Thursday, March 24, 2011


We were talking about "tone" recently, and I'm thinking that tone of most kinds has to do both with sentence and scene/passage design.  "Purple prose" is an insult hurled at fiction writers, and it's a really bad insult, sort of the equivalent of "you slut," and perhaps especially damaging to popular fiction writers. Literary fiction writers get purple too, goodness knows, but in literary fiction, where innovative and incisive prose is in itself a value, purple prose is usually the result of trying too hard to be descriptive and maybe not having the right vocabulary to do it afresh. (I mean, the purple litfic writer might be trying to be incisive without the innovation.)

In popular fiction, prose can be innovative and incisive, but that's not really the point.  The point of prose in popular fiction is usually to most effectively convey the story (with all its parts), whether that is deeply or swiftly or thrillingly or dramatically or humorously.  Prose is "purple" in popular fiction when it calls too much attention to itself, thus taking the emphasis off the experience of the story for the reader.

(I'm always amused/appalled when I read reviews -- I see these frequently in the NYTimes Book Review!-- which highlight certain sentences for marvelling.
1) The sentences are almost always early in the book, which makes me suspect that the reviewer might not have really read much further than that.
2) Often the sentences are ornate, prolix, and constructed more for, well, marvel than meaning. I do marvel at them, set proudly in italics in the middle of the review, because often these sentences feature glaring (to me, anyway) dangling modifiers.  The greatest danger of intricate sentence construction is the inadvertent dangler. Yes. The danger is the dangler. You heard it here first.
3) What about the plot? What about the character development? Sentences are great, but they're supposed to be in service to something greater.
4) Sometimes the sentence highlighted seems to come from nowhere-- an ostentatiously pithy observation no character in the book would have the objectivity to observe. Omniscient POV is all well and good, but smug omniscient always makes me mutter resentfully, "You think you're all that, don't you."
Ahem. Anyway, if a reviewer can excerpt a single sentence to marvel at, I would worry that the actual story didn't capture his/her attention.)

A major aspect of purple prose is overmodification.  (I love modifiers, so I'm not dissing them, just OVER.) What constitutes overmodification?  The most apparent purpling comes when you add an adjective or adverb to an already strong word, especially if the modifier merely amplifies and doesn't deepen or contradict. "She shouted furiously" is purple, but "she whispered furiously" is not.

However, I have spoken loudly-- declared declaratively, as it were-- about the occasional brilliance of overmodification. Cf. Faulkner's garrulous outraged baffled ghosts.  I think the distinction is novelty, that is, the modifier should add something new or deeper.

So if you're worried about your prose being purple, I'd suggest the first revision review should be for modifiers. Can you make the verb or noun stronger so you don't need the modifier, say?  ("He drove a sporty car." vs. "He drove a Corvette.")

 There are some modifiers that, almost by definition, are purple. "Delicate," say.  "Sparkling." "Magnificent." They are in themselves excessive, and when they're applied directly to another word, well, purple ensues. But what if the (noun) really is magnificent? Think about kind of dampening down by separating modifier from modified, like "The view was magnificent," or "He stopped at the canyon edge to take in the view. It was magnificent." I'd still think about trying to find a more interesting way to say that, but at least it's back to merely being trite and isn't so twee.

Some modifier/modified combinations have become over, well, over over.  (I was just thinking, goodness knows why, maybe I read that one of the participants had died, of the whole Tidal Basin scandal, back in those innocent days when the "powerful head of the House Ways and Means Committee" was found splashing with "The Argentine Firecracker" -- shortly to become, natch, "The Tidal Basin Bombshell"-- in the Washington Tidal Basin. And I remembered the funniest modifier consequence of this. Wilbur Mills had been "powerful head of the House Ways and Means Committee," but after his disgrace, the post he had to vacate was invariably called "the  head of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee". That is, the power was in the position after that, not the person. BTW, the firecracker's name was Annabella Battistella, which deserves a place in history and not just my memory. :)

What was I saying? Oh, yes. Purple AND cliche.  "Sparkling brew." "Babbling brook." "Majestic peaks." "Glowing orbs." I always chortle (meanly) when I read about a "single tear" coursing (yes, it usually courses, that lonely tear) down a (usually weathered) cheek. And then there's "one smooth motion." I don't know why that always amuses me. What are some others? With these pairings, well, don't use them. They end up meaning virtually nothing because I don't think they even make it past the eye into the brain. They have no resonance because they don't even in the most elementary way make the reader think. I'd suggest being utterly ruthless with this sort of purple prose. First, think about whether this glass of lemonade or beer or whatever needs to be described at all, or just mentioned:
He quaffed the sparkling brew.
He drank off his beer, and said, "..."
That is, it could be that you need some minor action or setting detail on the way to the important element (what he says) but don't need MUCH.  So don't give much.

Second, if you decide that this magnificent vista really is important enough for whatever reason (I don't know, maybe while he's gazing at the magnificent vista, he sees the cavalry coming over the ridge), don't settle for an empty cliche. Go with something really descriptive, something that distinguishes this magnificent vista (desert) from that other magnificent vista (ocean beach), like "He stopped at the cliff and gazed down at the desert floor, purple and orange as the sun set."  I'm no good at description, and I always opt for clear and plain rather than pretty, because I don't do pretty well.  But if you can do pretty, go for it, but try not to use any of the terms in the cliche.

