The Problem of Purple Prose

We’ve all read it. At some point, we’ve probably all had a problem with it. “Purple prose” can loosely be defined as a description that is overly exuberant, flowery, and often with odd and unheard words — words seemingly pulled straight out of the dictionary. (Or maybe the author is simply smarter than you.) Extraneous myriads of inessential and counterproductive adjectives and adverbs amass themselves upon a single noun (or innumerable others) to create a superfluous conglomeration of sentences and words compressed simultaneously – otherwise known as a “run-on sentence.” (Did you see what I just did there? Haha. That was painful . . .)

So how to avoid purple prose? Readers want simple sentences, but that doesn’t mean they want bare sentences. Also, purple prose doesn’t always mean it has to be the atrocity of up above — although not often termed as exact “purple prose,” you just need to watch out for over-description as well.

Here are some examples —

Original sentence: The tree was old.

Purple prose: The gnarled oak’s branches were contorted and twisting, its bark wrinkled and thin like paper burnt to a crisp, with its root curling over the ground, tangling with the fallen leaves.

Over-descriptive: The tree’s leave had all fallen to the ground, and its branches looked lonely without them. The tree’s bark was wrinkled and pale. The sun shone down onto the ground, onto the tree’s long and twisting roots which spread through the ground in every which way.

Simple: The giant oak had been living for far too long; you could tell by the width of its trunk and the knots on its bark.

Too simple: The tree was gnarled and looked ancient.

First of all, a disclaimer: I am not that great at writing descriptions, and I just did these off the top of my head to give you a general idea. There are a lot of different variations of all of these. Some purple prose use words that are rarely ever heard in daily conversation (or any conversation, for that matter), and you’re just like, “Where in the world did you get that word?”

But anyway, let’s do a quick analysis of these sentences. First of all, you’ll notice that our over-descriptive sentence is slightly longer than our purple prose one. However, it’s more simple in its description . . . it just runs on for too long (unless the tree is really important, do we need to know that much about it?).

With our purple prose sentence, you find a run-on sentence with a lot of adjectives — and look at this: “gnarled,” “contorted,” “twisting,” “curling,” “tangling”? Those all have similar meanings, don’t they? Be careful of that, too, when you’re writing. Be sure to choose the strongest word for your piece, according to the theme/mood/tone of your story. You might notice that I also chose to include a simile (don’t mind my simile; I’m no good at them) — sometimes, people use a lot of figurative language in purple prose . . . and it’s just too much. Don’t get me wrong: metaphors, similes, etc. can be great in stories. However, use them wisely. Too much of anything can be bad, right?

Too simple should be obvious. We have a very generic description that doesn’t give us much more than our original sentence.

With our simple sentence, I kept it fairly short, but specific. Always be specific. Notice that in our original sentence, it was just “tree,” but then in some of the other sentences, I made it more specific and referred to it as an oak. Doesn’t that give you a clearer image? Rather than just talking about your characters eating breakfast, why not choose waffles for them? How about some toast and eggs? I began with “giant oak,” which starts off sounding too simple but then I expanded the image by implying that the width of its bark was quite wide. This description also has a bit of personality to it. “The giant oak had been living for far too long” — that’s a character’s view. If your character is a nature-lover, then they probably wouldn’t think that. Maybe they’d describe the tree in a more majestic way, in awe of its size. (I probably wrote this description in the eyes of a snarky teenager since that’s usually what my protagonist is.)

So that’s kind of the difference between (my) four types of descriptions. And now that we’ve gotten a better hold on that, let’s get back to getting rid of purple prose.

There’s this thing that floats around that says you shouldn’t use a thesaurus. (By the way, I used a thesaurus to come up with that purple prose horror up above. But ignore that.) I, however, believe that it’s entirely up to you. Thesauruses can be really helpful if you know how to use one.

Remember what I said about choosing the strongest word for your story? We’re going back to that. If/when you write purple prose, your story is probably overloaded with a bunch of unnecessary words. Which means you need to downsize. A lot. First of all, cut up the sentences. If you have a run-on sentence, split it up into smaller ones. Don’t make them all the same size, because then you’re just going to sound stiff. Vary the pattern a bit. After that, you’re going to want to review your sentence and cut out any extraneous words you see. Anything that just screams “too much! You don’t need me!”, get rid of it. When you have a healthy number of descriptive words left, you can start strengthening them. For example, “beautiful” is a very plain word. Try “stunning” or “drop-dead gorgeous,” if you will. But “beautiful” itself doesn’t give me much to go on. Same goes for generic words like “sad,” “happy,” “angry” — all words used to describe characters’ emotions. But, you know, I’ve felt sad a lot before. I’ve felt anguished and anxious and depressed and gloomy and miserable and distressed (and yeah, I used a thesaurus). Those words are specific and they get to the point. Use them. Choose the words that fit your story, the words that enhance the atmosphere of your setting, the words that will make your reader fall into your book’s world, and never want to leave.

Eradicating purple prose really doesn’t have a process. These are just simple tips of mine. Honestly, if I have a description problem, it’s probably that I leave it out too much of the time. But purple prose does happen, and I’m sure I have some passages that need reviewing.

Have you ever struggled with purple prose? When faced with it, how do you get rid of it? What other types of description do you excel at or have problems with?

I hope you and all your writing projects are doing well. Thanks for reading.

~ J. Dominique