. The reader should move effortlessly, stepping from stone to stone, gliding from scene to scene. 

Purple writing turns those stones into sticky messes. Each step becomes difficult. The focus shifts from the world of your awesome story, to that tricky, icky stone. The reader falters, working hard to remove his foot from one stone in order to proceed to the next. It soon becomes tiring. And eventually, the reader must give up.

Here's how to recognize Purple Prose:
  • Description of new characters (especially Love Interests) compare their attributes to gems, food, etc. "Her glittering blue eyes gazed at me lovingly like an endless ocean of forgiveness." Or "He had eyes the color of wet sapphires and hair as gold as the first rays of dawn." 
    • I don't know about you, but first thing I think when meeting someone hot is "Damn, that guy is hot." Not "Damn, his eyes are like diamonds and his hair is the color of melted chocolate."
  • Starting a chapter (or beginning the WIP) with a long description that anthropomorphizes a season, landscape, or weather. "The ancient, circular city in the center of the valley was in the mountain's shadow, so it was always enrobed in an endless, aphotic, caliginous darkness in which lurid villains etc."
    • This is where using a thesaurus to foreshadow has gone too far. One strong adjective in a description is great. Every adjective after dilutes the reader's attention. Think of it this way: the description is a perfect glass of wine. Adding another adjective is like adding an ice cube to the perfect glass of wine. Adding even more dilutes that wine further until you have a glass of crap.

  • In romance WIPs or love scenes, particularly tender moments naturally tumble into vats of Purple Prose with "slick, throbbing manhoods" and "silky skin" and "exquisite oil in quivering pockets of loveliness."
    •  This euphemizing reveals a big reason why writers reach for the safety and ease of slipping a Purple Patch into a scene: either they believe they can't write the scene well, or they don't want to be too clinical, scientific, or use language they are uncomfortable with. Like trying to hide a bad pimple, the makeup only emphasizes the flaw.

Here's how to recognize it in your own writing:

·    As you revise, every time you come across a sentence or paragraph that makes you pause and feel especially awesome and sparkly about your writing, cut it.
Are you thinking "Oh, you b*tch!"?
Calm down, Skippy. It's going to be a good kind of hurt. And, it's a critical skill to develop for the following reasons:
o   Only you know what happens in later chapters. Something you're trying to foreshadow might look like Purple Prose to someone else. Knowing what Purple is can help you save a critical scene from the cutting room floor by changing the things that make it seem Purple.
o   If you can spot and expunge the Purple from your WIP before handing it off to a beta, you can free up your beta's attention for other things. (Also, you won't get back beta notes like "Really? FFS, really???")
o   It helps you grow a thick skin. The more critical and neutral you can be about your work, the better it becomes.

Let's put our serious pants on and deconstruct:

Sample: "His long, sinewy, muscular arms circled around me and twined behind me. Then he crushed me to him like he was a starving man and I was the first piece of mutton he'd seen in years. When he kissed me, his lips tasted like the very nectar of Olympian gods, imparting the sweetness of honeyed, overripe apricots and the scent of pine needles crushed beneath a virgin nymph's bare heel." 

Deconstruction: "His long, sinewy, muscular arms circled around me and twined behind me. (1) Then he crushed me to him like he was a starving man and I was the first piece of mutton he'd seen in years (2). When he kissed me, his lips tasted like the very nectar of Olympian gods, imparting the sweetness of honeyed, overripe apricots and the scent of pine needles crushed beneath a virgin nymph's bare heel were sweet. (3)" 

  1. Clichéd description of arms. Redundant description of a hug. Also, note how the focus is on the dude's arms for f*ck's sake. *Not* the protag nor her Love Interest.
  2. I love this line. LOVE it. It's hilarious. But it doesn't fit the tone of the scene, doesn't move the story forward, or develop my character. Therefore, I must cut it.
  3. I know I'm writing a Fantasy story in which there were never any Olympian gods. Nor nymphs. My protag would never have known these things. I have to cut this.
More importantly, the focus of the scene is diffused by evoking so many senses. I'm trying to force the reader to think this scene is important.

Reconstructed: "He embraced me so tightly, I could barely breathe. Then he kissed me, and his lips were sweet despite the blood of battle, the sweat of having fought an entire clan of trolls. All that trouble for one kiss from me. The thought spurred me to kiss back harder, intent on proving I could conquer as well." 

See the difference? In the Purple Prose, there were so many descriptions surrounding the kiss, they took the focus away from the kiss itself. Worse, they took focus away from the character, who is the reason for the story. 

In the Reconstructed segment, I attempt to put the emphasis on how important the kiss is to the character. If I've done a good job of establishing empathy for my characters up to that point, the reader should easily feel the scene's importance without me having to dress it up with extra fluff. 

In your WIP: Seek and Destroy extra adjectives and clichés. Your protag will thank you for it.

Happy revising,

Coming Up: 
Robert Bevan
Flat vs. Round Characters
Brian Mumphrey
Dialogue Tags


  1. A sandwich analogy might have been more appropriate to the ice-cube-in-the-wine. After all, adding an ice cube to a glass of wine isn't supposed to "spice it up" or whatever.

    I live in Korea, and (I hope this doesn't come off as xenophobic) Koreans, as a rule, make lousy sandwiches. The reason for this is that they ignore the simplistic beauty of what a good sandwich should be, and just throw anything they can think of together between two pieces of bread. Ham, cheese, mayonnaise, sweet pickles, onions, shredded cabbage, corn, chopped carrots, lettuce, shrimp, yogurt (yes, yogurt), and more. There are no flavors working together. It's just a big pile of disgusting crap.

    The same goes for a sentence with too many (or wrong) adjectives.

    (To be fair, I've only ever had one sandwich in Korea that had yogurt on it.)

    1. Hey Bobby!

      The sandwich analogy is great! Since I don't eat real sandwiches though, I didn't reach for that as an example. (I know, I know, I'm a weirdo!) I *have* been served a glass of red wine with ice cubes...


  2. This is a great post. I'm guilty of succumbing to purple prose far too many times. At least now I'm aware of my problem... I'm trying to overcome it, really I am!

    I was planning on writing a post about the dangers of purple prose, but you beat me to it! Great stuff here, I love the layout of the text and the example paragraph.

    1. Thanks, Nadine!

      I'm glad you enjoyed it.

      Piece of Mutton.

  3. The invigorating emanation of your effervescent locutions, which were infused with authoritative wisdom, sent me into an outburst of demented manuscription. The brilliant white majuscules reposing in an archipelago of keys in inky black click-clacked away as I composed my
    "Good shit," I said.