Purple Prose

Once, during a workshop I was giving, one of the participants indicated they didn’t know what I meant when I mentioned “purple prose.” I gave the standard sort of answer:

Purple prose is another way of saying that the words and phrases you are using are too much for your subject matter – too colourful, too ornate, too baroque, too flowery, too exaggerated – and probably far too many such, as well.

Romance writing in the past lent itself to this kind of bad writing: her heaving bosom, his tumescent organ (or throbbing manhood), the aching void in her heart, their doomed love…

One self-published book, of which I read the first page, had no less than eighteen adjectives referring to colour (not just purple!) in the first two relatively short paragraphs, so that the reader thought they were sinking under the weight of a paint box. You know the sort of thing: Storm-grey clouds, indigo smudge of her eyes, crimson and russet leaves shining in the liquid golden rays from the molten orb of an autumn sun, etc etc. Guess what: I was not tempted to read on.

But my grandson has developed the art of purple prose speech to a fine art with the use of an expression (produced on average once a day), to provide me with a wonderful example for my next workshop. Such a conversation usually proceeds something like this:

My daughter (in the garden) : It’s time to go inside now.
Grandson: No, I don’t want to.
Daughter: We are going in right now, darling.
Grandson: No! I’m not going to!
Daughter (scooping son up): Oh yes, you are.
Grandson (sobbing and struggling): You are ruining my life!

He’s not impressed when we invariably crack up.


Purple Prose — 7 Comments

  1. Heheh. Reminds me of my friend caroline’s son, striking poses of high tragedy and declaring ‘my life is over’ (he was using the word suicide by the time he was eight). I love the way the young experience everything with such intense passion. But yes, for grown-up readers the judicious use of (non-purple) understatement is perhaps more likely to be taken seriously. 🙂

  2. That reminds me of a visiting pre-schooler who did not want to go and rest on Auntie Satima’s bed, but to stay up and listen to the grown-ups. After being sent back to the bedroom several times, the child finally came out with “I want to go out in the sark to die!. She sobbed, of course, when we laughed, but unwilling to give in completely, she stamped her foot, saying, “I want a pink blanket then!”

  3. Gotta love kids.

    I never knew what purple prose meant before. I guess I have been somewhat purple in my blog this morning. Slap hands Jo. Actually I don’t know where descriptive writing ends and purple prose begins, but some stuff I read makes scenery, for instance, sound more beautiful.

  4. I guess the difference, Jo, is that purple prose is over the top – too much. Sometimes one brilliant descriptive phrase is spoiled by following it with too much of the same…even though each phrase might be perfect on its own.

    At other times it’s just obvious what is wrong because reading it makes you groan.

  5. never tought about that but
    life seems it has to be very intense ! One young french writer said beauty was a violent experience in our days, that’s a kind of mind, i like to hear people around me talking with some kind of Purple prose !

    something enjoyed might become

    ‘un truc giga bien’
    ‘un truc gavé bien’
    ‘un truc mega top’
    ‘un truc qui t’explose la tête’
    ‘un truc de fou’
    ‘un truc qui déchire’

    and so on ^^

    it’s all so funny !

    It’s as if no words would be enough, or that our words are too poor for expressing points of view: that’s may be why i prefer having a drawing pencil rather than a writting pencil ^^

    But i understand it might be boring in a book.

  6. I think gynie’s right, in that we start off using extravagant words to sensationalise things; and then when the over-use weakens the impact we use even stronger terms, or pile on more words, to boost the sensationalism again (like sequel movies forever trying to ‘go one better’). And it gets to sound hilarious. It’s not exactly the same as purple prose (or speech) I suppose, but there are definite similarities.

    Un truc qui t’explose la tête – love it! 😀

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