The Danger of Beige Prose, Purple Prose’s Less Colorful Twin

by Liz Bureman | 44 comments

We discussed purple prose a few weeks ago, and as Newton's Third Law of Motion states, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Or something like that; my college Practical Physics class involved making ice cream with liquid nitrogen. And the equal and opposite reaction to purple prose is beige prose.

beige prose

Photo by Edward Musiak

Beige prose has its advantages. It is direct, comprised of brief descriptions and terse sentences. It is important to note that brevity does not make a sentence beige prose. It is beige because it's to the point and lacking descriptors.

Authors who are known for their beige prose include Asimov and Hemingway, but more contemporary examples include the Hunger Games series, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, which is written from the perspective of an autistic teenager.

While beige prose is clear and effective, it's important to note that it can sometimes inhibit the flow of text. Due to its brief nature, beige prose generally does not allow for any clauses, similes, or metaphors. Adding these pieces to a sentence can enhance the readability of the work, and maintain the flow and interest of the words on the page. As with purple prose, it's important to remember that moderation is key.

What do you prefer, purple prose or beige prose? 

PRACTICE

Write for fifteen minutes about someone experiencing the post-Valentine's Day slump/relief/tension. Incorporate as much beige prose as you can. Post your practice in the comments and leave notes for your fellow writers.

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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.

44 Comments

  1. Tyler

    I think I lean much more to the beige side, but that may be because I’m a big fan of THG (don’t judge me haha) but is it okay to use both in the same book or is it better to be consistent?

    Reply
  2. Paul

    Valentine’s.

    It’s over. Flowers, chocolate, a kiss, a card.

    The flowers wilt, the chocolate, gone. Another year for another kiss? The card
    already sits on the trash heap.

    The build-up, the hype, the cost. ‘Twenty-four stems for how much? Jesus H.’ Billfold emptied of Jacksons. So much for dinner out.

    Glean romance from chicken and guacamole wrap. Stub of candle lit. No full moon splendor tonight.

    Garish glow of TV. Sit side by side, silent. Watch utter trash. Late, time for bed. Was it Cupid’s day? Hard to believe.

    Extinguished candle. Extinguished TV. Extinguished love.

    Romance; overrated.

    Reply
    • Eva Rose

      It’s powerful by being so direct. Hard to be succinct about emotions but you did it. “No full moon splendor tonight.” Like it.

    • Juliana Austen

      My favourite line too!

    • Audrey Chin

      So good Paul!

  3. alba17

    She’d said no. He was in shock. All that prep, for nothing.
    It hurt. He’d thought she loved him.

    He had it all planned out. He picked out the restaurant
    months ago. As for the ring, he researched it thoroughly and spent weeks
    checking out all the options before deciding on the perfect one for Julie.
    She’d love it, of that he was certain.

    In the end he didn’t even show it to her. He was too ashamed
    and embarrassed after what she said. He’d never forget the look on her face,
    the unmistakable wince of horror when he’d asked her to marry him.

    Valentine’s Day was supposed to about eternal love, cherubs
    and Cupid and all that and it had all just become a disaster.

    He’d never get over it. At least that was how it felt right
    now. Ben said it would feel better eventually but he didn’t think it would. It
    was too raw. He hadn’t wanted to tell anyone, but Ben could see something was
    wrong when he got home and had immediately ferreted out the truth between
    Andy’s sniffling. Yeah, he’d even cried.

    The prospect of the sympathy boys’ night out that Ben was
    planning for later didn’t make him feel any better. He hated the idea of his
    friends looking at him with pity, thinking he was such a loser not to know how
    Julie really felt about him. Here he was planning their whole life together, imagining babies and a split-level in the suburbs, while she saw him as a fun distraction, nothing more.

    God, it made him sick. He didn’t think he could ever speak
    to her again, not after that.

    But she was his boss. He couldn’t avoid her forever. He wasn’t about to quit either. It was his dream job and he loved it. That was what made it even worse; he’d thought they were the ideal team, both at work and in their free time.

