Monday, September 17, 2012

Writing Purple

A very long time ago, around 40 BCE or so, the Roman poet Horace wrote this in his Ars Poetica:
“Your opening shows great promise, and yet flashy purple patches.”

It has been said that from this sentence by Horace comes the phrase “purple prose.” I used this phrase in a speech I gave a few months ago, and was surprised when many in my audience did not know what I meant. This may be because they were would-be authors, not editors. Editors are on the lookout for purple prose – so they can kill it.

Purple prose means a word, phrase, sentence, or any written passage that is too ornate, too flowery, too over-the-top – in fact, too anything. Purple prose draws attention to itself and away from the story.

The most obvious kind of purple prose is romantic or erotic prose. It’s the easiest place to go over the top. Perhaps because the words we give to sexuality are usually either too clinical or too crude. If you say “He patted her mammary glands” it’s not very exciting, but “He grabbed her boob” is crude. Neither is purple, though. Purple would be “His sweaty hand gently caressed her hot heaving bosom, leaving a slimy trail on her rose-colored nipples.”

As I told my audience, your stories will shine brighter against black and white. Even if you are tempted to write purple, remember Horace and keep those flashy purple patches to yourself. Although I admit that I kind of like my sentence about a slimy trail on a hot heaving bosom. I may have to find a place for it anyway, despite Horace.

Do you have a favorite purple passage?
Kim Pearson is an author, ghostwriter, and owner of Primary Sources, a writing service that helps others become authors of professional and compelling books and articles. She has authored 6 books of her own, and ghostwritten more than 30 non-fiction books and memoirs. To learn more about her books or services, visit
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  1. I sometimes have to beat down the temptation, particularly in essays, where the indigo impulse seems to flash and flare with such ease. But purple prose has its place, particularly in the hands of a master, which I am not. What justifies it on occasion is the masterful turn of phrase built of the just-so string of modifiers where neither others nor fewer could quite carry the same power to evoke.

    As an editor, I would suggest to you, Kim, that sweat is more slick than slimy, and that if you really are seeing the scene through rose-colored lenses, perhaps you might as well go completely over the top with something along the lines of "leaving a salty trail, like warm dew, on the rose petals of her nipples." Or...well, you get the idea. Saturated color, as it were.

    Purple can make for grand prose when every word adds to the hue and leaves the reader sweating, jaw agape. A recent essay by the inimitable Simon Schama in the Financial Times called "Why I Write," a tribute to Orwell with asides to most of Simon's literary heroes, was such a tightly controlled paint pot from the violet end of the spectrum. One must either admire or deplore a writer whose opening purple paragraph uses "dithyrambic" so perfectly.

    See, you get me started and look what happens! Now I have to clean up the magenta slime from my keyboard.

    --Larry Constantine (pen name, Lior Samson)

  2. Take a bow, Larry.

    Ah, there are so many truly gorgeously purple passages in some of my favourite books. At random, here's one from Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things:

    "It hadn't changed, the June Rain.

    Heaven opened and the water hammered down, reviving the reluctant old well, greenmossing the pigless pigsty, carpet bombing still, tea-colored puddles the way memory bombs still, tea-colored minds. The grass looked wetgreen and pleased. Happy earthworms frolicked purple in the slush. Green nettles nodded. Trees bent.

    Further away, in the wind and rain, on the banks of the river, in the sudden thunderdarkness of the day, Estha was walking. He was wearing a crushed-strawberry-pink T-shirt, drenched darker now, and he knew that Rahel had come."

  3. Not a whole lot of purple prose in the mysteries I like to read. My romance reading is romantic suspense, which is very much the same except for the relationship bits. And since I really have trouble with metaphors and similes, which to me are where that purple shading comes in, I don't think I write purple -- maybe a little lavender in my sex scenes.
    Terry's Place

  4. Ah, Kim, I love this line! : your stories will shine brighter against black and white.

    Now THAT's beautiful writing, sans purple!

  5. OMG, Kim, kill that sentence. LOL

    Seriously, what a great reminder this post is, although I do think Larry and Elle make a good point about how some purple can work well to evoke mood and scene.

    In Elle's example, I would have suggested the author cut "The grass looked wetgreen and pleased. Happy earthworms frolicked purple in the slush. Green nettles nodded. Trees bent." To me those bits of description added little to the scene and broke the connection between the previous sentence and the coming of Estha. But who am I to edit a master? LOL

  6. Balance. Balance. Balance.

    In some ways, writing might be compared to decorating a room. Go with the neutral, perhaps add an accent wall, but definitely throw in splashes of color. Too much intensity (aka purple) overwhelms viewers and drives them away. Touches of purple, however, add depth and power and intensity. It's an emotional color, the color of royalty, and in its most subtle hues gently soothing.

    Interesting post, Kim. Hey, we all need some color in our lives. :-)

  7. I think, on the whole, I'd rather have purple prose than the boring language, stripped bare and reduced to a list, so favoured by editors.

  8. I actually like the color purple, even in prose. I only try to kill it if it detracts from the narrative or the point being made. I love some of these examples -- Larry's salty trail like warm dew made me very happy. I also agree with Linda that the key is always Balance, Balance, Balance. (As in life, too.)

  9. I've never heard of purple prose. I suppose 50 Shades of Grey could be considered purple prose. Interesting premise.

  10. I agree. Kill the Purple Prose. If you try to beat it into shape, it just gets bruised and more purple.

    As both a reader and a writer, I want to glide through a book. I like it when I stop and re-read something because it was so moving or original or descriptive or spot-on, but I don't want to read something that makes me stop and close the book.

  11. Where "the indigo impulse seems to flash and flare", Larry? LOL.

  12. "Kill the Purple Prose. If you try to beat it into shape, it just gets bruised and more purple." Great suggestion, Helen! Always remember - the harder you argue in favor of a sentence, the more likely it's a darling.

  13. Sometimes it's easier to go over the top than under it!

    Morgan Mandel

  14. Ah, purple prose. It's so tempting to fresh authors. My favorite purple prose line includes the phrase, "the radar screen of his loins." (gag)

  15. Interesting about slang such as "purple prose"—I suppose everyone has a different definition of it. I don't think much of what Larry and others put forth is purple at all. Elle's example surely isn't. It is flowery, to be sure, but rich with meaning—that's a stylistic issue. To me purple prose is more of a structural issue: you (as author) have not yet earned to right to use such emotional language. This sin is typically committed in the opening, where right after knocking on the front cover of a book we readers are expected to jump right unto the sturm and drang of the depths of a character's life without any other orientation. The reader is not oriented—is this comedy? Drama? One thing for sure: it's purple!

  16. Sheesh ... I had to smoke a cigarette after reading this.


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