Purple Prose: What Is It and Why Is It Such a Crime?

Abi Wurdeman
January 25, 2024
Purple Prose: What Is It and Why Is It Such a Crime?
“The finest words in the world are only vain sounds if you can’t understand them. The best sentence? The shortest.” –Anatole France
“I never write ‘metropolis’ for seven cents when I can write ‘city’ and get paid the same.” –Mark Twain
“The shorter and the plainer the better.” –Beatrix Potter

It’s writing advice you’ll hear over and over again throughout your author journey:

Simplicity is the key to writing clear and powerful prose.

That’s why, if you’ve ever heard the term “purple prose,” it was likely spoken with a disdainful tone.

Purple prose—which is basically overly ornate writing—is, to put it bluntly, not good. It’s a form of writing that draws attention to itself, distracts from the narrative, and confuses the reader.

But what does it look like, exactly? How do you know if you’re doing it? Won’t simplicity bore everybody? And if flowery language is such a bad thing, why are Dickens, Austen, and all the Brontës so revered?

Those are fair questions, and you’re about to get answers to all of them. You’ll learn:

  • What purple prose is
  • How it’s different from descriptive language
  • How this type of prose affects the reading experience
  • Where you’ve seen it before
  • How to avoid purple prose in your own writing
  • Fun exercises for mastering scene description without all the flowery stuff

Let us now valorously sally forth on this momentous expedition of intellectual revelation, that we may together effectuate this exigent mission of vanquishing such pomposity as would deter the multitude from deciphering our recorded reveries.

That is to say, let’s do this.

What is Purple Prose?

Three purple books on an ornate desk.

Purple prose is the horrific paragraph I just ambushed you with, plus any other written passage that could be described as flowery, ornate, and obnoxiously complex.

As you likely figured out from the example above, purple prose is frowned upon in modern works because it’s exhausting to read. It’s also dull, takes way too long to get to the point, and distracts the reader from the story itself.

Characteristics of Purple Prose

Here are some common attributes of purple prose that will help you recognize this type of writing in the wild:

Pretentious word choices - Reading is great for expanding one’s vocabulary. But if you have to look up every third word, you’re probably looking at purple prose.

Wordiness - Elaborate writing involves the use of several words to say what could easily be communicated in just a few. That’s why purple prose is also known for… 

Elaborate sentences - I’m talking long, complex sentences weighed down with loads of excessive detail. 

Abstract description - If there are buckets of adjectives and adverbs but they’re not doing anything to actually clarify the scene they’re describing, you’re probably reading purple prose. Speaking of which…

Adverbs and adjectives for days - Purple prose tends to ignore the cardinal rule of modern writing: don’t use adjectives and adverbs if you can use better nouns and verbs.

Absolute buckets of unnecessary detail - It’s important to set the scene, but if it’s not relevant to the plot or theme, the reader doesn’t need to know that the wheat is golden and that it dances in the twilight air like fairies on the wind and that tiny ants gather at the base of it and that those particular ants are actually invasive to the region.   

Tells instead of showing - Purple prose leans on the loveliness of words themselves. But as we know, the most effective writing creates an image and experience that pulls the reader into the story. It shows them what happens instead of telling them. With purple prose, it’s the opposite.

Not much happens and not much is said - Purple prose does very little to move the story forward, and there are so many unnecessary words that it ends up taking a lot of real estate without communicating much at all.

Examples of Purple Prose in Literature

A teacup with big bunches of tiny purple flowers in its saucer sits on top of an open book.

Now, you’ve probably seen purple prose before. In fact, you probably had it assigned to you in high school with the assurance that this was exceptional writing. In which case, it’s fair to be a bit confused now.

It’s all a matter of context. Purple prose was hot, hot, hot in the old days, especially in the Victorian era, when folks were all about flowery language, long-winded philosophizing, and publishing fiction in newspapers where one gets paid by the word.

That’s why Charlotte Bronte could get away with writing things like:

“His passions were strong, his aversions and attachments alike vivid; the force he exerted in holding both in check by no means mitigated an observer’s sense of their vehemence.” –Villette

And why Dickens rose to fame despite loads of purple patches like this one:

“The fact is, that there was considerable difficulty in inducing Oliver to take upon himself the office of respiration—a troublesome practice, but one which custom has rendered necessary to our easy existence; and for some time he lay gasping on a little flock mattress, rather unequally poised between this world and the next: the balance being decidedly in favour of the latter.” –Oliver Twist 

Oliver had serious respiratory problems. That’s the short version.

