Purple Prose and Writing Styles – [Literature and Writing]

So I ran into this post on Tumblr.

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Some flowery writing is going to scratch you where you itch and some is going to bore you to death. Either way, I don’t think any of us want to get in the habit of using flowery language to describe a simple setting, character design, scene, or anything else. That’s what editing is for, right? Well, I also don’t want to be negligent of those who are picky with their diction. Sometimes we know that elaboration for something that could be described simply is necessary like the narrator’s tone, for example, or for characterization. Where’s the happy medium?

While researching this topic, I ran into a wonderful YouTube channel called Reedsy, a London-based, “…award-winning community of over 100,000 book publishing professionals,” according to LinkedIn. After watching this very helpful video on purple prose, I immediately added them to the list of resources to tap into later.

Learning about purple prose helped me think about how our mentality shifts when we’re writing in different forms of storytelling. I wanted to finally work on my short story last weekend and it was really hard to pull my mind away from fantasy novel writing. The first 900 words weren’t even elaborate. My narrator was info-dumping due to my insecurities–”it’s a fantasy short story, so I need to worldbuild and tell you the details about every culture involved”– yeah, no. A novel is more of a journey, from a stroll through unfamiliar woods to cautiously crossing a battleground; a short story is a quick trip across town, but the trip was far from ordinary or expected. You don’t want to go purple when you’re writing either. Purple prose is more unwanted projection than progress (excuse the alliteration). Being elaborate and emotive doesn’t require dumping extra adjectives and adverbs. This clicked when I thought about writing poetry or music.

I compared short story writing to writing a song or a poem because I get very picky with word choice and composition when I’m songwriting. Poetry has a bit more of a flow, but editing poems makes me particular. So in my experience, I’m not necessarily saying that short story writing or avoiding purple prose means make your narration robotic and bland; I’m saying consider if your story and your audience will favor your “dark and stormy” tendencies at certain places. Audiences don’t really like repetition or extravagance without meaning. For example, the chorus of a song is repeated 2-3 times during a performance and we don’t mind it if it’s harmonized with the melody, connects the verses and the bridge well, and ends the song in a satisfactory way. The person in the Tumblr post argued there was nothing wrong with “dark and stormy” because it gave you setting and tone; for that reader “dark and stormy” harmonized with the descriptions given later. This is what Shaylynn addressed in the video: “Dense or elaborate language doesn’t have to be purple if it’s substantial and adds to the story.” We’ve had elaborate writers for centuries, but the ones who stand out are the ones with masterful diction in their storytelling.

Time for an ungoth confession…I used to think Edgar Allan Poe was in the purple prose realm when I was a younger, less critical-thinking reader. After reading some analyses of his writing in college, my perspective changed. Poe was actually quite meticulous. Lovecraft is the same. So, if you break down someone else’s writing or your own writing and find descriptions, DIALOGUE (this is a big one), or anything else that isn’t contributing to the plot and theme of your work, you’re going purple. Get rid of it.

Hope this helps anyone who needs it and be sure to check out Reedsy because they seem pretty reliable.

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Need Help With Diction?

And a little something for editors who need to be in the right state of mind to know what to remove and keep…

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