    Apparently not. God damn it.

    “Oh, hi, Julie.” She appeared in the doorway of his office. His heart rapped in his chest and he felt sweaty all of a sudden.

    “Hi.” She had a funny look on her face.”Listen, I think I might have been a little harsh last night.”

    Andy realized the look was embarrassment. Oh.

    “Can we press rewind on this whole thing?” She bit her lip. “I…I want to talk about it some more, what you asked me. You
    know.”

    What?

    “Let’s get a drink after work,” she continued.

    “Okay.” The word was out before he had a chance to think. He’d call Ben to cancel. It wouldn’t be a problem. Part of him didn’t want to drag
    this out any longer. But another part dared to hope she didn’t really feel the
    way she’d indicated last night.

    Maybe there were babies and a split-level in the picture
    after all.

    Reply
    • Juliana Austen

      There is a lot going on here – under that deceptively simple prose. Nice work.

    • Colby Davidson

      Very gripping. I’ve been told I’m a purple proser myself, but this beige prose is very good in my opinion. I’d place it on the level of Debbie Macomber for quality and plot and story and all that. Thanks!

  4. alba17

    Purple vs. beige: I’ve long had a tendency to be purple because I thought fancy phrases and descriptions were the mark of good writing. I’m trying to get over it. So this is a good exercise. But I do enjoy interesting similes and metaphors in other people’s writing, so I guess I prefer something in the middle.

    Reply
  5. Eyrline

    It was the day after Valentine’s day. The night before, we had gone to an organ concert, his passion, and he felt fine. He even went on stage to meet the artist.

    We had been home about an hour when he felt hot. His temperature was 104, high for someone who is seldom ill. He said to wait until morning before seeing a doctor. About 5 hours later, he fell out of bed trying to get up. It took all the strength my grandson had to lift him to the bed. His temperature was 105 and rising. I knew something had to be done immediately. I called 911 for an ambulance.

    The EMT said he wouldn’t give consent to take him. I had them take his temperature and it was still rising. They kept asking him if he wanted to go to the hospital and he didn’t respond. It took about thirty minutes to convince them I couldn’t care for him and that he was seriously ill.

    When he arrived at the hospital, he was septic, with a blood infection invading his body. Doctors kept calling to give me reports, as I was still too ill from pneumonia to go with him to the hospital. I still didn’t realize the severity of his illness. That evening, a nurse from ICU called to say he was “stable, but not out of the woods.” She also asked for the name of our pastor. That gave me a clue that he was critical.

    Two days later, after receiving reports frequently, a friend took me to the hospital to see him. He had just awakened from a coma and was confused. He didn’t remember anything past driving home from the concert. The doctor said if he had be.en fifteen minutes later getting to the ER he wouldn’t have survived. He had several infections, all rated “fatal.”

    Postscript: I’m not sure what is purple or beige prose. Fifteen minutes has elapsed and I’ve written what came to mind.

    Reply
  6. CDurbin

    [Adam popped the cork and drank alone. He hoped the booze would be like twine. That it would keep him from unraveling. A grown man could only mope so much.

    The bottle hissed and ran over. The fancy tablecloth drank in the excess. It had been her choice. Something to liven up the kitchen, she’d said. Adam let it drown. There was no one left to impress.

    Had that been his mistake? Had he been trying too hard? All the dinners and fine wines. The mountains of clothes and the new car. Wasted.

    There was a saying about the definition of insanity. Trying the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Adam had the opposite problem. He had done everything. Given her everything his wealth could afford. But the result was the same. It was always the same. With Anna, and with all the girls before her.

    Only Anna had chosen Valentine’s day. That took a deliberate sort of meanness.

    Adam took a swig straight from the bottle.

    Someone for everyone, they said. Plenty of fish in the sea.

    Then why did he feel like a minnow swimming with sharks?]

    Not sure if this is beige enough, but it was fun to try 🙂

    Reply
    • Juliana Austen

      I don’t know if the thing with the twine and the “unravelling” is beige but I really like it!

