Blue Prose: What Is It, Do You Need It, and When to Avoid It

The words on the page are all we have as writers. This is why we need to choose them carefully. But it can be hard to know when to use certain types of language in your fiction writing. Sometimes, a little colorful language is expected. Other times, it can turn readers off. 

That's why this article is all about blue prose, sometimes called blue language. Join me as I explore this topic and give you some pointers for what it is and when (or if) you should use it. 

In this article, you will learn:
  1. What blue language is.
  2. Determining when or if it's okay to use.
  3. Tips for avoiding it.

What is Blue Prose?

Blue prose is a term for writing that is vulgar or overly sexual. You've probably heard someone use the term “cursed a blue streak” or something similar. That's what they're talking about. Of course, you can use blue language in real life—as many people do—which is why writers often refer to it as blue prose, to avoid confusion. I'll use the two terms interchangeably in this article. 

The Other Colors of Prose

Blue prose is one of three color-based terms that all creative writers should be aware of. The other two are purple and beige.

  • Purple Prose is the term for excessively flowery language. This type of prose uses lots of adjectives, similes, and metaphors to dress up the writing. The sentence structure of purple prose is often complex, and the reader usually has to work to determine what the author is trying to say. 
  • Beige Prose is the opposite of purple prose. This type of writing follows the simplest of sentence structures and sticks to words that are in common usage by the vast majority of people. This type of overly simplistic writing has its place, but should be used in moderation.  

How and When to Use Blue Language

In this section, we'll address the two types of blue prose separately. First, cursing. Then, we'll talk about overly sexual language. 

Cursing a Blue Streak

If you read hard-boiled crime thrillers, you're probably used to a bit of blue language. After all, many cops and criminals curse quite a bit in real life. And if you're trying to be authentic, you may be tempted to add some blue language into your manuscript. This is certainly okay to do in certain instances. You just want to be sure that the language isn't drawing attention to itself

Even if you know that real cops drop f-bombs every fourth word, that's not something you want to do in your writing. Not only does this get old for the reader, but it can also water down the intensity of curse words when you want to use them for ultimate effect at a crucial point in the story

There's a certain point when authenticity in dialogue becomes distracting. That's why we take all the uhs and ums out of our dialogue in fiction. With cursing, a little bit goes a long way. But it's also important to know your genre. If you're writing sweet romance or cozy mystery, the word “hell” might be as blue as you want to get. This is one reason why reading in your genre is so important. 

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Sexually Explicit Language

Unlike cursing, there's really no need for overly sexual language in most creative writing. Those who use this kind of language know it's what their readers are looking for. So unless you're a steamy romance or erotica writer, you can generally stay away from this kind of blue prose, with few exceptions. 

There may be certain times when authors of dark crime novels use strong language in a scene. Perhaps there's a particularly brutal scene in which a character is assaulted. This kind of prose can certainly make an impact on the reader, but it shouldn't come out of left field. It can also be triggering, so if you include it in your story, you'll want to warn readers upfront about it. 

How to Avoid Blue Prose

The best way to avoid blue prose is by knowing your audience. Only when you know what your readers want can you deliver in a satisfactory manner. So if you write in a genre where cursing is common, you'll want to include the right amount of it to stay in line with market expectations. 

The same can be said for sexual language. There are plenty of metaphors or euphemisms you can use to avoid using vulgar prose in your novel or short story. Sex is a part of life, but talking about it in our society isn't as common as your average f-bomb. So unless you're confident it belongs in your piece of literature, you may want to skip it or skirt around it. 

And if you write nonfiction, you can rest easy knowing that this color language doesn't belong in your writing.

Blue Prose: Final Thoughts

Writing a book is a marathon. And during that marathon, you'll have plenty of time to consider your words carefully. As you re-read the pages you wrote yesterday, or as you edit your manuscript, keep an eye out for blue prose. Is there too much of it?

Think of the last couple of books you read in your genre. Does the amount of blue language in your book match the amount in those books? If so, you're on the right track. If not, you may need to make some changes before publishing your book.  

Consider carefully your use of cursing or overly sexual language if you want to stay in line with market expectations and avoid those dreaded one-star reviews.

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