Then there’s my favorite author of all time, Lucy Maude Montgomery:

“...if the path set before her feet was to be narrow she knew that flowers of quiet happiness would bloom along it. The joys of sincere work and worthy aspiration and congenial friendship were to be hers; nothing could rob her of her birthright of fancy or her ideal world of dreams.” –Anne of Green Gables

The literature our culture defines as “classic” was perfectly appropriate, prose-wise, for the preferred styles of its era. These novels stood the test of time because the stories are good, the characters are intriguing, and the themes are powerful. 

Plus, reading elaborate passages that use words like “alabaster” and “ethereal” can still be a good time, especially if you like that sort of thing. I sometimes do.

What you need to know is that modern readers don’t love seeing purple prose from contemporary writers, partly because it’s so far removed from the way anyone talks today.

So What’s Not Purple Prose?

Hands hold a blank open book.

Having said all that, the characters and examples above may have brought some successful contemporary writers to mind for you. Many of the current and recent greats have been accused of purple prose, including Toni Morrison, Cormac McCarthy, and Margaret Atwood. 

Are they guilty?

Well, there’s actually a line between committing the crime of purple prose and simply having an elaborate writing style. That line is relevance.

Do the word choices—even if they’re a little ornate—succeed at drawing the reader deeper into the story? Does the so-called purple passage further the narrative? If so, then the writing style is useful, which means it’s not purple. Or at least, it’s not purple purple.

Seems a Little Subjective…

I’m so glad you said that. It totally is subjective, but people pretend it’s not. In the process of writing this, I’ve come across a few so-called examples of purple prose that, to me, just read like slightly longer-than-average sentences with a couple of adjectives in them.

See, my pale lavender might be someone else’s ultraviolet and vice versa.

So my goal is not to help you avoid ever being called a purple prose writer but to provide tips for thinking through your color spectrum.

Where does the line fall for you? At what point does it seem like your descriptive prose is dragging down your story with excessive details and high-falutin words?

The Fine Line Between Vivid Description and Flowery Language

To avoid purple prose, you’ve got to pull off a tricky balance. You’ve got to craft a vivid tale without going purple. How do you do it?

As you write and revise your prose, ask yourself these questions:

What do readers of your genre expect? If you write Regency romance, for example, you can get a lot more purple than you could in a hard-boiled detective novel.

Will my target audience immediately understand my meaning? One of the biggest rules of writing is to know your reader, so you should have a sense of whether or not you’re using vocabulary that will go over their heads.

Does it paint a vivid picture? Set aside the image you meant to convey and imagine you’re reading your work-in-progress for the first time. What images do your descriptions conjure? If you’re not sure what to picture, you may have inadvertently written some purple prose.

Is the picture meaningful to the story? Every word of your story should serve a purpose. Are you trying to set the scene? Give more depth to a character? Depict a bold action that moves the plot forward? If it’s just pretty words without a purpose, it’s purple.

Can anything be cut without compromising the effect I’m trying to create? Sometimes we overestimate how many details the reader needs. We think that in order for them to really feel the romance, for example, they need to see every last detail of this candlelit ballroom and know every dizzying thought and fear and thrill that passes through the characters’ minds.

But you don’t have to do all that heavy lifting. Give your readers a few concrete details that capture the essence of the experience. They’ll fill in the gaps with their own imaginations and you can keep the story plugging along.

How Purple Prose Affects the Reading Experience

A stressed-looking person touches their hand to their head while lying on a couch, reading a purple book.

Now, let’s talk about what you risk when you cling to those purple passages. Here are the consequences of excessive fancy talk:

Boredom - Your readers are here for a story, not a string of SAT words and Regency-era lingo.

Confusion - Perhaps the biggest downfall of purple prose is that it forces readers to work just to understand what’s going on. The words are unfamiliar, the sentences meander, and it’s all too abstract. Who wants to sit with that for 250 pages?

Distraction - Purple prose forces readers to focus on the words instead of the story.

