Monday, December 09, 2013
The craft of rewriting-Technical Flaws-Purple Prose
By OFW chief editor:
Carlos J Cortes And Renée Miller
Published: March 22, 2013
Pulsating loins, glorious orbs, manroots, love clubs, flowering blooms upon porcelain cheeks—purple prose. Similar to overwriting, purple prose clutters the story and slows the reader down. Purple prose is full of metaphors, melodramatic language, cliches, and cartoonish imagery. Consider this passage:
He dragged her roughly against his rock-hard body. She felt his manroot pressed against the soft recess of her secret place.
“What did you say?” he queried, raising a chocolate brown brow.
“I said I hate you.” She spat, bravely attempting to extract herself from his impossibly powerful grasp.
His gaze, now an azure blue, meandered down to the porcelain skin of her heaving bosom. Tears stung her eyes as she endured his loathsome scrutiny. Vile; he was the most vile, obstinate, arrogant creature she’d ever had the displeasure of laying eyes on.
“No you don’t hate me at all.” His generous lips curved into a derisive grin. “You want me, and you despise yourself for that fact.”
Purple prose like the writing above, provides the reader with excessive description that is both tedious to digest and ultimately vague. Adverbs and adjectives are abundant in purple prose, as are euphemisms and hackneyed metaphors. The writer must ask if they really tell the reader anything. The scene above could have been written with more clarity and more intensity if the purpleness is removed.
He dragged her against him, pressing his hips into hers. “What did you say?”
“I said I hate you.” She struggled to free herself.
His gaze raked her chest.
Humiliated, she blinked away the tears that stung her eyes.
He smiled. “No you don’t hate me at all. You want me, and you despise yourself for it.”
While there is still work to be done, this is much clearer and easier for the reader to digest. The words we removed changed nothing and, without them, the reader is free to imagine what she chooses, not what the writer forces upon her.
We’ve collected some favorite purple words and phrases commonly used by writers. To share a few:
"Framed by” hair/tresses/curls, etc.:
Her face, framed by delicate blond curls, lit up with joy.
Chestnut tresses framed her pale face.
The sunlight framed his chiseled features, making them sharper, more intimidating.
These have all been used so often that they’ve become cliche and boring. The reader sees this and often rolls her eyes, probably wondering if the writer ran out of creative juice. Try something stronger, less used, to create the image needed.
Her face lit with joy. (Not great, but this is essentially what the writer says, without the curls.)
The second example is not worth rewriting because it adds nothing to a character’s description. We would strike it completely.
The sunlight sharpened his already intimidating features. (This creates the same image for the reader, but without the cliche.)
Swelling bosoms or erupting manhood.
Swelling bosoms? Is she going to be okay? Are they sprained or bruised? What has this woman been up to? Swelling bosoms do not create the image we want, and it only serves to clutter the prose and possibly lose the reader. Erupting manhood? Writing love scenes is difficult, let’s not make them just as awkward to read with such ridiculous euphemisms.
Revealed by / set off by followed by a description of clothing / fashion
We’ve seen this often, when writers are trying to give a character description but go just a bit too far. Readers don’t need to know the details down to the buttons and color of thread used. The reader doesn’t even care about the brand most times. A blue t-shirt, black jeans, or a short skirt is often enough.
Julie entered the room, wearing a Donna Karan pencil skirt and jacket, set off by black hoop earrings that dangled to her shoulders and four inch heels on her tiny feet.
This unwieldy description can be tightened to:
Julie’s heels clicked on the floor as she entered the room. She bent to smooth the tight skirt that had risen to her thighs.
The reader only needs a couple of well placed words to create a picture. When we describe a character from head to toe, using cliche phrases like these, she isn’t getting the opportunity to use her imagination.
Reflecting/reflected through anything that isn’t actually reflective,
as in “his gaze held reflections of past sorrows captured in his soul and unable to break free from the dark abyss of his heart,” is purple prose. If it isn’t a mirror, or at a least shiny surface, it cannot reflect anything.
What exactly is a limpid pool? This description adds nothing.
Euphemisms or metaphors used for anatomica descriptions.
Anything that writers use to make a word less offensive should be rewritten. If we’re struggling to find a less obvious word or phrase because we are concerned about offending our readers, then perhaps we should reconsider eliminating the entire scene. Love cave, orbs, dagger (or its cousins sword, weapon, etc.), womanhood, manhood, mound, and anything like this only serves to give the scene a cartoonish feel, not the intense love scene we’re hoping for. Yes, readers might be offended by certain words, but then, those same readers might be offended by any type of love scene. Purpling the scene won’t make it better; rather, it will turn off readers who aren’t easily offended. We believe that sex can be depicted without resorting to coarseness or purple prose:
Pressure in her bladder brought her back to reality. She smiled and inched to the edge of the bed.
Strong arms dragged her back. The hardness of his body pressed against hers and the stubble of his beard dug on her shoulder.
Nell squealed a protest, begged for mercy.
Don’t listen to me, please don’t.
Purple prose is essentially a good sign that we’re showing too much. It achieves the opposite effect we’re striving for. Rather than give the reader a clear image of the scene, it slows the pace. Showing properly never slows the pace.
Flowery writing isn’t unnecessary or entirely wrong. In small doses, description that gives a little more can add atmosphere and depth to a scene, but it should never force the reader to stop or slow down in order to digest it. The words used should be invisible, meaning the reader should understand them on sight, without having to puzzle through them.
If we struggle for the right words to describe something, we’re apt to tread into purple territory. If it’s a snake, call it a snake. If the snake is brown with black spots, then say so. Don’t try to make the spots more interesting.
The brown snake slipped beneath the sheets until its spotted tail disappeared.
This is all a reader needs, if it’s needed at all. Another important lesson: Writers must first get the words out necessary to plot and characterization, and then use what is left to add setting and color. Because this leaves us with limited words, we’re less likely pack the prose and weigh it down.
Renee Miller & Carlos Cortes
Carlos J Cortes,
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