What is Purple Prose? Definition, Examples and How To Avoid It

What is Purple Prose?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines purple prose as “prose that is too elaborate or ornate.”

Wikipedia defines it as “text that is so extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw excessive attention to itself.”

Strunk’s Elements of Style defines purple prose as “Writing that is hard to digest, generally unwholesome, and sometimes nauseating.”

I define purple prose as over-describing something using stupid, silly words just for the sake of trying to be fancy.

Why is it Called Purple Prose?

Purple prose is actually named after a quote by the famous Roman poet Horace (65-8 BCE). In about 19 BCE he wrote a poem titled “Ars Poetica.”

In it he warned to stay away from “flashy purple patches.” And by that he meant flashy patches or passages of writing.

Horace compared this type of writing to the practice of sewing purple patches onto your clothing. This was a common way to show off your pretentious wealth in Roman times.

Purple dye was extremely expensive and quite rare. So by sewing patches of it onto your clothing you were showing off that you had the financial means to pay for it.

Classy (not).

Why is Purple Prose a Problem?

The problem with purple prose is that it distracts the reader and draws attention to itself. It breaks the reader’s suspension of disbelief.

One moment they’re off daydreaming in your imaginary world. Then the next they trip over one of your purple patches and they’re back in reality.

Purple prose is notorious for using too many adjectives and overly fanciful metaphors. It’s excessive description.

By using so many big, uncommon words you overload the imagination and comprehension regions of the reader’s brain.

The challenge in writing description is knowing when enough is enough.

Since you have unlimited space to write, some people overdo and describe things that don’t need it.

You could take five paragraphs to describe how messy a character’s apartment is. Or you could call it a “rotting pig sty.”

The problem with purple prose is that it gets in the way of what you’re trying to say. It interrupts the flow of your story and says “Look at me! See all the fancy words I can use?”

This pulls the reader out of the story, and back into reality. Not good.

What Causes Purple Prose?

Purple prose is usually caused due to a lack of confidence in the person’s writing ability.

Or an actual lack of skill. Or both.

A writer may look over a passage they have written and realize it’s missing something. Or it could be a little dull and boring.

The proper fix would be to add something interesting to the plot or show characterization.

But if the writer doesn’t know to do this, or doesn’t know how to do it, they’ll often focus on beefing up the language instead.

And this is often done by increasing up the syllable and word count.

This too is not good.

Purple prose also happens when writers get caught up being too poetic or lyrical with their writing.

Sometimes you get lost in the moment describing something and overdo it.

This is why it’s important to revise your work and use an editor. They’ll catch purple prose and help you correct it.

How Do You Fix Purple Prose?

You can fix purple prose by learning to spot it, analyze it and rephrase it. Simplify, clarify and keep your story moving.

“A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences for the same reason a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

When reading over a passage you’ve written, see if you used too much description or flowery language. Then try to cut it back a little and focus on what’s important.

For example, let’s say two characters are having a conversation and one of them sets their cup down on the table.

The most important of this action is how he set the cup on the table. That action hints at the character’s thoughts or emotions.

If he slams the cup down on the table, he’s angry. If he gently sets it down, he’s calm. If his hand is shaking while he sets it down, he’s scared.

That’s the part worth describing. But if you start going into agonizing detail about the type of cup he’s drinking out of, the color of the straw, etc. you’re heading into purple prose territory.

How Do You Avoid Purple Prose?

There are two main ways to avoid writing purple prose:

1) Don’t overdo the description
2) Put the story first

Don’t use uncommon or extravagant descriptive words. Use the thesaurus sparingly.

Write in your own words, or the character’s words. Not somebody else’s.

If your reader has to whip out a dictionary to understand your writing, you’ve got a problem.

Use metaphors and similes only when necessary. They force the reader to imagine two things to describe one action. Often a strong verb would do a better job.

Many metaphors and similes in a single passage will make readers disoriented and confused. It’s too much to keep up with.

Always focus on the story first. The characters. Their actions. Their motivations. The plot. The suspense. The drama. The conflict.

Try to communicate that as simply as possible. If you do, the language won’t need much sprucing up to make your writing a hit.

Remember that it’s what the characters do and say, not so much how they say and do it.

What is Beige Prose? Should I Avoid It?

Beige prose is the opposite of purple prose. It’s writing that has brief descriptions, simple sentence structures, plain words, and few figures of speech. It’s non-imaginative and gets straight to the point.

You see a lot of beige prose in screenwriting. In a script writing space is extremely limited, so there’s no room for flowery language.

