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Giant Turkey Sub

As the title says, what is the line between precise description and purple prose?

What are some guidelines you follow to keep from falling into this common pitfall of the advancing writer?

4/5/2009 . Edited by Rhea Silverkeys, 4/12/2009 #1

Normal description (or well-written) makes use of strong nouns and verbs, where as purple prose is loaded with adjectives. Take this for example:

The mountain woke. It surged to its feet, spitting ash and shrieking with fire. Chaos twisted the world with ribbons of darkness and spewing earth. Time did that odd thing of slowing down, then speeding up again, as if the universe hit the pause button by mistake. A crevice zigzagged over the ground and cracked the nearby magma rivers wide. Lava, thick and greedy sucked the islands of rock into their eager mouths.

There's personification (that is, attributing human traits or emotions to non-living things such as lava and the mountain), but also strong nouns, select verbs that punch the point across. Maybe I could have trimmed the "eager mouths", but I didn't want to go bare bones. Some adjectives are fine in moderation.

Now, purple prose would do this:

The mountain woke in a fit of ruby flames and effulgent conflagration. It surged to its feet, spitting mass quantities of sparkling gray ash and shrieking with bright flames of fire. Chaos twisted the world with ribbons of inky darkness and spewing irascible earth. Time did that strange, odd thing of slowing down, then speeding up again, as if the universe hit that little pause button by fateful miscalculation. A yawning crevice zigzagged over the pernicious terrain and cracked open the nearby twisting magma rivers into wide chasms of doom. Crimson lava, thick and torpid and greedy sucked the giant islands of sediment into their eager orifices.

See the difference? I added a bunch of repetitive adjectives and made sure to put fancy words in there to get my point across. Some purple prose is okay, even fitting in instances, but when it's so overwhelming, it hurts rather than helps.

4/6/2009 . Edited 4/6/2009 #2
United Sauce

Maiafay seems to have hit the nail on the head.

Description should immerse the reader in the atmosphere of the story without breaking the flow of action.

When I'm writing, I tend to allow the level of action to determine the level of description. Consider a situation such as a fight scene. You have the opportunity to describe the opponents in intricate detail, but will this really matter to the fighters? Generally, the faster a character is moving or the more occupied they are, the less detail I add.

Try adding as much detail and descriptive prose as you can, before simplifying and compressing a large paragraph down to one or two lines.

Also, try to avoid what I like to call 'triplets'. This is where the author continually describes every character in three parts. Use whatever description is necessary to the situation, but no more.

4/6/2009 #3

What do you mean by 'three parts'? Could you give an example? I found i have a tendency to list three things about any one thing (like differences in a room, etc.) but I don't think that's what you meant.

Yes, I think Maiafay totally captured purple prose. It's like the difference between drama and melodrama.

4/6/2009 #4

Lol, I had fun writing it though! (and to think, I USED to write like that!!)

All I can add is to help people with purple prose issues is to use a simple word instead of a big one. Long fancy words are not your friend, especially when in certain situations and POV's. Good rule of thumb: how would the "character" view their surroundings? Technically, viewing the world through the eyes of your character should cut down on the fancy terms. Not many people would use conflagration when describing a really large fire unless they had an extensive vocabulary.

And another thing: brown eyes are brown eyes - not "gingerbread" or "amber speckled with motes of chocolate" (mega-eyeroll).

If you use that kind of description, your readers will want to gag.

4/6/2009 . Edited 4/6/2009 #5

Hey, I might call those eyes 'amber' or 'chocolate', but more than one word is kind of pushing it. Unless the character is in love. Oh man, I went into overdrive with the description when I wrote from the POV of a character head-over-heels for a guy who honestly is a little uncomfortable with that. She keeps misreading his actions and not realizing he's uninterested, and the whole time she's focused entirely on him and talking about the guy like he's some kind of warrior-god. It's kind of an eyeroll, but that's the character. And the fic isn't entirely through her eyes, so I thought I could get away with it.

