Purple Prose, and What To Do Until the Doctor Arrives
by Dave King
Overwritten prose. It’s the bane of every writer’s very existence, corrupting his or her work like some noisome plague from the black depths, undermining the very foundations of that sacred contract between writer and reader upon which his or her livelihood depends, stalking his or her work like the wraith of a past —
Um … sorry.
Nothing kills the pleasure of reading quicker than pretentious and overblown writing. But no one sets out to be pretentious. How do you tell the difference between rich, textured prose and baroque excess? What are the warning signs that you’re about to cross the line from one to the other? How do you find your authentic, unforced voice? How much is too much?
The Curse of Ignoring Reality
Consider the following description of a passing storm from the deck of a ship, taken from Opening a Chestnut Burr by mid-Victorian hack, E. P. Roe:
A storm had passed away, leaving not a trace. The October sun shone in undimmed splendor, and all nature appeared to rejoice in its light. The waves with their silver crests seemed chasing one another in mad glee. The sailing vessels, as they tacked to and fro across the river under the stiff western breeze, made the water foam about their blunt prows, and the white-winged gulls wheeled in graceful circles overhead. There was a sense of movement and life that was contagious.
Now consider the following description of a passing storm from an island in the middle of the Atlantic, from H. M. S. Surprise, by Patrick O’Brian:
It was over. The rain stopped instantly and the wind swept the air clear; a few minutes later the cloud had passed from the lowering sun and it rode there, blazing from a perfect, even bluer sky. To the westward the world was unchanged, just as it always had been apart from the white caps on the sea; to the east the squall still covered the place he had last seen the ship; and in the widening sunlit stretch between the rock and the darkness a current bore a stream of fledgling birds, hundreds of them.
O’Brian’s description is longer than Roe’s, but overwriting is not so much a matter of wordiness as a matter of focus. Overwritten prose, such as the Roe passage, usually centers on the author’s elegance of language. Strip away Roe’s commentary — the rejoicing nature, the madly gleeful waves — and note the actual meat of the passage. The sun shone. The waves had silver crests. The breeze was stiff, the prows blunt, and the gulls white-winged. Movement was happening. The actual seascape underneath the linguistic bells and whistles is boring.
O’Brian, on the other hand, is focused on the storm itself. Note the details: Perfect calm where the storm has just been, darkness where it is at the moment, and fledgling seabirds floating in the widening gap between the two. Roe’s storm is a vague and amorphous thing that fades away and leaves a cliché-ridden nature rejoicing. O’Brian’s is a specific violent squall that blows through and leaves calm in its wake.
Look at your descriptions. Are you showing your readers what’s really there, or are you so involved in your language that you’ve left reality behind? If the latter, then understand that opening your readers’ eyes to see reality in a new way is worth far more than the most elegant, ornate prose. It’s what original writing is all about, and it’s even easy. All you have to do is open your eyes and ears to what’s really there.
For instance, teakettles often sing or scream in overwritten prose. My wife, a novelist, recently asked me to listen to our own teakettle come to a boil. It banged and thumped, then began to hiss — details I had never noticed before. If E. P. Roe had actually sat on the shore after a storm and paid attention, he could easily have shown us more engaging things than gulls with white wings.
The Scourge of Forgetting Your Characters
’What, Clodius! and how have you slept on your good fortune?’ cried, in a pleasant and musical voice, a young man, in a chariot of the most fastidious and graceful fashion. [Here follow 83 words describing the chariot.] The owner himself was of that slender and beautiful symmetry from which the sculptors of Athens drew their models; his Grecian origin betrayed itself in his light but clustering locks, and the perfect harmony of his features. He wore no toga … [lengthy commentary on togas falling out of fashion] … but his tunic glowed in the richest hues of the Tyrian dye, and the fibulae, or buckles, by which it was fastened, sparkled with emeralds: around his neck was a chain of gold, which in the middle of his breast twisted itself into the form of a serpent’s head, from the mouth of which hung pendent a large signet ring of elaborate and most exquisite workmanship; the sleeves of the tunic were loose, and fringed at the hand with gold: and across the waist a girdle wrought in arabesque designs, and of the same material as the fringe, served in lieu of pockets for the receptacle of the handkerchief and the purse, the stilus [sic] and the tablets.
