Jeanne Marie Leach talks today about Purple Prose and Stilted Writing
This is an expression used to describe a section of a scene written with overtly extravagant, flamboyant, or flowery words, which break the flow of the story. You won’t see a whole book written in purple prose, so when the reader comes across it, the writing definitely draws attention to itself.
A more restrained writing style tugs on a reader’s emotions far better than over-the-top narrative.
Here’s an example of purple prose:
- Anita stood at the window, letting her mind wander back to what Brad had just told her over the phone. Across the expanse of the ample backyard, the brilliance of the sun bounced deep orange hues off the fluffy, cumulus clouds and ignited the sky in a fiery radiance. Then, like a giant kaleidoscope, it tinted a vibrant pink with purple streaks that played off the mountains like a child coloring outside the lines. In one, last, luminous dance, it took a final curtain call before finally exiting behind the majesty of the highest snow-capped peak. This symphony of vibrancy reminded Anita that Brad needed to pick up his shirts from the cleaners on his way home.
The ridiculous amount of time spent on describing a sunset took the reader out of the story momentarily. All they really wanted to know is what she thought about what Brad had said to her. They could care less about how deep the sunset looked, and the reminder of the shirts at the cleaners stood out as a stark contrast to the whole scene.
It is likely that you can name a few best-selling authors who use purple prose often and get away with it. I’m talking about what most publishers want to see from their first-time authors. They know what most readers like, so it’s important that an author write in such a way as to win their reader’s hearts. I admit that back in my newbie days as a writer, I thought purple prose was actually great writing. I spent a lot of time agonizing over just the right description to create the most vivid sunsets and the like, but all the reader wanted to know is what’s happening with the characters they’d come to know and love so well.
Descriptions of the surrounding setting are necessary and can be done with vibrancy; just don’t allow it to go over-the-top.
This is stiff, formal writing, which is frowned upon in Christian fiction today. Don’t get me wrong; it’s great to read well-written books that speak to a higher intellectual level. However, today’s fiction books are written at about the 8th grade level. If the writing goes much higher than that, the readers won’t understand it very well. Seriously!
When someone critiquing or editing in the Christian fiction genre says something is stilted, they don’t necessarily mean it’s too high of a level for people to understand. It means it interrupts the natural, gentle flow of the story.
I am currently editing a book that uses a lot of stilted sentences. I find myself stopping and rereading often, which is a bad thing. An author must strive to never cause a reader to stop and reread in order to understand what they’re saying. In an attempt never to use “was” or “ly” adverbs, the result is a very stiff and unfriendly read.
Examples from a book I recently edited:
- Hazel-flecked eyes rested gently on Tessa, friendly surprise showing in the generous mouth, slighted parted.
- A shadowy look came across his brow and strayed aside, lost in another time and place.
I would consider both of these stilted. In these examples, simple would be better. They both suffer from a misplaced modifier, but even had they been written correctly, the writing, in my opinion, would still be stilted. Here are the same sentences written with a simple flair. They would no longer stick out like a sore thumb in the story.
- Tessa’s mouth gaped open as John looked at her with kind, hazel-flecked eyes.
- He looked away, a shadow of remembrance spreading across his face.
Sometimes stilted writing is nothing more than the author trying to put too many descriptions in one sentence. Once in a while it’s merely mini-purple prose.
If there’s one principle I could use to sum up this lesson it would be that sometimes simpler is better. Don’t try to make your writing too elaborate to be enjoyable.