Sometimes the individual modifier-modified term is fine, but a superfluity of them sends the passage into the purple territory. This is especially true if the term combinations are mostly about the same thing, as here, where they're all sort of about dirtiness and decrepitude:
With ink-stained fingers, he raised the blotched shade and gazed out the fly-specked window at the junk-strewn expanse of broken asphalt.

What's important there? What's superfluous?  (I'd get rid of the ink-stained fingers first. The only reason they're there is to let us know he's been writing, right? I mean, what would he use to raise the shade but his fingers? His teeth? His tobacco-stained teeth? :) 

What would I keep? I like the asphalt. I'd probably -- after I got rid of all the other terms-- feel like I could find a more fun word than "broken," though nothing comes to mind. It's hard this month, when chasm-sized potholes appear violently in front of my car every day, to be restrained and judicious about broken asphalt.  "The EXPLODED asphalt." "The axel-shattering, smashed, volcanically ruined asphalt." Okay, overdone, yes, but true. Just ask my axel.

Anyway, be ruthless. But pruning the purple doesn't mean you can't have any fun words or descriptive terms. Just strive for the new, the interesting, the insightful. And don't overdo.

Now purple also happens in the action of the scene. This is maybe a bit harder to explain, but the most common manifestation of it is "sentimentality." Supposedly JD Salinger said (I mean, supposedly it was him who said it, though it doesn't really sound like him-- good observation though, so JD can take credit :), "Sentimentality is giving a thing more tenderness than God would."  It's -lavishing- with tenderness, rather than letting the whatever just be there and inspire tenderness.  When something is sentimental, we sometimes respond with cringing (like when our parents would use each other's petnames in public), or sometimes with a perverse antagonism: "If they don't quit making googly eyes at each other, I'm going to shoot them both."

I'm reading a book now where the romance (it's not a romance-- the romance is just a subplot, fortunately, or I'd stop reading because it's a truly treacly romance) scenes have no conflict. That I think is key. No conflict. Everything is just fulfillment without any prepwork. 
"You're so wonderful. "
"You're wonderful too."
"I thought you were wonderful the first time I laid eyes on you."
"I remember that first time! Remember how we slow-danced all night?"
"I remember how your actual date got so mad and stormed out. But we didn't care. We'd fallen in love at first sight."
"We're still in love. Because you're so wonderful."
"You're wonderful too."
Now come on. Admit it. You skimmed, didn't you?  That's because there's no conflict.  Imagine how much more interesting it would be with some conflict:
"You're so wonderful. "

"You're wonderful too."
"I thought you were wonderful the first time I laid eyes on you."
"I remember that first time! Remember how we slow-danced all night?"
"I remember how your actual date got so mad and stormed out. But we didn't care. We'd fallen in love at first sight."
"She kind of forgave me. I married her, you know. We have three kids now."
"You're-- you're married? But wait! What are you doing in a dark booth holding my hand if you're married?"
"Really. I never forgot you. Even as I was speaking my vows to her, I imagined she was you."
"That's sick. Give me my hand back, or I'll shoot you."

Hey, that's likely to inspire some plot action at least!  The "we're both so wonderful" scenes are not just treacly, they're usually extraneous, with little plot propulsion. 

Gratuitous scenes meant to display or inspire emotion often are purple.  I don't just mean the unhooked romance scenes, but also scenes of violence or grimness which don't arise out of or propel plot action. Anything that isn't part of the plot action is likely to seem gratuitous, as an excuse for emotion rather than a scene of emotional change to the characters. 

What is "purple" to you? What do you do to keep your prose un-purple? What in revision helps?


Jenny said...

Absolutely brilliant. No matter how long I write I can always find more words to cut out. And yes on the potholes. Of late, going to the library has become as exciting as crossing a DMZ.

Meg McNulty said...

Superb! As one fond of the colour and practice of purple, this is one to print out and stick on my wall!

Leona said...

Geez. Wish I could've read this before I wrote my Epic fantasy and gouged out lots of beautiful world building based on someone saying it was purple prose if it was more than one word descriptive... sigh.

I've already started rebuilding, but it's not quite the same. Still the story is awesome and my world is awesome, so I shall perservere.

Thanks for this :) I've started finding my voice, taking all the advice and throwing it in a salt shaker and letting it free :)

Anonymous said...

Strangely enough I used 'magnificent' in a draft today and don't have enough distance to say though it's probably a bit purple (and the entire scene may end up cut next week). Setup is character B has already shone himself to be a bit of a loser. Character A being more hopeful than sarcastic says something like: "He's a magnificent soldier, or will be one day."
Meh, I'll worry about it on the rewrite.

Jordan said...

I love this post! Sadly I don't have anything more to add than that, but it's definitely a keeper. As the other comments have noted, it can be so hard to see where we go wrong ourselves. I guess purple prose is one of those sins only other people commit.

Sylvia said...

I was going to leave an insightful comment about modifiers and contrast and how obvious you make these things seem.

But now I'm laughing out loud over the you-are-wonderful scene. That's excellent!

Alicia said...

Sylvia, you ARE wonderful.
Well, I'm wonderful too.
We're all wonderful.

This is why no one is writing books about us. We're already too wonderful. :)