Anyway, short of major love, you should never describe any attribute in more than one sentence unless it's hard to understand or a major plot point, because you really don't need all that.

4/6/2009 . Edited 4/6/2009 #6

I got into it one time with a woman who insisted upon writing purple prose. Before I began writing again, I used to think her work was great, but then after a few years of studying and honing, I went back to reread a story of hers and cringed. I tried sharing what I learned with her, but she pitched a fit and said the way she wrote was fine. We kinda went back and forth until she accused me of being jealous of her and having it "in" for her. I bowed out after that. Not even worth it to argue over something she didn't want to change.

I find purple prose an issue with beginning writers, mostly. They don't realize you can break up sentences to describe; they want to shove everything they can into one sentence. Writers who hide behind the "it's my style!" (which I did BTW) are covering the fact they can't convey something without shoving a ton of adjectives on top of it. Style is one thing; you can have a florid candence to your work, but skilled authors know when to pull back.

4/8/2009 #7

I don't know if it was purple prose or not, but for a while my sentences would take up two and three lines in a word document. They went on and on forever and sometimes I even lost track of where it was going by the end of the sentence! Anyway, once I realized that was happening and not good, I started breaking my sentences up. It's funny though, nobody called me on it! If anyone ever realized how long and complicated my sentences were besides me, they never said anything. Although, maybe that period of time was just too short, I'm not sure.

Anyway, sometimes the ultra-long sentences are from authors who have only just learned how to insert tons of adjectives to better describe what's going on and don't realize that the extra load on the sentence makes it necessary to break it up now.

I absolutely agree with everything you said though, Maiafay.

4/8/2009 #8
Sorry for reviving this old thread, but I was planning to write a story from the perspective of a character who's VERY melodramatic in the series. He likes to suddenly go off on tangents to wax poetic about his love. In a case like this, is it okay to go a little bit purple for comedy's sake?
5/27/2009 #9
Resident Bishounen

Don't worry - this forum doesn't mind necroposting, as long as you've got something to say.

Anywhoo, I think it'd depend. Is the whole fic like that, or just a few passages? Does the mood of the series / fic allow for comedic interludes? It sounds like it could work without being too annoying if you only use it here and there and it's not meant to be taken seriously.

5/27/2009 #10

I think if it's a romantic comedy, it'd be alright, but as Resident said, only if small sections of it, not the whole thing. As far as the fandom, I'd only worry about those interludes if they don't fit with the rest of the fic. And the fic should fit with the fandom, but they don't always. Ie: M-rated fics in Blue's Clues and stuff. Ick.

As for reviving old threads, dead threads do no one any good. They only died because no one had anything else to say. Reviving one with new info makes it useful again. Go ahead and revive all the threads you like!

5/27/2009 #11
Resident Bishounen

As far as the fandom, I'd only worry about those interludes if they don't fit with the rest of the fic

I was thinking more along the lines of one sudden bout of silliness in an otherwise serious fic being perfectly acceptable in certain fandoms when I brought that up, but I see your point.

5/27/2009 . Edited 5/27/2009 #12

Well, yes, some fandoms do that, but that isn't very...good. To me, at least. But if it fits the fandom that way, that's okay since it's what people would expect. And there are other ways to put sections of purple prose in for comedy that can be done to fit other types of fandoms as well.

Actually, I've gone a little purple at times. Sometimes it just works. ^^

5/27/2009 #13
I guess the trick would be keeping the sections short enough that they don't become an eyesore, then. My interpretation of this character is that he actually has to be a bit purple to be in character. As for the fandom, I feel like I'm surrounded by kids, so I'll probably get some "Wow, you use big words!" reviews, but that's okay. Don't worry, no M-rated Blue's Clues fics from me! Although...I really want to see what those are like, now.
5/27/2009 #14

Well yes, but you were talking narration, not dialogue, right? Purple dialogue is just fine if it's in character, and some people might be like that all the time. But in narration...I suppose the exception would be a first person POV, a retelling by said character, or what was listed already.

