What is Purple Prose? Definition & Discussion (Guest Post)

When Ariana Paxton approached me to write a guest post on HWTWAGN.com, we agreed on the subject and title pretty quickly – ‘What Is Purple Prose?’

No doubt due to my past education (and biases, attitudes and experiences!) I naturally assumed the article would explain that PP was bad, bad, bad, but this is not the case. Rather than reject this alternative point of view, I decided to post it in its entirety, as it flies against the winds of accepted creative writing practice, at least for writers of fiction.

In prose, the two extremes are the Purple variety with its long sentences and lavishly descriptive passages, and the style of Hemingway, which is economical with words and punchy in style, expressing the story and even dialogue in short sentences. For most of us, the most comfortable way of writing is somewhere between the two, but with a definite lean towards frugality.

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Purple Prose Example (Yes, its one of mine!)

Example Of Purple ProseI wrote a draft of a first tentative novel many years ago. It never surfaced into the public domain, a fact I am now dearly grateful for! The style was ‘purplish’, which is par for the course when starting out. Sentences such as the one below were common throughout the manuscript:

“The gold incisor of the mustachio’d bandit glinted seductively in the opalescent moonlight as his caballeros waited in the bushes, waiting for the next hapless traveller to stumble across their planned ambush.”

Whew! Just tires you out reading it doesn’t it? I don’t speak in this way, so why on Earth should I write in this style? The answer is that new writers don’t know how to write, almost by definition. I made the common mistake thinking that a writer must impress by showing knowledge of an extensive vocabulary and creating rambling sentences in the hope of sounding somehow ‘literary’. In fact, the opposite is true (mostly!)

What Is Prose, When It’s Not Purple?

Prose is a lot like normal speech and should be used to tell a story in such a way that the reader is given all the information need to follow and enjoy the story. Of course, the style, or the way we manipulate the words we use are important, and this develops with time as we find our own particular voice. It isn’t necessary to regurgitate the dictionary every time we put pen to paper.

A tried and trusted way to practice economy in storytelling is to write short stories of around 4000-5000 words. They say that every word of a novel counts; in a short story each word is gold, simple because there are so few of them. Telling a story and entertaining readers with a few thousand words really is an art form in itself and is good training for budding novel authors.

baby shoes purple prose what is itErnest Hemingway was a master of the short story. One day he was asked to write a story in as few words as possible:

“For Sale: Newborn baby shoes. Unworn.”


What Is Purple Prose? Guest Post by Ariana Paxton

If you are an experienced writer, you must have come across it. But if you are not, you must be curious to know what it is and the role played by it. Purple Prose is an element in literary criticism. The primary objective of it is to prose the text in a flowery, ornate and an extravagant manner, in order to break the flow. As a result, it has got the ability to attract massive attraction towards itself.

Purple Prose is highlighted with the excessive use of metaphors, adverbs and adjectives. There are instances when the writers come up with the decision to limit Purple Prose to specific passages of writing. These passages are known as purple passages. They stand out from the rest of the passages – either love ’em or hate ’em.

Purple Prose is often criticized by people for diluting the meaning an author is trying to highlight throughout the text. That’s because a writer is tempted to overuse fanciful and melodramatic descriptions, which is Purple Prose by definition. Moreover, there aren’t any specific rules to follow when using Purple Prose. Therefore, adding them into a passage is completely a personal decision of a writer. If the writer feels like adding them in a specific passage, he will be able to go ahead and do it.

What Is Purpose Prose In Fiction?

Characters and settings don’t come to the scene by themselves. You must bring them into the scene, so that you are allowing the readers to see. That’s where Purple Prose comes into play. It can provide an author with the opportunity to get rid of unnecessary redundancies. Hence, the piece of writing can be made more meaningful for the readers.

To avoid Purple Prose, authors are encouraged to be careful with similes, metaphors and figurative language that they use. Usually, there isn’t a need to go ahead and become figurative. A well employed adjective or a verb will be able to create the picture in the minds of readers within a short period of time. It will be a clear picture as well.

