Purple prose can be a huge problem in your writing. And yet it is something that a lot of beginner writers default to, because they think it makes them look intelligent.
And yet, most publishers that see purple prose within the first few pages are likely to put down the manuscript immediately, and readers are likely to do the same.
So what is purple prose and how can it be avoided? That’s what we’re unraveling in today’s writing advice.
- What purple prose is
- Where the term comes from
- Examples of purple prose
- When purple prose IS appropriate
- How to remove purple prose from your writing
Table of contents
- What is Purple Prose?
- Why You Should Avoid Purple Prose
- Examples of Purple Prose
- Times When You Should Use Purple Prose
- How to Remove Purple Prose
- Final Thoughts on Purple Prose
What is Purple Prose?
Purple prose refers to writing that is excessively ornate, flowery, or grandiloquent. It typically uses exaggerated, elaborate, or pretentious language and descriptions, often to the point of being overdone, artificial, ridiculous, and disruptive to the narrative flow.
Purple prose often features long, convoluted sentences with a lot of adjectives and adverbs, and an abundance of metaphors and similes that can make the text hard to follow and understand.
It tends to prioritize style over substance, and can distract from the main point or message of the writing.
The term “purple” in “purple prose” refers to the use of excessive, overblown, and flowery language that can make the writing seem overly dramatic or even comical.
While some writers a purple passage deliberately for stylistic or comedic effect, it is generally considered a sign of poor writing and is best avoided in most cases.
Why Purple Though? The Origins
The term “Purple Prose” is ultimately derived from the Roman poet Horace, who has a passage in lines 14-21 of his Ars Poetica that goes like this:
Weighty openings and grand declarations often
Have one or two purple patches tacked on, that gleam
Far and wide, when Diana's grove and her altar,
The winding stream hastening through lovely fields,
Or the river Rhine, or the rainbow's being described.
There's no place for them here. Perhaps you know how
To draw a cypress tree: so what, if you've been given
Money to paint a sailor plunging from a shipwreck
In despair?– Ars Poetica, Horace
In the first part of that quote, Horace is essentially stating that any “weighty openings and grand declarations” have purple patches attached, or in other words, they are purple.
What follows is, itself, a kind of purple prose, with great flowery descriptions and rambling text. Probably an attempt by Horace to emphasize his point.
And that is why we now call it “purple” prose.
Other Colors of Prose
In addition to purple, there are two other “colors” that are used to describe prose. Here is just a quick look at those two, and what sets them apart from purple prose:
- Beige Prose: “Beige prose” is a term that is sometimes used to describe writing that is technically correct and grammatically sound, but is considered bland, uninspiring, or lacking in creativity or personality. In many ways, it’s the exact opposite of purple prose, but not in a good way.
- Blue Prose: “Blue prose” is a term that is sometimes used to describe writing that is overly sexual or erotic in nature, often to the point of being gratuitous or vulgar.
All three of these different prose types are undesirable, and should largely be avoided.
Why You Should Avoid Purple Prose
Here are three reasons why you should avoid purple prose whenever you can:
1. It’s Distracting
The worst part about purple prose is that it’s distracting, it pulls the reader out of the text in a jarring way.
The reason for this is because most of the time you want to be clear and concise in your writing. Get the meaning across to the reader as quickly and efficiently as possible.
It’s true that sometimes you might have a lot of information to convey to the reader, but in these situations, you want to use no more words than absolutely necessary to do so.
Otherwise, you’re just wasting space and the readers’ time.
2. It Makes the Reader Feel Uneducated
If you rely too heavily on large words and overly ornate text, it can elevate the reading-level of your text.
Now this might not sound like a bad thing on the surface. But what happens when the reading-level is elevated, is those who enjoy a lower level of reading will feel stupid, like they are not smart enough to understand what you are saying.
In reality, most read at a 3-5th-grade reading level. And while you certainly don’t want to dumb down your writing, you also want to use clear and understandable language when writing for a general audience.
3. It Makes the Author Look Conceited
Going along with the last point, authors who excessively rely on purple prose appear conceited to general audiences.
This is because purple prose, while it might sound academic and educated, usually isn’t. Instead, it often appears like more of an attempt on the author’s part to appear more educated then they actually are.
Readers might not articulate this, but purple prose can easily (and subconsciously) make them view the author as conceited and full of themselves.
Examples of Purple Prose
In addition to some of the quotes I’ve selected, scattered through this article, the following are some made up examples of what purple prose looks like:
- “The luminous moon hung in the inky black sky, casting its silver beams upon the shimmering waves that gently lapped against the shore.”
- “Her eyes were like deep pools of sapphire, sparkling with the fire of a thousand suns.”
- “The fragrant petals of the exquisite rose bloomed in a riot of colors, imbuing the air with their heady scent.”
- “The majestic mountains towered above us, their snow-capped peaks piercing the azure heavens like titans of the earth.”
- “The melodious voice of the nightingale filled the air, its sweet song echoing through the enchanted forest like a symphony of magic.”
- “The ballroom was a dazzling spectacle of opulence and extravagance, with crystal chandeliers sparkling like diamonds overhead, and the guests arrayed in their finest silks and velvets, gliding across the polished floor like figures in a dream.”
- “The garden was a riot of color and scent, with flowers of every hue and shape bursting forth from the lush foliage, their petals glistening with dew like drops of liquid gold.”
- “The sky was ablaze with the fiery glow of the setting sun, casting a warm and comforting light over the landscape, while the birds sang their evening songs in a chorus of pure joy.”
- “Her hair was a cascade of shimmering gold, framing her delicate features like a halo of light, while her eyes shone like emeralds in the moonlight, hinting at the secrets that lay hidden within.”
