Purge the Pompous and Pretentious Padding of Purple Prose

When that editor rejected your story because your prose was “too purple,” she wasn’t referring to your font color. What is purple prose and how can you avoid it?

Purple prose refers to text using overly long and fancy words, elaborate phrases, and flowery language. It overuses abstractions, figurative language, modifiers, similes, and metaphors. It stretches sentences out until the reader drowns in pleasant-sounding but meaningless words.

Since that description is rather subjective, I prefer the simpler version provided by Stephanie Nolan: “Purple prose draws attention to itself.”

That may sound like something you’d have to do intentionally, something requiring extra effort, something easy to avoid. In reality, it’s easy to slip into the trap of writing purple prose. One method is by familiarity. If, like me, you enjoy reading books written in an era when purple prose wasn’t abhorred (looking at you, Jules Verne), then you can come to believe such writing is still acceptable.

Or, like Liz Bureman notes, you can drift into the purple zone when you can’t think of anything relevant to write about the characters or the plot. At such times, you might be tempted to litter the page with long descriptions of the setting, or of a character’s clothing.

Some of you might be thinking I’m being unfair to purple prose. What, you’re asking, is so bad about it? After all, some readers like high-sounding writing with ornate phrases, detailed imagery, and delicious turns of phrase. True, a few readers may enjoy that. However, the purpose of fiction is to tell a story about the human condition. If your prose meanders off on some tangent and strays too far from the characters and plot, most readers today will recognize they’re being cheated. They’ll cease reading, never read anything else you write, and post a harsh review of your book online.

By the way, the term purple prose isn’t exactly new. As Richard Nordquist states, it was coined by Horace (65-68 B.C.) who mentioned purpureus pannus (Latin for purple patch) in his Ars Poetica. Nor is ‘purple prose’ the only label for such writing. Nordquist also cites related terms: Adjectivitis, Bomphiologia, Cacozelia, Euphuism, Gongorism, Grand Style, Overwriting, Bugbear Style, Skotison, Tall Talk, and Verbosity.

For humorous examples of purple prose, skim through the winning entry and dishonorable mentions in the annual Bulwer-Lytton Contest’s Purple Prose category.

How can you avoid writing purple prose? Early on, the surest method is to have someone else point it out to you. You can hire an editor, join a critique group, or trust a Beta Reader. In time you’ll learn to pick it up yourself while self-editing your work. Look for excessive descriptions, unnecessary adjectives and (especially) adverbs, and any significant deviations away from the action or characters.

Tracy Culleton says whenever you find yourself showing off, that’s a sign you should delete that phrase. However, if it serves the telling of the story, keep it. Stefanie Arroyo says admiring your own phrasing is a danger sign. If you find yourself thinking, “That’s a lovely phrase,” that’s reason enough to consider killing it.

There are a couple of times when purple prose is okay. First, you can certainly use it for humorous effect in a story intended to be funny. Second, feel free to let your prose run purple in your first drafts, so long as you cut out the worst parts in later drafts. In that first draft, your subconscious (or your muse) is having fun lingering on a long description of an object, or setting, or clothing, etc. Maybe some description is called for, but in later drafts you should trim it down to the essentials.

Purple is a fine color, but purple prose is not fine writing. Pledge to purge purple prose from your paragraphs and passages, and proffer all praise for your newly procured perception and proficiency to—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Sensazione

We’ve come to the third principle in Michael J. Gelb’s remarkable book, How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci. In recent blog posts, I’ve been relating each principle to fiction writers, encouraging you to think like Leonardo as you write.

SensazioneThe third principle is Sensazione, which Gelb defines as “the continual refinement of the senses, especially sight, as the means to enliven experience.” Leonardo knew that we experience life through our five senses; therefore, only the person who could enhance his or her senses in perception and accuracy could experience life fully.

Da Vinci’s sight and hearing were superb, and he worked to improve all his senses. He regarded sight as the most important, following by hearing.

The exercises in the Sensazione chapter of Think Like Leonardo da Vinci are among the most fun in the book. For example, Gelb suggests you smell and taste things while blindfolded until you can identify each odor and taste, even those with only slight differences.

How does this relate to writing? The Point of View character in your story also experiences life through her or his senses, just as real people do. However, the only way you can convey these sensations to your reader is through words.

I’ve blogged about the senses before, and encouraged you to incorporate all five of them in your stories. To apply Sensazione in your writing, you must choose words that precisely convey the sensations experienced by your POV character.