Much of Ernest Hemingway’s writing is considered beige prose. He is known for his blunt and simple style of writing. Take the passage below:

Beige Prose Example

“In the morning I walked down the Boulevard to the rue Soufflot for coffee and brioche. It was a fine morning. The horse-chestnut trees in the Luxembourg gardens were in bloom. There was the pleasant early-morning feeling of a hot day. I read the papers with the coffee and then smoked a cigarette. The flower-women were coming up from the market and arranging their daily stock. Students went by going up to the law school, or down to the Sorbonne. The Boulevard was busy with trams and people going to work.”

- Ernest Hemingway

Quite literal. But succinct. And effective. Here’s another one from him:

“They wrote in the old days that it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country. But in modern war there is nothing sweet nor fitting in your dying. You will die like a dog for no good reason.”

- Ernest Hemingway

Point taken. No elaborate or glorified descriptions of death here. Dying like a dog was all that needed to be said.

As a general suggestion, I recommend you outline your prose in beige and color the prose in purple.

Use beige prose to communicate the action. Then fill in with purple prose in a few select locations to bring the description to life.

But don’t go overboard. Use adjectives, similes and metaphors only where it would help with the description. That way it won’t turn purple.

Purple Prose Examples

Below are some examples of purple prose. I have also included the reading grade level to show how hard the passages are to understand.

Here’s the important thing to understand about reading grade levels: It’s not about education. It’s about ease of comprehension.

Low grade level writing is not “talking down” to educated readers or treating them like children. It’s about making your writing easier for them to understand.

Hemingway is one of the greats, and I’ll include some of his writing too so you can see the difference.

Purple Prose Example #1

“He spoke to her but all she heard was music, and his scent filler her head like a wineskin. Her nerves resonated in symphony and her body swayed and turned with his orbits, like a compass following a magnet. Her mouth and tongue were as dry as flannel, they burned like a furnace, yet her body was beaded with sweat like a glass of cold wine. The beads coalesced and ran down her arms and sides, down the groove of her spine, funneled between her breasts, in rivulets that tickled like the lick of a hundred tiny tongues. Sequins of perspiration ringed her lips, and her tongue lapped at the salty fluid.”

- Silk and Steel by Ron Miller

Estimated reading grade level: 9

Five sentences, six similes. Good god my dear friend that’s overdoing it.

Purple Prose Example #2

“It did not seem right to the celebrated detective that he should be dying in such a clean and sterile room on such a bright January day. He had lived his life in the humid hear of the narrow Hong Kong streets, wet with the warmth of the constant crowds. He yearned for the smell and the feel of it all once again: the acidic, polluted heart notes, black particles of exhaust spewing constantly from engines; the resinous, mossy head notes, that solid wave of damp air that crashed into you when you stepped outside; and the final, swarming, oppressive base notes, of congestion and people and industry.”

- Anonymous

Estimated reading grade level: 14

The average sentence for this paragraph is 36 words!

Research shows that when average sentence length is 14 words, readers understand more than 90% of what they’re reading. At 43 words, comprehension drops to less than 10%.

Studies also show that sentences of 11 words are easy to read, while those of 21 words are fairly difficult. At 25 words, sentences become difficult, and 29 words or longer, very difficult.

Purple Prose Example #3

“Longingly looking at the water bound pisces flying through the ethereal mists of the shattered molecules crashing from the precipice above, feeling the urgent call of tartar sauce while desiring the yumminess of the savory softness entering its eager digestive track, the Purple Bear eagerly awaits Mother Nature’s ample Omega 3 laden bounty.”

- Anonymous

Estimated reading grade level: 17!

While written as a joke, this passage shows how bad you can overdo it with description. Hopefully you learn something from it.

And now Hemingway’s passages from above:

Example of Good Prose

“In the morning I walked down the Boulevard to the rue Soufflot for coffee and brioche. It was a fine morning. The horse-chestnut trees in the Luxembourg gardens were in bloom. There was the pleasant early-morning feeling of a hot day. I read the papers with the coffee and then smoked a cigarette. The flower-women were coming up from the market and arranging their daily stock. Students went by going up to the law school, or down to the Sorbonne. The Boulevard was busy with trams and people going to work.”

- Earnest Hemingway

Estimated reading grade level: 6

Need I say more? 😉

1 thought on “What is Purple Prose? Definition, Examples and How To Avoid It”

  1. Dear Mr. Blackwell,

    Are you kidding that you would help me improve my writing? It is non-fiction and a genealogy. Our book is writing about the work or jobs people in our family had. I am sticking to story line. However most people are not sure beyond a title what their grandparents did. Not knowing what they did and not having written down the stories, it is hard to recreate (true) stories. Could I send you my worst one and see what you think? Story length varies from a page to . . . embarrassingly high. My three biggest problems are not having a plan (outlining), over-use of long quotations, and no conclusion (I stop).

    Polly LYNN, pkljdl@gmail.com


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