Hello and welcome back to Wawa Wednesday, more properly known as Writing Advice with Alex, week two edition!
Anyway, this week I thought I’d tackle the dangerous dramatic darling of writing world: purple prose. *mood lighting comes on, there is a bongo in agony somewhere, you cannot find it, trust me I’ve looked*
A few years ago, I was working as an intern for a literary agent. This was really cool and I learned a lot before I queried (if you get the chance, definitely apply for these remote internships when they come up). The agent I was interning for also set up a private forum for us to discuss craft and therefore help us identify promising queries faster, and one of the very first topics we discussed was purple prose. So, in keeping with that fine tradition, it will also be one of my inaugural topics.
Purple prose is, most generally, an overblown or overdramatic description of something. It can be a little easy to get trigger-happy here and say that any long description is purple, when this isn’t necessarily accurate– purple prose is more like, you’re trying so hard for an effect you don’t realize when you’ve achieved it and when you’re running the poor metaphor or whatever into the ground.
(Aside: sometimes it’s tempting to say that writers from previous centuries have purple prose when they’re describing scenery for pages or farming techniques or hats, etc. It’s more like, the audience’s tolerance for description has just shifted to preferring smaller, pithier details than a full-blown dissertation on Russian farm culture or cetalogy, interesting though both of those things are.
That’s more to do with knowing your audience though, which we’ll cover sometime in the near future here. Back to actual purple prose. *bongos out* )
My goal when writing descriptions is to always either talk about a new thing or some new feature of an old thing.
If I’m just saying the same thing as the last sentence over and over, chances are that I’m just searching for the best way to say a single thing versus actually describing multiple parts of a thing and adding depth. (Sorry this is so vague, I’m trying to make this apply to as many situations as possible.)
Let’s have an example.
Meillin’s gaze drifted to the clocktower. His eyes were twin lavender orbs, lilac spheres glinting like daggers in darkness. This was a killing gaze, the same he trained on assailants, almost as though he wished to murder time itself. He smirked.
What doesn’t work here ?
- The orbs. Okay, this is a personal bias, mostly because I read and wrote fanfic as a Youth™️, and back then one did not suffer the word “orbs” to be used for eyes. Same deal with purple eyes and heterochromia. Unless you had a cool and new take on it, it just made you look like an amateur. Maybe it’s different now; maybe you have a cool use for it, fine, go for it. I’m never using it, ever, because it makes me feel dumb and I think when you write you need to feel awesome. Anyway and more importantly,
- The repetition. Right? Like, man, do I super have to tell you about both the lavender orbs and the lilac spheres? No. This is you as a write subconsciously trying to find the best way of saying this. Pick your fave, or find another way to do it. Same with “killing gaze” and “the same he trained on assailants”– it’s saying the same thing about his eyes, aka that he can look like a Real Bad Dude when he’s being attacked.
- The not-so-subtle metaphor. Murdering time! Well, gosh, I wonder what this guy’s personal conflict is going to be about.
- The lack of action. Okay, granted, sometimes you’re going to have to slow stuff down to get some good details in, but if you’re just having our guy pause and look sadly at this clocktower so you can describe his eyeballs, rethink. Your prose should be pulling at least twice its weight almost all the time. That is: you should always be looking to accomplish multiple things at once with any sentence/paragraph/chapter.
Okay, so what’s the root cause of purple prose? If we can see what some exemplars of it are, can we go for the jugular and identify the root cause? *koolaid man voice* Oh yeah.
You’re not trusting the reader.
The reason why people repeat stuff over and over is because they don’t think you’re listening. Same deal here: the writer is repeating the eyeball nonsense because they’re secretly worried that the audience is going to miss the fact that this guy has purple eyes. Same deal with the time thing. The writer risks being heavy-handed in order to assure that that metaphor is signed, sealed, and delivered.
And the thing is that your reader is usually going to be paying enough attention that this stuff isn’t going to just slide right by them. When in doubt, my professional opinion is to err on the side of “my reader is smart.”
So, let’s try to rescue this thing.
The clocktower struck midnight and Meillin’s purple eyes glinted like daggers in the darkness. His gloved hand found purchase on the slate tiles of the tower and he hoisted himself up gracefully until he reached the massive clock face. Threading his body through the wrought iron numerals, he waited until it was 12:15 and then pulled himself up on the minute hand. He smirked. This would be the greatest heist in history.
Obviously this isn’t the only way to do it–maybe you thought the part about the killing gaze was better than the daggers in darkness, that’s also fine! The idea is you choose your favorite of the ways you’ve come up to describe a thing, and you go with that. You have extra space to add more stuff: look at all the junk I added about what he’s doing. Instead of just getting a picture of his eyes and whatever, we see him interacting with the environment and sort of have to augur his goals more from there.
- Choose a character or a setting of yours. Write a paragraph (let’s say 4-5 sentences, more if the spirit moves you) describing one of their features. Think about describing different aspects of that feature with each sentence. For example, here’s mine:
The flat was really just the attic of a coffeeshop, and countless roasts from the store below always made you feel awake when you entered it. The only way up was a trapdoor that always got stuck in the up position that needed to be yanked, firmly but not roughly, for it to open. On the back wall, a modest bed was pushed up by the room’s one window, and along the sides were various discarded shop ephemera: old houseplant, bags of beans, tools for fixing the faulty wiring, and several dead siphons. An ancient cathode ray tube television took up most of the space on the single table, and the threadbare sofa was covered in dust.
(Yes, I’m obsessing about Persona 5’s protagonist’s awesome room, but that’s beside the point.)
As always, feel free to post your attempts in the comments– I love reading them.