Purple Prose By Any Other Name

Posted by: Jan Morrill

www.janmorrill.wordpress.com

I love finding a new word–a unique word that I can roll over my tongue, maybe even blog about. Like this one:

pleonasm:

\PLEE-uh-naz-uhm\, noun;

1) The use of more words than are necessary to express an idea.
2) A superfluous word or expression

Synonyms: copiousness, garrulity, loquaciousness, verbosity

Isn’t that a perfect word for a writer? So much nicer sounding than purple prose. Though I’ve wilted at accusations of purple prose, I can almost say I wouldn’t mind being accused of purple pleonasm.

What is purple prose, or its more sophisticated cousin, purple pleonasm? Wikipedia defines it as:

… a term of literary criticism used to describe passages, or sometimes entire literary works, written in prose so extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw attention to itself. Purple prose is sensually evocative beyond the requirements of its context. It also refers to writing that employs certain rhetorical effects such as exaggerated sentiment or pathos in an attempt to manipulate a reader’s response.

There was a time when I thought this was precisely how a gifted writer should write. In fact, allow me to make a true confession. Here’s an excerpt of a story I wrote several years ago:

Photo by Mugly
WikiCommons

 
The rising sun bade goodbye to the night’s moonglow with a kiss of violet, pink, orange and finally golden yellow.  Earth accepted Sun’s kiss and blushed with color.
 
Here is the critique given to me by a prominent college professor/editor, whose name I will change to protect her innocence:
 

PROFESSOR HEMINGWAY:  “Oh. . . my . . . God.”

JAN: (Smiling and thinking to herself) I knew she’d love it.

PROFESSOR HEMINGWAY: (Pulling her hair out)  “No. No. No!! This is SO purple. I hate purple prose!”

 
Perhaps this is the slightest of exaggerations. But as you might imagine, I went pale and queasy all at once as I watched her tear my pages to pieces before she laughed maniacally and tossed them in the air. They drifted, down, down, down like giant snowflakes on a day that for me, had become as cold as the words she’d cast upon me, as misty as my eyes.
I digress. . .
 

Photo by Piotrus
WikiCommons

Some lessons are best learned the hard way. I think. . . I hope . . . my writing has come a long way. At least now when I read that passage, I feel the same kind of roiling in my stomach one with a tummy full of cotton candy might feel after one too many turns on a favorite swirling, twirling carnival ride. 

Photo by Andrew Dunn
WikiCommons

Still, I do kind of like passages of pleonasm. Though Wikipedia calls a phrase that “draws attention to itself” purple prose, I must admit, sometimes I like to be pulled out for a moment, to float in the art of how the words were put together. To me, it is akin to walking through a museum and finding one piece in particular that draws me to admire and wonder.

When I write my first draft, I let purple prose flow through my fingers to keyboard to my heart’s content. It’s the dancing, skipping, doing cartwheels of my writing. (See my propensity for purple?) But, as I described in my blog entry “Synonyms for Hate,” when I begin my editing process, I pull it from my manuscript like crabgrass from my garden–though a bit more begrudgingly, I must admit.

I like salt, too. Just a sprinkle. But too much, and the meal is ruined. It’s the same with purple prose. A little here and there adds an artistic touch. Too much, and the author might as well spill a gallon of paint over the story.

A purple prose is a purple prose . . . by any other name–even if you, like me, prefer to call it pleonasm. And it’s subjective. Every reader has a different tolerance level. My advice to myself is to use it sparingly. I’d much rather leave my reader hungry for more than feeling stuffed and bloated.

How about you? Do you use purple prose? Do you like to read it?

A few great links:

http://www.debstover.com/purple.html

http://www.fiction-writers-mentor.com/purple-prose.html

http://www.nytimes.com/1985/12/15/books/in-defense-of-purple-prose.html?pagewanted=all

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21 thoughts on “Purple Prose By Any Other Name

  1. I prefer light shades of lavender as opposed to deep purple in my reading. There should be something to tease and tantalize the imagination, like lingerie compared to totally nude.

    • Ha! Pam, I love the taste of salt alone, also. And I could linger in a purple phrase long after I’ve closed my eyes to dream about the story. You have some of the best “lingerable” passages of anyone I know. 🙂

  2. I prefer the word “loquaciousness” of all the synonyms listed, but people keep telling me I use words they’ve never heard of, so that would fall right in line. (I had heard of it, but some of my beta-readers probably wouldn’t have,) I’m with you, Jan, I enjoy a little color in my reading. I don’t know that I’d want deep swaths of violet from cover to cover, but smatterings of plum throughout are quite pleasing to me. I think we’re in the minority, though.

  3. I’m a sucker for description and probably use too much of it in my own writing. There’s a place for descriptive passages. I think it turns purple when it becomes a distraction from the story (or whatever you are writing). For me, there is also a huge difference between including more detail than is absolutely necessary (especially if it helps me envision the scene better) and the emotional manipulation aspect. I hate the latter with a purple passion!

    • Keli, I think, being the control freak that I am, I may sometimes “emotionally manipulate” in my stories. (I’ll never admit to it in real life, however.) If you ever catch me doing that, PLEASE bring it to my attention. 🙂 Thank you ahead of time.

  4. Pingback: Calligraphy Fingertips « Magic in the Backyard

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