  7. NewbieWriter

    The obese woman sat alone at the huge table. It was 7:00PM sharp and her life was about to begin. Again. Empty daubers were lined up precisely in front of her. Stuffed animals sat next to the daubers. She spent minutes sorting and placing them on the table and would know shortly if the order was correct. The bear holding a heart caught her eye. It was her fourth Valentine’s gift to herself. She decided years earlier she hated men. And women. Still, she felt a small pang of loneliness until the only words that mattered were announced:

    O-72

    Lifting her lucky dauber, she scanned the cards. Two contained the number 72 and she placed a blue circle on each square.

    She lost that game. In the moments before the next round, she rearranged the animals. She lost the following game. Shaking her head, she moved the animals again. The daubers would remain untouched; their order was effective, giving her two wins in the past month.

    During the next game, she scowled at an adjacent table. The group of young people was being extremely noisy. They didn’t get it. Bingo wasn’t something to take lightly. It was a way of life. It was the only way she was able to pay rent last month.

    A guy at the table caught her look and stared back. This was her domain and she wouldn’t back down. She placed a finger to her lips. The man flipped her off. She shook her head then jolted as the announcer called the next number. Panting, she quickly blotted the number and turned her scowl to the announcer. She had been coming five times a week for six years and deserved a courtesy pause.

    The rude man at the next table stood up and she tried to watch out of the corner of her eye. But she had tunnel vision and had to face him. He approached her space and tripped. His elbow smashed into the row of daubers. Twelve fell on the table, six ended up on the floor. The woman gasped. The man muttered a fake apology but smiled the entire time. Frantically, she tried playing the game while collecting daubers.

    It was hopeless. She would never get the plastic containers in place before the game ended. Her fat fingers kept dropping them. She almost missed two more numbers.

    Then she noticed it. In the frenzy of the moment, it had escaped her. She screamed “BINGO!”. It was the only time she would allow herself to yell; she didn’t want to affect the mojo.

    After the man gave her an envelope containing three hundred dollars, she stared at the mess on her table. Two daubers still lay on the floor. She wouldn’t touch them for the rest of the night. Reaching into her purse, she snatched the old Nokia phone and took a picture. Staring at the image, she hoped she could recreate the scene the following night.

    Reply
    • Audrey Chin

      This one’s sadly evocative Newbie. Catches the mood very well.

    • Robyn Rochelle E.

      I agree with Audrey, so sad. So beige. Well done.

  8. Tomdub

    They ate their salad in silence. The oil and vinegar sat untouched between them. She hoped for romance. He hoped for a good dinner and quick sex.

    She had planned weeks in advance. It was time to shake up the old oil and vinegar. After salad, she stood up from the table, walked over to the stereo and turned on Ravel’s Bolero. She turned to him and smiled. He looked at his watch. While he finished off her salad, she swayed to the music.

    “Come dance with me,” she beckoned.

    “Is there more salad?” he asked.

    “No, dear,” she answered. “On to the next course.” She winked.

    “You promised me a steak,” he said.

    “Patience, dear.”

    “You know steak isn’t good served cold,” he reminded her.

    She stopped dancing and disappeared to the kitchen. She brought out the steak. For color she added a red spiced apple ring and fresh sprig of parsley.

    “What the hell is this?” he asked.

    “It’s just for color, dear. You don’t have to eat it.”

    As the music continued to play softly in the background, she picked up a spiral notebook and cleared her throat.

    “For Valentine’s day, I wrote you a poem,” she blushed. But he didn’t notice. He had moved to the den to eat in front of the TV.

    During a commercial, he asked for dessert. She didn’t answer.

    Reply
    • Eva Rose

      This is so sad! Beige to perfection.

    • Audrey Chin

      Beige yet full of emotion. So much happening underneath. It’s wonderful Tom.

    • Tomdub

      Thanks, Audrey. I guess I have a lot of beige in me.

    • Giulia Esposito

      Fool doesn’t know how to take a hint, does he 😉 Good practice!

