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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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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What is poetic justice? – Literary Terms 101

Poetic Justice: “Rewarding the good and punishing the bad. The term was first used by Thomas Rhymer in 1678 to express the idea that in literature, if not always in life, rewards and punishments should be carefully distributed so that readers may be inspired to goodness and discouraged from evil.” NTC’s Dictionary of Literary Terms

My View On Poetic Justice

After reading the definition, I immediately thought about how often this technique was done in old films. There are audiences that still find it satisfying probably because it satisfies the dualistic status quo our cultures often reinforce: goodness is praised, evil is punished. But things aren’t always that black and white are they? Especially when you’re developing a plot or character, you need to mix things up.

In fact, I’ve seen poetic justice used quite sarcastically or ironically to address that the way we want a clear cut picture of good and bad doesn’t always exist. But poetic justice, I feel, isn’t just about defining a dualistic morality. It’s satisfying when the character the audience roots for reaches success and when the character they can’t stand deals with struggle or suffers. The foundation of poetic justice is ethical satisfaction, confirmation in the legitimacy of the status quo, even in fictional worlds. It’s a great tool to help audiences attach to the story. Personally, I find that art has its greatest impact when it’s a moral challenge and encourages ethical relativity rather than be purely pleasing, but that’s just me.

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What Does Pastoral Mean? – Literary Terms 101

Pastoral: “A poem having to do with shepherds and rural life; from pastor, the Latin word for shepherd…The three forms are (1) the singing match between two shepherds, sometimes called the eclogue, (2) the monologue of a single lovesick shepherd lamenting his mistress’s aloofness; and (3) the elegy, or dirge, for a dead friend,” (Morner and Rausch, 1991) – The NTC’s Dictionary of Literary Terms.

My Take on Pastoral Work/Poetry

I see rural or rustic life as having a mixture of peaceful simplicity and complex melancholy. As a southern Colorado person, I find the wide open space and absence of urban life to have a calm to it, but my mind has transformed that calm into a type of sadness. I really relate to pastoral works, especially elegies. If you think about rural life, small farm towns where everybody knows everybody, the passing of someone or the breaking off of a relationship is often devastating. You have very few activities to distract you and even more responsibilities to attend to if you don’t have some of the conveniences city life can offer. But no matter where you live, loss happens. John Milton’s Lycidas is a well-known example of a pastoral elegy. Milton had so much anxiety about his life accomplishments and his mortality. Milton wrote many elegies, so existence and death must’ve been at the forefront of his brain. Through Lycidas, I want to argue that he did a kind of self-talk to face his grief over his college friend, Edward King; Apollo, St. Peter, and the Muses appear and seem to help him confront the shepherding lifestyle that reminded Milton of his friend, but guided him from a place of despair to hope and inner peace.

Weep no more, woeful shepherds, weep no more, 
For Lycidas, your sorrow, is not dead, 
Sunk though he be beneath the wat’ry floor; 
So sinks the day-star in the ocean bed, 
And yet anon repairs his drooping head, 
And tricks his beams, and with new spangled ore 
Flames in the forehead of the morning sky: 
So Lycidas sunk low, but mounted high

Lycidas Lines 165-172

It’s kind of interesting that Milton, who grew up in a bourgeois family and lifestyle, wanted to use pastoral themes to honor Edward. I know it was the 17th century so what they considered “urban” or city life isn’t how we see it today and I’m probably overthinking it (lol). Some analyses of Lycidas consider Milton using pastoral poetry to metaphorically call out the Church of England clergymen, which is more likely. So am I taking pastoral works too literally? Even Virgil’s pastoral work is described as, “…a poetic genre in which the author could use humble characters to talk about public figures and current affairs. Because shepherds are the poet-musicians of the countryside,” (Poetry Foundation) but his pastoral poetry is also “…not just a literary construct, inasmuch as there are striking touches of realism in the descriptions of country life,” (Poetry Foundation). So there is something about the countryside that encourages deep contemplation! But Virgil became a rich boy too with humble beginnings. I guess I find it interesting as to how the wide open spaces of the countryside can inspire so much existentialism.

Anyway, there are many other good pastoral works out there (Shelley’s Adonais is recommended as well). I think the most important quality of this genre is the act of contemplating life whether that leads to existential dread or a kind of revelation. I wonder if pastorals influenced Westerns and other storytelling mediums about country life. I also want to add that even though I chose an example that focused on death and grief, not all pastorals are so morbid. There’s a beauty and charm in pastoral simplicity as well, such as finding love and simply loving. The point is that the pastoral piece itself addresses elements of rural life emphasizing its influence or symbolic meaning on life events, similar to an idyll.

Let me know what you thought of this. Have you tried writing pastoral poems before? How would you write one if you’re a city slicker or have you ventured the countryside before? I’d love to hear from you.