Authors usually enjoy writing because they can come across emotive and impressive turns of phrases. If you come across such phrases, you shouldn’t get rid of them completely. You just need to think twice and make sure whether they will fit in perfectly well or not. In the meantime, you will have to think about incorporating figurative language. This can make the piece of writing more attractive.

Writers have to be descriptive with their fiction, but it doesn’t mean an author should get into the microscopic level while writing. Giving a glimpse of detail will be more than enough to create a good impression within the minds of the readers. Then the readers will be able to go ahead and draw the paintings on their own minds. This can contribute towards an effective piece of writing at the end of the day.


Writing Prose For The Reader, Not The Author

When you are writing something, you will need to get into the shoes of your audience. In fact, every single author who dreams about success in the future should pay special attention towards this fact. As an author, you must be equipped with an extensive vocabulary. But will this work for your audience? You need to think about it before you use.

Otherwise, you will end up with something that doesn’t fit perfectly well along with your audience. To stay on the safe side, it is better if you can proceed with a simple approach. This will help you to describe the pieces of writing effectively, so that you don’t confuse the reader.

If you are an author, you should also keep in mind that it is never a good idea to hang up on drafting. Your first draft will be much different from the final version.

At the end of compiling the first draft, you will have to think about getting out the story that you want to tell to the readers. It should be written in a solid form as much as possible.

It is better if you can focus only on this during the process of creating your initial draft. Then you will be able to go ahead and refine the things from that moment onward.

Any author who does it will be able to end up with effective results at the end of the day. That’s it about Purple Prose. It is up to you to deep dive and play around with it, so that you will be able to make your pieces of writing more effective.

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The Place Of Purple Prose

Ariana raises some interesting points in her guest post, and as creative writers, we should not reject, but reflect. When deciding for yourself what constitutes PP in your own writing, ask yourself questions:

  • Do your adjectives help to tell the story, or improve its flow?
  • Does any passage distract the reader from the story for no apparent reason?
  • Are you really writing for the reader or grandstanding your literary prowess?
  • If you remove some flowery adjectives, do the sentences have the same meaning?

The last word (as usual) must go to a prospective publisher, and before that, the editor. It’s a sobering thought to realize that a new author can expect to lose between 15-20% of his words during the editing process. It’s also worth noting that the majority of the deletions will be redundant or overused words, adverbs and adjectives – the very core of Purple Prose.



4 Replies to “What is Purple Prose? Definition & Discussion (Guest Post)”

  1. This article was incredibly helpful in defining something I have often noticed, yet never had a definitive term for. I see this style often as a way for writers to, like the article mentioned, impress their readers. Yet, because of the excessive amount of adjectives, they end up losing all meaning. It makes me realize how I sometimes fall into this pattern when I get incredibly involved into my own writing.

  2. Poppy Ledbetter says:

    Many a book I’ve just stopped reading because of this issue; purple prose is a killer for me. reminds me of an old style of historical writing, when battles were described down to the finest detail. In those days, it wasn’t considered bad prose at all. with no movies or photos, all the people had were tapestries and writing.

    i do feel that some writers go over he top and try to be too clever. Purple prose is one way of showing you command of the language, and the secret desire of the writer is not to entertain, but show how much above the reader he is. the writer’s job is to get over ideas, not display his intelligence.

    1. Between you and me, I’ve done it – who hasn’t? (Don’t lie, you know who you are!) I also really, really don’t like it. Take a look at some of Steinbeck or Hemingway’s prose. Not a hint of purple prose anywhere, but it speaks to you. These are the goals to aim for: Easy, direct and simple prose that delivers the message in a powerful way without distractions. I know, I know – easily said. 😉

  3. James Berry says:

    Purple you, purple me … reminds me of an old radio show by Tony Hancock. he has a bunch of poets round and Sid James just takes the piss all the time. He eventually makes up a poem about nothing, absolute rubbish (not even purple prose, by popular definition) and delivers it to the group, who think he’s a genius! Purple you, purple me – genius.

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