    • Jeff Ellis

      Very well done. You expressed a great deal of content without too much fluff. I think just a splash of purple here and you would have an excellent all-around practice. As beige was the goal, I think you succeeded beautifully!

    • Tomdub

      Thanks, Jeff. My first thought was to alternate from purple to beige, using purple prose in describing the wife and beige for the husband. But then I feared getting an F on my practice and went all beige. 🙂

    • Steve Stretton

      So sparse and stark. The emptiness she must have experienced is just hinted at at the end.

    • Hope Mendola

      …the first few sentences pulled me in like whoa. And then the rest were just as good. Thanks for sharing!

  9. Audrey Chin

    The roses are blue
    The voilets are dead
    And so are you

    Reply
    • Juliana Austen

      Ouch!

    • Steve Stretton

      Lovely

    • Sono Bernaldo

      I feel so much hate. It’s amazing.

  10. Audrey Chin

    Hi Liz. Just posting a comment about everyone’s posts. It just seems to be that beige prose has more “pow” than purple. All the contributions were so good. It seems that when the words are stripped of everything, they are more emotionally powerful, especially when conveying despair. Maybe that’s why Hemingway and Asimove are good writers. My takeaway from this practice and everyone’s excellent examples is to write more beige prose.

    Reply
  11. Juliana Austen

    Beige prose seems a lot harder to pin down than purple!

    She had put the single rose into a glass. She did not own a vase. It was a dark red bud. He had given it to her with a flourish. But the evening did not go well. He drank too much. She got a taxi home.This morning it was drooping. It looked sad. It would never open out into a full bloom. Picked too soon, she thought. She threw the rose into the bin and rinsed out the glass.

    Reply
    • Robyn Rochelle E.

      Great movement. Fun to watch it explode with so much beige applied.

    • KellyDaniel

      Yes, this is simple but the metaphor is clear so the starkness definitely works here. Great piece for flash fiction. Really great succinct plot.

  12. Robyn Rochelle E.

    No heart for me.
    Why do we celebrate so trivially? Children write everyone’s name on a card.
    The printed words on the card mean nothing as the child signs her name, but great meaning is derived from the printed words on the cards that are received.

    I loved him so.
    I won’t worry about what is said or done by lovers not my own.

    Rejected.

    Who would have known? My first year as teacher I discover the party from hell.

    Reply
  13. Jeff Ellis

    Ryan lay alone on his bed, reading The Uncanny X-Men #35. He thought only of superheroes and supervillains. Last year he had had a girlfriend during Valentine’s Day. Her name was Jessica. They spent the night at an expensive steakhouse, making idle chit chat and pretending that they loved each other. This year’s February 14th was much less expensive.

    When Ryan finished his comic book he pulled himself from his bed into his wheelchair and rolled himself into the kitchen. He put a large frozen pizza in the oven and set it to cook for the allotted time. Wheeling into the living room of his apartment, he turned on the television. Adventure Time was on, but he changed it to Parks and Recreation. He stretched his arms up toward the ceiling and yawned. When he yawned he always smiled.

    He invited some of his friends over to watch the original Star Wars trilogy with him and enjoy the delicious pizza he had baked, but they were all busy. Halfway into A New Hope the pizza was ready and he pulled it from the oven and placed it on the counter. He cut himself a single slice and placed it, with a napkin, onto a paper plate. Near the end of Empire Strikes Back he finished the pizza. He wished he had had a liter of cola.

    By the end of Return of the Jedi, Ryan was tired and ready for bed. He showered and changed into his pajama bottoms and an old t-shirt. Back in bed, he pulled The Uncanny X-Men #36 from the stack of comic books on his nightstand. Opening it to the first page, Ryan settled in for the night.

    It was a good Valentine’s Day.

    Reply
    • Paul Owen

      Great reading, Jeff. Perhaps a bit sad, but Ryan’s making the best of things. I could smell that pizza baking.

    • Jeff Ellis

      Thanks Paul, I’m glad you enjoyed it! 🙂

    • Hope Mendola

      “This year’s February 14th was much less expensive” – love it.

