Friday, June 9, 2017

Examining Styles – Purple Prose

For the next few blog posts, I’m going to be writing short posts about different styles and their strengths and witnesses.
They’re going to be short, because I don’t have a lot of time right now.
And they’re about style because style sells the novel. Sure, story is the most important thing in writing, but, but style pulls the reader in, or makes them put the book down.

Before Examination

Before I begin to examine today’s style, I’d like to note a few things: first off, it’s okay to ignore style sometimes. For instance, rough drafts are a great time to not give a crap about style. Rough drafts are about getting the story into words and out of your brain. Once it’s out, you can fiddle with it to your hearts content. No questions asked.
If you wait for the style to be perfect, you’re never going to get the story written.

In addition, it’s also okay to ignore style very late editing. When you’ve already gone through three or four drafts and you’re down to spelling errors and accidental name switches, style isn’t really important.

So when is style important?
Style is important in two places: conceptions and editing. In conception, style gives you the building blocks upon which you write your story. Knowing the basics of how you want to write your story gives you a baseline of how the prose comes out as your write. It allows you to unconsciously assume that style for your story.
In editing, style provides a key foundation for word choice, sentence structure, and prose flow. Depending on how your style works, some words and sentence styles may or may not be appropriate. Knowing what kind of style you want to write provides a structure around which you can build your prose.

Style One: Purple Prose

We’ve all heard of this one. For most of us, we heard it and then shudder.
No one likes purple prose.

Or do they?
Purple prose, in short, is prose that relies heavily on excessive description and hefty word choice. One of the most obvious examples that comes to my mind is The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Other examples such as A Tale of Two Cities, and other classics, could be considered purple prose at times.
You’ll notice that both of those book are famous books, and both are heralded as excellent (at least by many). And both have purple prose.

If we’re reluctant to think of purple prose as a good thing, why do we enjoy books that use it? And why should we, as writers, seriously consider using it as a style for our own books?

Purple Prose: The Cons

Before we get to the positives of purple prose, I want to discuss why we hate purple prose. Many people find The Scarlet Letter boring. My older sister and I have both read it, and she hated it. I thought it was kind of dry, but still well written.
Purple prose is boring to unengaged contemporary readers. Two hundred years ago, purple prose was all that people had to read, and so they enjoyed it. Most of the words used in purple prose are archaic, now. Modern readers prefer quick descriptions that paint a moving image, rather than in-depth descriptions that paint a portrait.
If done wrong, or done too heavy-handed, purple prose pulls the reader out of the story and causes them to disengage. That’s never a good thing.

Purple Prose is enjoyed by a select audience. I’m not saying that only a few people enjoy books with purple prose and that no one from any other demographic will like those books, but there is a niche market for purple prose styles. You’re going to pull in people who love to read for reading, but not really anyone else. Sure, others may still read your book, but it won’t be for the style. It will be for the plot or the characters, the prose will just be a nuisance to those readers.
But for the readers who love to read, your book will be a masterpiece the look back on fondly.

Purple Prose: The Pros

Why should you write using purple prose?
Purple prose allows the author to explore concepts deeply. Can you spend a chapter describing one character? With purple prose, I don’t see why not. Can you open your book with a description of a rose bush and describe it in such a way that literature experts spend decades trying to decide what the symbolism is? With purple prose, I don’t see why not.

Purple prose paints wonderful portraits. Some of my favorite descriptions come from heavy-handed books written in purple prose. With the freedom to describe whatever you want for however you want, you can paint scenes your readers will never forget.
Now, this isn’t to say you can just spend your whole book describing. Plot and characters and theme are still vital to a good book. However, purple prose allows you the freedom to describe things in ways other styles may not allow.

The Book and the Style

One must always consider the target audience and the genre when picking style.
For instance, purple prose is rarely found in books targeted at YA or younger. Almost always is it in adult fiction. In addition, most purple prose is found in historical fiction or contemporary fiction. Does this mean you can never write a fantasy for YA with purple prose? No, it does not. It does mean, however, that you have to be much, much more careful.
Those YA folks don’t take to kindly to an excessive number of words.

Purple prose can be a hard thing to master. Done right, however, it can paint pictures in the reader’s mind that they will not soon forget.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: there will be no blog post next week, since I will be at a writing conference the whole week and won’t have time to write a blog post (funny how that works). The week after, I’ll post about my experience, and then the week after that I’ll resume posting about styles.


  1. i had no idea what a purple prose was! this post was an interesting read!
    hope you have fun at your writing conference! :)

    1. purple prose is really an interesting concept, isn't it?

      I had so much fun, it was such a blessing. ^_^