What Is Purple Prose and Why Should I Avoid It?

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Purple Prose

Purple prose describes writing that draws attention to itself due to its excessive ornateness or elaborateness. It is writing that is over-the-top. Too much. Purple prose is usually the result of a writer who tries too hard.

Here’s an egregious example, the winner of the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, which recognizes authors who excel at writing badly. This is the 2012 winner in the Purple Prose category:

“William, his senses roused by a warm fetid breeze, hoped it was an early spring’s equinoxal thaw causing rivers to swell like the blood-engorged gumlines of gingivitis, loosening winter’s plaque, exposing decay, and allowing the seasonal potpourris of Mother Nature’s morning breath to permeate the surrounding ether, but then he awoke to the unrelenting waves of his wife’s halitosis.” ~Guy Foisy, Orelans, Ontario

It’s okay to laugh. Guy intended it to be terrible. The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest asks entrants to write the worst possible opening line for a novel. The contest is named after Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, author not only famous for purple prose, but for originating the most imitated opening words in the history of fiction: “It was a dark and stormy night…”

Here are some honorable mentions in the Purple Prose category:

“Haley’s crystal eyes surveyed the vista that stretched in front of her like a vast comforter tossed over the form of a slumbering giant to the hills that arose abruptly like the hastily drawn up knees of the giant when he has to reach down and rub the cramp out of his foot that he experiences when he’s stretching underneath his vast comforter.” — Robin Siepel, Bakersfield, CA

“The drugged parrots pelted the village like a hellish rain of feathered fanny packs stuffed with claws and porridge, rendering Claudia’s makeshift rabbit-skin umbrella more symbolic than anything else.” — Jeff Coleburn, West Chester, PA

Brilliant in their horribleness, right?

So, why doe we call this purple prose, you might ask? The name comes from Horace, the Ancient Roman poet who wrote to his fellow poet Pisones in Ars Poetica (The Art of Poetry):

“Your opening shows great promise, and yet flashy
purple patches; as when describing
a sacred grove, or the altar of Diana,
or a stream meandering through fields,
or the river Rhine, or a rainbow;
but this was not the place for them. If you can realistically render
a cypress tree, would you include one when commissioned to paint
a sailor in the midst of a shipwreck?”

By purple here, he meant showy or dazzling.

There’s no strict way to judge any piece of writing to be purple or not. It’s a matter of opinion. When writers attempt a tone that is too lofty, vocabulary that is too exalted, or descriptions that are excessively flowery, he risks crafting purple prose.

Purple’s a lovely color. It looks fine on the Baltimore Ravens, Lady Gaga, and Barney, but keep it out of your prose.

*****

Make a blogger’s day. Leave your very own ornate, flowery, purple comment in the area below.

About the Author

Brian Wasko

Brian WaskoBrian is the founder and president of WriteAtHome.com. One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.View all posts by Brian Wasko

  1. Klaus Schilling
    Klaus Schilling04-21-2015

    I love purple prose, as already deployed by Poe, Hugo, Bulwer-Lytton, Lovecraft, and other figures of genius of literature; ergo, non of your propaganda will evr rbe able to deter me from writing purple prose shamelessly and deliberately.

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko04-22-2015

      I would never dream of deterring you. Propaganda though? That’s a rather extreme accusation. Then again, you are a fan of purple prose…

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  3. Will Egan
    Will Egan04-25-2013

    There’s actually a story I read named “Purple prose” involving a terrible speech which gets thrown into a fire and turns it purple.

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko04-25-2013

      I’ll have to look that one up, Will!

      By the way, the convention hall I’m in right now is called the Egan Center. 🙂

  4. Lydia Barr
    Lydia Barr04-24-2013

    I love that contest! Wacky writing cheers my soul. Some friends of ours go through the library fiction section and send us the most awkward titles and first sentences they can find. It can the most amusing game.

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