      I really felt like I was watching Ryan in a play-by-play, good work!

    • Jeff Ellis

      Thanks Hope! I’m glad you liked it 🙂

  14. Paul Owen

    Fun exercise, Liz! Here’s my quick practice before work:

    He woke up early on Friday morning. The euphoria of last night was now a
    realization of big changes coming. He was engaged! That felt odd and good at
    the same time. While the coffee maker did its thing, he pondered aspects of
    their marriage. Would they get along as they got older? They had spent plenty
    of time together over the last few months. No big arguments or fights so far.
    Was that because they were such a good match, or that the challenges hadn’t
    arrived yet?

    Finances could be one of the first struggles. They both had decent jobs. Not great ones,
    though. Everything was getting more expensive. If a baby came along, current
    jobs and benefits might not be enough.

    Still, getting engaged seemed the right thing to do. He was convinced they would make
    a good life together. He thought more about last night’s extravagance. New
    suit, dinner, the ring. Would she expect that sort of thing every Valentine’s
    Day? What about other special occasions? Maybe he needed a second job.

    Reply
  15. Steve Stretton

    Reading your notes, I realised I tend to write beige prose automatically. Not sure if that’s a good thing or otherwise. Here’s some more.

    Valentine’s Day, what a bummer that was. There was not a card, not a phone call, not a single “I love you”. She had hoped. She had waited. She had longed for his affirmation of their relationship. Nothing. He had played golf with his mates. She had made a special cake for the occasion. She had had to throw it out, no one would want it now. She was angry, so angry she seriously contemplated leaving him.

    When he had arrived home he had simply said, “Honey, what’s for dinner?” She had thrown the cake tin at him and stormed out of the kitchen. She then had phoned her best friend. “Guess what that bastard did, he didn’t do anything!” Her friend had tut tutted and sympathised. Then she had confronted him back in the kitchen as he ate his meal of leftovers. His only reply: “You are so sexy when you’re angry, lets go to bed.” The frying pan suddenly found its way into her hand. The thud as it hit his head was both shocking and yet most satisfying. “You can go to bed, I’m staying up a while.” She waited for the inevitable sirens and thought “What a bummer.”

    Reply
    • KellyDaniel

      In terms of plot this reminds me of Roald Dahl’s Lamb to the Slaughter, which can’t be a bad thing!

  16. KellyDaniel

    He watched her chestnut hair lay smooth on the pillow next to his. He let his lips drift over the apricot flesh. He listened to her breathe and allowed his soul to wallow in it. For a moment he was at peace.
    Her eyes flicked open and she flipped herself over like a fish on a hook.
    “What?” she barked. Her eyes narrowed. “You woke me up. So, what is it?”

    He began to stutter; mumbled something about just wanting to be as close to her as he could; enjoying watching her sleep. It was the wrong thing to say. It always was.

    “Jesus, John,” she hissed. She swung her legs over the side of the bed. Her dressing gown was hastily wrapped around her shoulders. Then, with a glance which spat venom, she yanked the light in the bathroom and slammed the door.

    Reply
  17. Laura Ryding-Becker

    Having never heard the terms “purple prose” or “beige prose” before, I’m wondering: is there a happy medium?

    Reply
    • Karl Austatin

      You don’t seem to understand. Purple prose is always bad, but beige prose is not necessarily bad, its when people use nothing but it in a story, without any kind of descriptive language. And no, “descriptive language” does not mean “purple prose used sparsely”.

      For example “A gorgeous maiden of raven-black locks, eyes hewn from the purest of emeralds, and skin more fair than the whitest snows of the north” is purple prose. Beige prose would be something like “A young woman with black hair, green eyes, and very fair skin”.

      Now, the thing is, that description isn’t necessarily a bad one. It doesn’t matter how dark her hair is, green her eyes are, or fair her skin is unless there’s something unusual about it. Most readers don’t care about the intensity of those things unless either, A: they’re important; or B: They’re unusual in some way.

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