I don’t necessarily mean you should pile on adjectives like beautiful, pungent, sonorous, delicious, and velvety—or adverb forms. Adjectives (and to a lesser extent, adverbs) can be useful if you’re selective and choose just the most apt one. Some adjectives, like “beautiful” and “delicious” are not distinct; they tell rather than show.

Another method is with metaphors and similes. If you can compare the sensation your character is experiencing with something to which the reader can relate, and make the comparison distinct and descriptive, that’s Sensazione.

As Leonardo knew, sight is the primary sense for humans, and so it will be for your characters most of the time. But if you appeal to the other senses, too, it can only enhance the reader’s enjoyment. Also, there are times when a character’s first sensation is through one of the other senses, such as when a sight line is blocked and the character hears or smells something before seeing it. Your character might be blind, or in darkness, and will have to rely on the other four senses.

If you work to cultivate your senses in your own life, by going through Gelb’s recommended exercises, you should also strive to become more adept at describing each feeling and sensation in words. As your skill improves, readers will be drawn into your stories and connect with your characters’ experiences.

Ah! I see, hear, and smell breakfast being prepared. I’ll have to end this post now, for soon I shall feel the fork in my hand, and a succulent repast will be tasted by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

September 13, 2015Permalink

Describing Your Characters’ Feelings

How are your characters feeling?  It’s important for your readers to know.  I’ve written an earlier post about conveying a character’s thoughts, and another one about facial expressions, but it’s time to tackle emotions.

For this blog post I’m going to regard ‘feelings,’ ’emotions,’ and ‘moods’ as being synonymous, even though neuroscientists draw distinctions between these terms.

Emotions are part of the human experience, and seem to result from how we’re hard-wired, what our individual background has been, and a recent external or internal stimulus.  Since we all have emotions in the real world, the characters in your fiction must have them too, to make them convincing.

Whether there are six basic emotions, as depicted by Dr. Paul Ekman…

Emotions

…or eight as pictured by Dr. Robert Plutchik…

591px-Plutchik-wheel.svg…writers just need to know there are many emotions, and characters can feel them in combinations and in various intensities.

As a writer, it’s your job to convey these emotions to the reader with clarity and accuracy.  There shouldn’t be a doubt in the reader’s mind about what a character is feeling.

How do you do that?  Here are some guidelines to follow:

  • Make sure the emotion is appropriate.  Remember, it’s based on a character’s background, but is also a response to a recent stimulus.
  • Show the emotion through the character’s actions:  speech (not only what is said, but word choice and tone of voice), facial expressions, hand motions, or body posture.
  • Show the emotion by describing the character’s thoughts or mental state.
  • Use metaphors and similes, but shun clichés.
  • In certain situations (fast action scenes, very short fiction, or if applicable to a minor character or sub-plot), just tell the character’s emotion.  This is not as effective as other methods and indicates amateurish writing  if used too often.

If you get stuck trying to portray a character’s emotion in words, one technique that might help is to recall a time when you had that feeling yourself.  See if you can draw on that memory and maybe even recreate the emotional state within yourself.  If you can conjure up within yourself the same emotion your character is feeling, you stand a good chance of finding words to describe it.

There are some helpful websites that list adjectives useful in describing emotions, notably this one and this one.  But I caution against an over-reliance on such adjectives.  It’s more effective to show emotions through a character’s actions or by describing what’s going on inside the character’s mind.

How did this blog post make you feel?  Are you now confident you can convey a character’s feelings in a more precise way?  I welcome comments from you on this topic; in fact few things in life bring greater joy and serenity to—

                                                      Poseidon’s Scribe

Details,Details…

When I said I’d blog about choosing details wisely in writing fiction, I meant it; I just didn’t say how soon I’d get around to it!  Writers often have to describe scenes, characters, or objects in their stories.  Which details do they choose to mention, and why?

First let’s examine some of the things writers try to accomplish in their descriptions:

  • First and foremost, create an image in the reader’s mind
  • Convey the mood and theme of the story
  • Show the attitude, personality, and mood of the point-of-view character
  • Foreshadow a later event
  • Illustrate connections to, or separations from, other scenes, characters, or objects in the story

That seems like a lot to accomplish, a lot of baggage to weigh down a few words.  Partly for that reason, in books written in the Nineteenth Century and earlier, descriptions were long and tedious.  Writers weren’t as selective about details; they threw them all in.  Today’s readers won’t stand for that, so as a modern writer you’ll have to keep your descriptions brief.

Say you’re writing about something or someone and you want to convey the image to the reader’s mind.  How do you choose the details?  Here are some guidelines:

1.  Three is a magic number, as far as the number of details to pick.  Don’t stray too far from it either way.

2.  Specific details beat general ones every time.

3.  Nouns and verbs are better than adjectives, and adjectives are better than adverbs.

4.  Consider using a mind map to mentally play with all the details you can think of, then select the few that best serve your purposes.