The Last Days of Pompeii, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton
Now you know why the annual contest for the most miserably written opening line of a novel is named for Bulwer-Lytton. (Actually, it was named in honor of the opening line of his novel Clifford Irving: "It was a dark and stormy night …") But what makes this passage hard to bear is not mere verbosity or that Bulwer-Lytton ignores reality — the details are, for the most part, specific. It’s overwritten because he ignores his narrator, Clodius. Clodius knows this young dandy well and sees him regularly, so he probably wouldn’t notice every last arabesque on his tunic. Essentially, Bulwer-Lytton is elbowing Clodius aside so he can describe something that interests him.
Just to show that ignoring characters with overwriting was not an exclusively Victorian phenomenon, here’s a passage from Terry Brooks’ 1977 The Sword of Shannara:
In the midst of the chilling cries, with a low rumble that sounded from the heart of the earth, the Hadeshorn opened at its center in the manner of a thrashing whirlpool and from out of its murky waters rose the shroud of an old man, bowed with age. The figure rose to full height and appeared to stand on the waters themselves, the tall, thin body a transparent gray of ghostlike hue that shimmered like the lake beneath it. Flick [the narrator] turned completely white. The appearance of this final horror only confirmed his belief that their last moments on earth were at hand.
Again, the details are concrete, and Flick would certainly be paying close attention to the apparition. But it’s hard to believe that he would describe it in such formal language. Someone in mortal terror doesn’t think of how his or her beliefs are confirmed by an appearance with a ghostlike hue. Brooks has ignored his character in order to exercise his linguistic skills.
Of course, there are no rules. You may sometimes need to stretch a character’s natural language — when she or he is having an epiphany, for instance. If so, be careful, since these moments are where the temptation to overwrite is strongest. Stay inside your character and whatever you do, don’t let your language get out of hand.
The Blight of Inattention to Yourself
The Brooks passage illustrates another source of overwriting — an inattention to your own, natural voice. Given that Brooks’ book is in the same genre and general spirit as Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, it’s fair to guess that Brooks got in trouble by trying to imitate Tolkien’s voice. For comparison’s sake, consider the following description of the arrival of the Balrog in The Fellowship of the Ring:
But it was not the trolls that had filled the Elf with terror. The ranks of the orcs had opened, and they crowded away, as if they themselves were afraid. Something was coming up behind them. What it was could not be seen: it was like a great shadow, in the middle of which was a dark form, of man-shape maybe, yet greater; and a power and terror seemed to be in it and to go before it.
While some might consider Tolkien to be overwritten as well, his passage is more effective in part because it is not forced. He was raised during the late Victorian era and spent his life among Oxbridge scholars as one of their number, steeped in philological texts and dark-age and medieval epic poetry (his academic specialty). A formal and elevated language ("terror seemed to be in it and to go before it" is reminiscent of the King James Bible) is his natural voice. Brooks’ voice, on the other hand, seems to be a conscious attempt to capture the same flavor and feel that arose so naturally for Tolkien — forcing a voice rather than expressing one. The strain shows.
Incidentally, writing in something other than your natural voice doesn’t necessarily mean overwriting. Many writers, in an attempt to avoid overblown prose, write in a minimalism that is no more natural to them than baroque excess would be. Writing well almost inevitably means writing like yourself — finding your own voice and letting it flow.
Here is an exercise that can help you find your voice. Place a notebook next to your bed, and as soon as you wake in the morning, start writing. Don’t hesitate, don’t think, just let the words flow, with as little input from your conscious mind as possible. The results may not be elegant, but they will be authentic. If they are radically different in tone from your usual writing, then you may be trying to force a voice that isn’t your own. Learn to let go a bit more as you write.
Try this trick the next time you write: sit down with an alarm clock and write as fast as you can for only an hour. You may plan out your next passage as much as you want, but write it all down within the hour. If you manage five or more pages, whatever is there is truly your own. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with polishing your prose once it’s written (you want clarity as well as authenticity), but it should never be at the expense of your voice.
Bear in mind that your writing style is not an end in itself. It exists to serve your story. Focus on your style for its own sake and you run the risk of creating a linguistic feedback loop — elegant language for the sake of elegant language — that will condemn you to the slush pile forever. Focus on your story — your characters, your settings, your plot — and your natural style will emerge. Whether it’s flowery or plain, baroque or minimalist, it will be unique and wholly yours. And, really, there’s nothing else worth doing.
But remember: Purple prose. It’s bad.