- “The desert was a harsh and unforgiving place, with the scorching sun beating down relentlessly on the barren landscape, and the sand dunes shifting and changing like waves on an endless sea, as if mocking the frailty of mortal life.”
Times When You Should Use Purple Prose
Now, despite everything I’ve said so far, there are actual times when purple prose is allowed (and even sometimes necessary).
1. For Comic Effect
One of the most obvious examples of using purple prose is for comedic effect. You'll see this happen with certain characters in film and television, characters who spout purple prose wherever they go. This is used to make the characters seem over the top and living in the clouds.
Another master of purple prose in comedy is Douglas Adams. Here is an example of his use of purple prose in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy:
“It was as if the universe had conspired to make everything in his life go wrong, like a cosmic version of Sod's Law. The stars were aligned against him, the planets had all gone retrograde, and even the dust motes seemed to be conspiring to make him sneeze.”– The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
2. For Certain Genres
Additionally, there are certain genres where purple prose is more appropriate than in others. These genres can include the following:
- Literary works that are intentionally stylized or experimental in nature
- Certain forms of poetry
- Prose poetry
- Magical realism
- Gothic/Romantic literature
- Some types of fantasy and science fiction
While it is common to find purple prose in these genres, it should not make up the entire novel. Instead, it should be used sparingly within the novel under the right contexts.
3. For Dramatic Effect
One of the most important ways that you can use purple prose is in specific dramatic scenes.
Sometimes, in order to add emphasis to a particular moment, you should spend more to describing that moment. Doing so adds dramatic effect and allows you to control the pacing.
Let's take a look at one of my favorite examples of purple prose from The Return of the King.
“And far away, as Frodo put on the Ring and claimed it for his own, even in Sammath Naur the very heart of his realm, the power in Barad-dúr was shaken, and the Tower trembled from its foundations to its proud and bitter crown. The Dark Lord was suddenly aware of him, and his Eye piercing all shadows looked across the plain to the door of that he had made; and the magnitude of his own folly was revealed to him in a blinding flash, and all the devices of his enemies were at last laid bare. Then his wrath blazed in consuming flame, but his fear rose like a vast black smoke to choke him. For he knew his deadly peril and the thread upon which his doom was hung.
“From all his policies and webs of fear and treachery, from all his stratagems and wars his mind shook free; and throughout his realm a tremor ran, his slaves quailed, and his armies halted, and his captains suddenly steerless, bereft of will, wavered and despaired. For they were forgotten. The whole mind and purpose of the Power that wielded them was now bent with overwhelming force upon the Mountain. At his summons, wheeling with a rending cry, in a last desperate race there flew, faster than the winds, the Nazgúls, the Ringwraiths, and with a storm of wings they hurtled southwards to Mount Doom…”– Return of the King, J. R. R. Tolkien
Even with all these examples, I would still caution you about overusing purple prose. A few moments here and there to establish tone or a particular comedic moment are fine, but if you use purple language throughout the entirety of your book, you are sabotaging your writing.
How to Remove Purple Prose
Now that we understand why you shouldn't use purple prose, except in certain specific instances, let's discuss how you can remove purple prose from your writing, and avoid it in the future.
1. Write in Your Own Voice
Most of us do not talk in purple prose. So use your own natural voice as an example. I might even recommend dictation as a way of getting your first draft done, because it will keep your voice sounding natural.
Because let's face it, who is using ornate language or complex metaphors in daily speech?
2. Only Say What Needs to Be Said
While it can be tempting to make a statement in the most complex way possible, a sign of good writing is the opposite: someone who is able to get meaning across in as few words as possible.
In fiction, you want to avoid unnecessary descriptions or digressions that do not serve the plot or character development. You need to be selective about the details you choose to include, and focus only on what is essential to your story or argument.
3. Don’t Over-Rely on the Thesaurus
While it can be tempting to use a thesaurus to find fancier words to replace simpler ones, this can often lead to purple prose. Instead, focus on a word choice that is clear and straightforward, and that accurately conveys your intended meaning.
Remember that sometimes, simple is better.
4. Use the Hemingway App
Finally, consider using a tool like the Hemingway App to help you identify and eliminate purple prose in your writing.
This app analyzes your writing for readability and identifies areas where you can simplify or clarify your language.
And while I usually recommend ProWritingAid (use code KINDLEPRENEUR20 for 20% off) as the primary tool that all authors should use for grammar mistakes, spellchecking, and language help, I must admit that the Hemingway App is far superior for purple prose specifically.
By using this tool to help you revise your work, you can create writing that is both effective and engaging.
Final Thoughts on Purple Prose
And so we come to the end of this winding path, this journey through the tangled thickets of purple prose. We have seen how this ornate and flowery language, with its lush descriptions and grandiloquent metaphors, can evoke emotions and transport us to other worlds. We have also seen how it can be a distraction, a barrier between writer and reader, obscuring the very meaning it seeks to convey.
But what is the final verdict on purple prose? Is it a scourge to be avoided at all costs, or a tool to be wielded with care and finesse? The answer, as with so many things in life, is both and neither. Like a double-edged sword, purple prose can cut both ways, depending on the wielder's skill and intent.
In the hands of a master, purple prose can elevate the mundane to the sublime, transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary. But in the hands of a novice, it can be a stumbling block, a sign of inexperience and lack of confidence.
And so, like all things in writing, it comes down to the writer's judgment, to their ability to know when to use purple prose and when to let simplicity reign. It is a delicate balance, a dance between the flowery and the plain, the grand and the simple. But in the end, it is a dance worth learning, a skill worth mastering, for in the hands of a skilled writer, purple prose can be a thing of beauty, a joy forever.
See what I did there?
Maybe it would be better to say it this way:
Purple prose can be effective for evocative writing, but should be used sparingly and with careful consideration.