And yes, some fandoms are mostly young kids and wouldn't have much of a vocabulary spread. Actually, most of the site seems to be like that, and the surprising thing is that they aren't all kids!

5/27/2009 #15
Oh, right. I was thinking of first person, but I didn't make that very clear. Ha! They're all about 13 and I feel like one of the Village Elders or something. The fandom I'm working in is Kyou Kara Maou, if you're familiar with it.
5/27/2009 #16

Nope, not in the least. I center around DC and Marvel comics (Batman/X-Men). I don't know much about anime, although I have managed to retain a moderate amount of info on DBZ, Naruto and Avatar the Last Airbender. Somehow. I guess I just have the memory for fiction.

Not that I can remember a damn thing in RL.

Anyway, yes, first person prose should sound a lot like the character who's telling the story. You can dress it up with description that you would use so it doesn't sound like a five-year-old's tale, but first person usually has a lot of the character in the prose.

5/27/2009 #17
Resident Bishounen

I've read a few chapters of the manga myself, so I'm familiar with the basic premise, but I haven't read through the whole thing.

5/27/2009 #18

Oh, it's a manga. Oops. Lol.

5/27/2009 #19
It was actually a novel first (or a series of novels...) and then anime, and the manga came last. Not that you needed to know that :D
5/27/2009 #20

Lol. Anyway, I started reading Counting Sheep and decided I might as well finish, then review it. Let me know if you dislike in-depth critiques. (I never flame).

Bated breath, I'm sure.

5/27/2009 #21
Wow, thank you for reading! Critiques are definitely with me.
5/27/2009 #22

Yep, just about done. I have to do reviews in two parts because my brain can't handle what I like and what I don't like all at once.

You should know, I have very high standards, but I liked that fic. It's nice and it was good enough that I could see how it might be awesome, if you'd written the rest of the words. I knew you had it in your head, otherswise I'd never have seen it, but it never made it to the computer screen. Thanks.

5/27/2009 . Edited 5/27/2009 #23

How would you a describe a person's race? I know that this may seem like a silly question, but I was wondering how you would describe someone of Asian descent and other races. I apologize if this is the wrong thread, and I'll edit and move it if I need to.

11/22/2009 #24
Ten ways to spoil dinner

Well, you could just say they were whatever race they were. If they were Asian, you could say they were Asian (Then, maybe, go on to describe them in smaller details, like hairstyle, or something.)

11/22/2009 #25
Rhea Silverkeys

Hmm. Well, with an Asian person, saying that they had almond shaped eyes and tanned skins will tell people that person is Asian (I've seen it in books a lot - Asian people are almost always described like that).

Pick out a defining feature of that race and mention it - that should tell the reader what race they are without having to say explicitly that they're Asian.

11/23/2009 #26

You can also mention the silky, raven hair. I don't know why, but asian people look like they have the most silky hair ever. And it's always the deepest black. I'm almost jealous; my hair is in between colors.

Pick out a defining feature of that race and mention it - that should tell the reader what race they are without having to say explicitly that they're Asian.

Exactly. You can even be more innocuous and mention heritage objects in their personal space, countries or cities of origin, family history, etc. Little clues like that can really peg them down.

11/23/2009 #27

Pick out a defining feature of that race and mention it - that should tell the reader what race they are without having to say explicitly that they're Asian.

Thank you for that.

11/23/2009 #28

Whose POV are you in when you describe them? Try getting in their head a little more and have them think about it. If she looks "Asian", maybe the character looking at her might wonder whether her heritage is Chinese or Korean, for instance?

11/26/2009 #29
Resident Bishounen

You can also describe by point out differences from people around them. In one book series I'm reading, a main character is described only as having long, black hair with a red streak that she dyes black.

Later on, a special military squad in this country is mentioned, it's members notable by how pale they are. This immediately gives me the mental image of a south-asian-esque girl without actually having to mention it.

11/26/2009 #30
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