In a course I teach on effective description, I talk about “purple prose” and invariably I’m asked what that means. To me, purple prose is writing that is so excessive, elaborate or flowery that it calls attention to itself and breaks the flow of the story. It’s usually recognizable by the excessive use of sensory detail.
But hang on…isn’t the use of sensory detail a mark of good writing? Absolutely! Using all the senses and painting with words through simile and metaphor makes for rich, engaging narrative. The operative word in my comment “usually recognizable by the excessive use of sensual detail” is the word “excessive”.
So how do you know what is enough and what is excessive?
Let’s find out by looking at this paragraph of purple prose:
The pretty young girl sat delicately on the lush green grass under the old gnarled oak tree. The starlings sang excitedly above, and the air was filled with the perfume of wildflowers. Overhead the fluffy white clouds drifted gently, and the sun shone brightly in the blue summer sky. She felt happy. She turned coyly to the boy beside her and said hesitantly in her high sing-song voice, “Would you like a bite of this sweet juicy apple?”
At first glance, it seems to follow the guidelines for “good” writing. We have colour and sound and smells and textures. We have emotion and interaction. But for all that, it sounds amateurish. It’s awkward to read.
Here are five tips to recognize and overcome purple prose:
1 + 1 = ½
The first thing to notice is the proliferation of adjectives. When it comes to adjectives, I always say that “one plus one equals a half”. By that I mean that if you use more than one adjective to describe something, you dilute the effectiveness of each adjective. This happens, because the reader must process both adjectives separately with the noun it describes. The mind must process “the girl is pretty” and then “the girl is young”. It’s too much, and slows the reader down. In this paragraph, there are seven instances of this. (Can you find them?)
Instead use just one adjective and if possible choose a stronger noun to convey the other descriptor. “Pretty young girl” could become “pretty teenager”. “Lush green grass” doesn’t need the word “green”, because “lush” says it all. Likewise, you wouldn’t expect a summer sky to be anything but blue.
Kill “descriptor” adverbs.
Note I said “descriptor” adverbs (my own label, by the way). I don’t condemn all adverbs. Adverbs like daily and often have a role to play in showing, time and frequency etc. by answering the questions of when? and how? It’s the ones that answer the question: in what way? that cause the problem. In our sample paragraph, “sat delicately” is a case in point. It’s much stronger and easier for the reader to process, if you ditch the adverb altogether and strengthen the verb to “perched” or “poised”. The starlings might “chatter” or “chirp” or “chorus” rather than “sing excitedly”. You could use a phrase like “the girl curled her legs under her”.
Swap out cliché.
A cliché is a descriptive phrase that once was a great way to describe something but which has been so over-used that it no longer has any effect on the reader except to draw attention to itself and pull the reader out of the narrative. This sample uses the cliché “fluffy white clouds”.
It would be simple to say, “Find another way to describe the clouds,” and that would be valid, but I think it goes deeper than that. I believe that you should swap out cliché with details that are not already supplied automatically by the reader. If you mention a summer day, most people will automatically imagine blue skies, hot sun and fluffy white clouds. Pump up your writing by supplying a detail they may not imagine and therefore will notice, say, “a pair of tangled dragon flies”. Not only does this give a unique detail to the scene, it can also do double duty in mirroring or echoing the story thread of these two young people alone together.
Show Don’t Tell
Yes, I know, you’ve heard it before, but it’s true. This entire paragraph is tell. The reader is being told what everything looks like and what the characters are doing and how they are feeling. We are observers only, not participants in the story. We can only guess at the character’s thoughts and motivations.
This piece would be stronger if we saw at least some of the scene through the eyes and thoughts of one of the characters. That way, we get a feel for how the character feels, and this is heightened by descriptive details that the character would notice in that emotional state. Make the characters real. Give them names and thoughts and gestures.
To recognize “tell” look for places where emotions are named: “She felt happy”. Ask yourself: What does happy look like in this situation? What would she be thinking at this moment? What body language might she use? What sensory details would she notice?
Alice watched two dragonflies flit in a tangled dance near Robbie’s red face—whether from the summer heat or embarrassment, she couldn’t tell.
No matter how powerful the description, it has to have a purpose. Don’t describe for the sake of it, just to paint a setting. Always have a second purpose. As I said in my post Been There, use brief, targeted description to create atmosphere, to mirror emotion, to illuminate character or advance plot.
So let’s have another crack at the sample paragraph:
Alice curled her legs under her and lowered herself to the lush grass as close to Robbie as she could manage without startling him and breathed in the sweet smell of crushed wildflowers. Robbie closed his eyes and settled back against the ancient oak, folding his farmer-tanned arms behind his head. She watched two dragonflies flit in a tangled dance near Robbie’s red face—whether from the summer heat or embarrassment, she couldn’t tell. She hoped it was the latter. What now? Should she say something? But what? Above the chattering starlings seemed to egg her on. She reached into the picnic basket, swallowed hard and said in a voice she barely recognized as her own, “Want a bite of my apple?”
Have a go yourself. How else could this paragraph be written? Paste your version in the comments below.