Wednesday, April 27

I See Purple Prose

Being both a reader and a writer, I feel I have a different frame of mind when I'm reading a book than when I am writing one. When you are a writer, your outlook changes on writing, the books you read and on life. That doesn't mean that these things can’t sometimes be separate.

It's a problem because what someone writes might make them go, 'This is genius and beautiful prose!' but may not be something they would actually want to read if it wasn't their own work. You can write what you think is the most stunning description of a ladybird cupped inside a flower but it may not be the most attention-grabbing thing for the reader.

What am I talking about? Purple prose, of course! When writing becomes over-descriptive and flowery and the reader groans and starts to feel sleepy.

There is nothing wrong with description in fiction. When an author takes their time to bring you into the world of the story, it can be far more vivid. I like to feel immersed in a character's world but too much description can get a little tedious.

I am often struck by an image when I read a story. It isn't because the writer has taken all the time in the world to convey it but because they have written something that I have been able to visualise. The skill of the writer must work with the imagination of the reader to invoke a memorable moment.

That means letting go a little. You cannot keep a grasp on every little detail of a moment and then hand-feed it to your audience. A taste of something fantastic can explode in the reader's mind and stick with them. You need to be able to cut that prolonged prose into something that your reader isn't going to become glassy-eyed over, or cause them to skim for something solid.

Let me give you an example:

The ink swirled around her neck in spirals like the ocean was enveloping her and her head was still bobbing above the waves. The black water rippled down from the nape of her neck, encircling her throat and wrapping around her shoulders, encasing her in a monochromatic ocean. He wondered how far the waves ran down her body and what she must look like under the water, the blue and the black and the shimmering tan of her skin, the water a permanent fixture on her body.

That is a big block of text – a paragraph – that focuses only on this woman's tattoo. This is how I rewrote it:

Her neck was carved in black ink, the curl of the tide claiming her.

Cue dialogue or anything but more description about this woman's neck or other purple prose. The temptation to go on and on is there but it's just so...boring to read. It subtracts from the impact.

This is only one sentence and isn't refined but it is an improvement on the gush that came before it.

I am guilty of being drawn to purple prose when I am writing. It feels good to write these things and to detial exactly how I want a scene to play out, and what I want the reader to experience. The problem is that I over-explain for my own desires, and the result does not always make the sense I want it to. If I read that in a novel, my eyelids would start to droop.

There is an important moment when it comes to your own writing where you need to evaluate your description and target that purple prose. That moment is in rewrites. When you are rewriting, you need to think like a reader and how you would evaluate writing that isn't your own.

Need help? Just ask someone else to read through it and get their feedback. Remember, take criticism and be brutal with your purple prose.

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