“I liked the story okay, but it felt a bit wordy.”
“Your writing was really pretty, but it kinda made the pacing slow.”
“It just was really heavy on description and, for me, that made it difficult to read.”
If you’ve heard a critique like this before, chances are, you may be a fan of Purple Prose. While definitions of Purple Prose can vary, the basic core concept is this: when the language of your writing is so complex or intricate that it serves as more of a distraction instead of a complement to your story as a whole.
It is difficult to quantify and accurately measure just what makes writing too flowery or ornate, as the topic of Creative Writing itself is subjective. You may personally love dense, rich prose and poetic language, and reading a heavily descriptive novel might not ruin your experience of the story overall. However, when studying the topic of popular or bestselling novels, one writing style typically reigns supreme: simplistic or minimalistic storytelling.
A casual reader prefers a combination of basic verbs and descriptions, alongside the occasional vivid description. Short paragraphs between dialogue and short chapters are also typical of bestselling books, because it naturally creates a faster pace for the story overall. A dense paragraph with several long sentences back to back can require extra time to read and process. And, for a general reader, it lengthens the time they have to spend mentally digesting wordy prose or complex adjectives, when they may want to hurry up and get to the exciting parts.
So, what can you do to help make your writing more accessible to a wider audience?
Reduce Complex or Repetitious Adjectives: One of the biggest culprits for repeated adjectives is color. Once you’ve described the color of anything, you don’t need to repeat it a second time. Another great test to ask yourself is: is this description essential to the setting, themes, or plot? If not, then cut it. Another good test is to read over your prose and count the number of complex adjectives or descriptions that are included. If you have several back to back, consider replacing them with simpler words, or even just cutting the section entirely.
Balance Sentence Length: In order to make your beautiful prose shine, surround your descriptive sentences with a series of shorter, crisper passages. This way, when you incorporate your poetic descriptions, they pop off the page and reward the reader. Some areas you can cut to help make your prose more concise are things like non-essential prepositional phrases or too many similes or metaphors in a row. Think of poetic or flowery description like ice cream: too much of it can give the reader a brain freeze, but just the right amount can make your writing a delight and feast for the eyes and soul.
Don’t Shy Away from Simplistic Vocabulary: There’s no shame in using simple verbs, adjectives, or nouns, especially in scenes where you need to move things quickly. Simpler vocabulary can serve as a cue to your reader that they don’t have to invest as much attention in the prose itself, and can quickly move the plot forward to the exciting conflicts you are building up to.
Understand Your Genre’s Expectations: Some genres flourish under complex prose and poetic language, while others thrive in minimalism. Spend some time reading novels that match your target audience and target genre. Study their sentence structure and see if you can note the number of times flowery or ornate language is incorporated. This will help you as an author to decide how to polish your own writing for the future.
In the end, you as a writer have to decide if your ultimate goal is to publish a book that will appeal to a larger audience, or if you want to stay true to your preferred style. Purple Prose is for some a delight to read. There is no shame is staying true to your own voice, just like there is no shame in altering your manuscript to be accessible to a casual audience. It all depends on what works for you.
What are your thoughts on Purple Prose? Do you love it, or does it tend to throw you out of a story?