What is Purple Prose? Tips to Improve Your Story's Readability

drafting revising
What is purple prose? Tips to improve your story's readability

Many writers love to get creative with their sentences, phrases, and word choice. Some writers even prefer a more poetic or lyrical style to their prose. However, if not careful, writers can fall dangerously into the common writing trap of using “purple prose.”

What is “purple prose” in fiction, and why should you avoid it? In this post, we’ll look at some examples of purple prose, and share our tips to help you avoid it.

What is purple prose?

Purple prose is writing that's too ornate, flowery, or elaborate. It usually consists of longer words, more complex sentences, denser paragraphs, lots of descriptors, adjectives, adverbs, and possibly even words readers aren’t familiar with and have to look up just to make sense of the paragraph.

Different books and different authors will have different styles of prose, and some genres and books call for more embellished writing than others. However, there’s also a point when your writing becomes too ornate or when there’s too much of it on the page.

Let’s look at the following example:

Her voluptuous locks, spools of inky threads of night, cascaded and tumbled in mother nature’s burdened breath, making his tender, aching heart palpitate with desire.

That’s an overwrought way of saying, “he loved the way her thick, dark curls blew in the wind.”

Purple prose is any kind of prose that gets in its own way. This type of writing screams, “Look at me! Look how fancy I am!” It rarely benefits your book because it’s hard to tell what’s going on in the scene and risks pulling the reader out of the story. When you strip away all the ornateness of purple prose, the meaning left behind stands out more instead of getting lost in complexity.

Tips for avoiding purple prose

Beware of scaffolding

In writing, scaffolding is all the extra words, descriptions, and information writers use when setting up a scene. When drafting, you may find that you overwrite and use superfluous sentences and words when you're working through your scene setup. 

For example, sometimes writers over-describe a setting to make sure the reader can really picture the place when a few key details can do a better job. Sometimes writers narrate every single action a character takes when they’re having a conversation or performing an activity when the reader can probably fill in some of those gaps on their own. When writing the first draft, this feels necessary, but when you read it later, you’ll often realize it’s just bloating the scene and slowing the pacing.

During the page-level revision, you can put every word and sentence to the test and decide if it really is helping the scene or if the scene is stronger without it. Remember, sometimes less is more. It’s hard to cut out words, especially ones we really like or spent a long time getting just right, but often cutting unnecessary words or sentences can actually cause the rest to shine brighter.

Avoid purple prose when replacing overused or weak words

Sometimes writers overuse words, imagery, or metaphors when drafting their stories. During the page-level revisions is the time to look for any overused words in your manuscript and vary them. It’s unnecessary to change every single one of them, but you want to avoid having too many of them too close together. Use a thesaurus or a site like onelook.com to find alternate words when replacing your overused ones, but be careful. This is an easy way to get carried away and fall into purple prose. Remember, when you change your overused phrases, you’re replacing them with words that make sense for your genre, writing style, and narrator’s voice.

Similarly, be careful of replacing weak words with flowery language. Here’s an example of a passage using weak words, along with two examples of how to replace them:

Original sentence: “I got out of the car and crossed the road, nearly getting hit by an oncoming bicycle.”

Option one: “I jumped out of the car and darted across the road, nearly getting trampled by an oncoming bicycle.”

Option two: “I extracted myself from the achromatic subcompact and perambulated the road, nearly colliding with an imminent velocipede.”

Option one uses more visual words that convey more than the original. “Jumped out of the car” is so much more urgent than “got out of the car.” The same goes for “darted across the road” instead of “crossed the road.” For some people, “trampled” has a different connotation than “hit,” it can seem funnier or feel more farcical. This is a good way of replacing weak words with better, stronger words without falling into the trap of purple prose.

Option two is filled with overly ornate words that feel clunky and can confuse the reader, depending on the reading comprehension of your readers. It even replaces other words in the original sentence with more elaborate and descriptive ones that weren’t replaced in option one, such as “achromatic subcompact” instead of “car” and “imminent velocipede” instead of “oncoming bicycle.” Option two may be an attempt to use better words that are unique and rarely used, but can detract from your story and clash with the tone, genre, or narrative.

Focus on the story first

Another way to avoid using purple prose is to focus on the story first. What story are you trying to tell? Does it have sustenance? If you find yourself using purple prose to increase your word count, maybe the issue is that your plot isn’t big enough to sustain a full-length novel. Maybe it’s better written as a short story or novella, or you may just need to add a subplot to give it more depth. Make sure you’re thinking about your narrator and their tone or voice as well. Does your word choice match the age and personality of your narrator? Don’t forget you’re still filtering the story through them.

If you’re attempting to write in a lyrical or poetic style, but your prose is making the story confusing or frustrating for readers to understand, go back to the basics and just simplify your prose. A word of warning: try to avoid imitating popular literary writers too closely. While you may be drawn to their poetic style of writing, you need to find your own voice and be yourself. If you do that, you’ll create prose that will enhance your story, not take away from it.

Practice with short stories

A good way to avoid purple prose is by practicing writing short stories or flash fiction. Short stories can range from 1,000 to 10,000 words, and flash fiction is typically any story under 1,000 words. While these stories may be short, they must still be a complete story and consist of a beginning, middle, and end. Practicing with short stories or flash fiction that have a strict word count will force you to cut out any unnecessary words and simplify your prose.

Use beta readers and critique partners

Get help from critique partners and/or beta readers. Critique partners will help you identify areas where you’ve fallen into using purple prose and may even help you find ways for your writing to still be descriptive and unique without becoming ornate. If you have beta readers for your story and several of them mention parts in your story that were confusing, difficult to understand, or just boring and detracted from the story, look at these areas and see if they’ve fallen victim to purple prose.

You want your prose to enhance your writing, not distract your reader, so remember, be careful of scaffolding, overused or weak words, consider your story first, practice with short stories or flash fiction, and seek feedback from beta readers or critique partners. The first two tips come from the lessons on page-level revisions in our Complete Novel Revision Course. Join the Writing Mastery Academy to get a more in-depth look at these lessons.

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