How to Know If Your Prose Is Purple

On occasion, one finds oneself immersed in the literary throes of a piece of prose where there is very little in the way of advancement of the plot or development of the characters, but the pages are still filled with words. Since the esteemed author has allowed their writing to take a turn for the dry and dull, they gallantly attempt to overcompensate for the lack of stimulation by indulging in elaborate turns of phrase.

This is called purple prose. It is often supremely annoying.

purple prose

Photo by Christian Gonzalez

The Meaning of Purple Prose

The name “purple prose” comes from the Roman poet Horace, who compared this style of writing to patches of purple sewn onto clothes. Purple was a sign of wealth (and pretentiousness by extension), and so we now have the phrase to describe most writing in every romance novel ever.

As mentioned above (but more floridly), purple prose is basically when a writer hits a wall and has nothing interesting like plot or characterization to write about, so they instead decide to beef up the syllable count of their words and throw in a few pages of unnecessary description. When used straight, purple prose is frustrating as hell to read, because most readers are savvy enough to know when they’re being led on.

There are occasions when purple prose can be used for comic effect. In A Knight’s Tale, the character of Geoffrey Chaucer embodies this (and is hilarious), and it’s poked fun at in episodes of Friends and Community. The key to remember is that when you’re writing, don’t start randomly throwing in big words and overly descriptive phrases just for the sake of taking up pages. Readers will notice.

PRACTICE

The most classic example of purple prose is the line, “It was a dark and stormy night.” Using that line as inspiration, write for fifteen minutes entirely in purple prose. Create an elaborate detailed scene in which nothing happens. Post your work in the comments and take some time to see what your fellow writers came up with.

About Liz Bureman

Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.

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