5.  You don’t have to gather all the details together in one place, in one solid paragraph.  You can sprinkle some of them around later in the scene; that helps break up the narration and keeps the image fresh in the reader’s mind.

Here’s an exercise you can do to improve your skills in selecting details for your descriptions.  Pick something to describe–the scene out your window, a movie or TV character, a household object.  Now create a mind map filled with key words about your chosen thing.  Next write two description paragraphs, one in a happy mood and one in a sad mood.  Write two more paragraphs, each as if narrated by characters with opposite personalities.  Write another one that contrasts your chosen thing with some other.  Just as no two witnesses describe a traffic accident the same way, using the same details, there are innumerable ways to describe anything.

Let’s analyze how George Orwell described the scene outside a character’s window at the beginning of his novel, 1984.

Outside, even through the shut window-pane, the world looked cold. Down in the street little eddies of wind were whirling dust and torn paper into spirals, and though the sun was shining and the sky a harsh blue, big_brother_is_watching_you_by_teabladezz-d20dgysthere seemed to be no colour in anything, except the posters that were plastered everywhere. The black moustachio’d face gazed down from every commanding corner. There was one on the house-front immediately opposite. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption said, while the dark eyes looked deep into Winston’s own. Down at street level another poster, torn at one corner, flapped fitfully in the wind, alternately covering and uncovering the single word INGSOC. In the far distance a helicopter skimmed down between the roofs…

In addition to giving a concrete image, this certainly conveys mood and theme, and also foreshadows.   I like the contrast between nature (shining sun, blue sky) and man-made items (torn paper, poster flapping, commanding corners).  Well-chosen details.

More practice will increase your skills at picking details to include.  Leave me a detailed comment if you got something out of this blog post.  Knowing the devil is in the details, I’m—

                                                            Poseidon’s Scribe

February 9, 2013Permalink

It’s Written All Over Your Face

facial-expressions-It’s important for a fiction writer to learn how to describe human facial expressions.  A person’s face is the most communicative body area, and often it reveals a character’s feelings.  Amazing, isn’t it, how many things we can make our faces do!  There may be as many facial aspects as there are possible mental states.

Small wonder there are so many English verbs devoted to describing a person’s mien:  blanch, blush, grimace, grin, smirk, etc.  It surprised me to find the Wikipedia article on Facial Expressions only listed six “classically defined facial expressions:  Anger, Disgust, Fear, Joy, Sadness, and Surprise.  However, the article goes on to list “other examples of feelings that can be expressed” including:  Concentration, Contempt, Desire, Empathy, Frustration, and Love.  Maybe the list isn’t infinitely long, but it doesn’t end at six.

Writers aren’t restricted to single-word descriptions of human facial expressions, of course.  Sometimes it’s useful to describe what’s happening on a character’s face and trust the reader to recognize the expression and deduce the character’s feelings.  In Clement Clarke Moore’s poem known popularly as “The Night Before Christmas,” we encounter the line, “His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,” and we know St. Nicholas is smiling, and therefore is happy.  Although you could break down all facial expressions and describe them in detail in your story, that would get tedious, so be sparing in your use of that technique.

Of course you shouldn’t restrict yourself to describing facial expressions alone.  Your characters adopt bodily poses, make hand gestures and other movements.  These can also express mood, sometimes more accurately than the face does when a character is trying to hide his or her feelings.

Returning to my subject of faces, I should also mention that characters (like real people) can have, well, characteristic or habitual facial expressions.  These might be due to an almost perpetual non-neutral mood, or some nervous habit.  Giving a character one of these habitual expressions can help readers become familiar with the character.

While doing research for this blog entry, I came across some great references for writers.

  • Descriptive Faces–A Resource for Writersis a blog set up by writer Charity Bradford where she discusses facial expressions in detail.
  • The Nonverbal Dictionary contains a list of at least 250 nonverbal expressions, each linked to detailed discussions.
  • The Bookshelf Muse website offers a book called The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman, and Becca Puglisi.  Although I haven’t read the book, some sample entries from it are available on the site.
  • The MacMillan Dictionary has a website listing words for describing facial expressions, and their meanings.

Was this helpful?  What are your favorite ways to describe character’s facial expressions?  Can you think of an example where a writer did it particularly well?  Feel free to send me a comment on the subject.  Since this blog entry is in the written medium, you can’t see what’s written all over the face of—

                                                          Poseidon’s Scribe

January 27, 2013Permalink