A pretentious tone - Because the prose is so complex, the author comes off as pretentious. It feels like the writer has something to prove and their ego takes priority over the story.

Readers feel stupid - Those readers who don’t think the author is just showing off are inclined to think that the problem is them… that they’re just not bright or educated enough to comprehend this writing style. No one wants to feel that way when they’re trying to kick back with a book on a Sunday afternoon.

So how do we steer clear of such disasters? Let’s talk.

How to Avoid Writing Purple Prose

A keyboard with a purple glow shining on it.

We’ve talked about strategies for finding the line between descriptive language and a full-on explosion of flowery verbiage. Now here are some tips for avoiding purple prose as you write and revise:

Stick to What Matters

Yes, okay, we covered this, but it bears repeating. This concept is your best tool for keeping those purple patches out of your novel.

Know what you want your reader to get out of every passage you write. Review your work with a critical eye. If you find yourself waxing poetic about the dappled sunlight dancing on the hardwood floor for a full paragraph, ask yourself if all that information is necessary.

It might be! Either way, active awareness is your best defense against purple prose.

Use Your Thesaurus Wisely

In school, we’re taught to embrace our thesaurus… to reference it often and use it to build a smarter, more robust vocabulary.

There’s nothing wrong with that. You just don’t want to start plugging ten-dollar words you’ve never heard before into your prose in an attempt to make it better. 

I won’t tell you to use a thesaurus sparingly. It’s an excellent tool for finding that perfect-fit word when your brain freezes up and can’t come up with its own synonyms. But as you peruse the options the thesaurus offers you, remember that clarity is key.

Let Tech Help

In this age of AI, there are a lot of tech tools that will kindly call you out for excessively ornate prose, long sentences, unnecessary words, and fancypants vocabulary. We’ve advanced beyond spell and grammar check to software like Grammarly and ProWritingAid that offers style suggestions, too. 

There’s also Hemingway Editor, a free online tool designed specifically for the purpose of helping writers simplify their complicated prose.

Just remember that technology is a tool, not a stand-in for your own brilliant brain. Consider AI suggestions carefully and be aware that generative AI like ChatGPT tends to put out a lot of purple prose.

Side note: Dabble comes with ProWritingAid built in and supports both ProWritingAid and Grammarly browser extensions. Just sayin’.

Do an Adjective and Adverb Audit

One of the easiest and fastest ways to avoid purple prose is to do an adjective and adverb audit as part of your self-editing routine. 

Look for all the adjectives and adverbs in your writing. Ask yourself if any of them can be cut or if you can get the same point across more clearly if you just use a better noun or verb.

For example, you might swap out the phrase “effervescent laugh” for “giggle.”

Develop and Trust Your Own Writing Style

This one is more of a long-game strategy, but it’ll pay off big. 

As you develop your own voice and style, you’ll learn to trust it more. That matters because purple prose is often the result of an attempt to sound “like a writer.” 

We worry that we don’t sound smart enough or our descriptions don’t sing, so we throw in some heavy-handed complexity and words we scraped out of the dustiest recesses of the thesaurus.

All the while, the best way to write compelling and effective prose is to find your own voice—ideally one that’s easy to understand. You can learn more about developing your style here.

Is Writing Purple Prose Ever a Good Thing?

A person with purple hair reads a book on a picnic blanket. A basket of purple flowers sits beside them.

Actually, yes. Sometimes. Sorry to be confusing.

For one thing, there are readers who happily admit to loving purple prose. Sometimes it’s because they love the Brontës and sometimes they simply mean that they love the kind of prose that other people find too flowery.

But those folks typically want all the fancy talk to actually mean something and lead somewhere. They’re usually not saying they prefer incomprehensible books where nothing happens aside from zephyrs whispering through the quivering branches of silver maples.

You might also deliberately write purple prose if you’re dabbling in satire or creating a character who talks like the heroine of a Victorian novel.

My favorite fictional character is Anne Shirley (Anne of Green Gables), and that girl lives and breathes purple prose. Her love of ornate language only highlights her dreamy and optimistic nature, making her more lovable and even pretty funny.

Writing Exercises for Writing Vividly Without Going Purple

An open tin of colored pencils.

Before I send you off to write dazzling prose (and possibly de-purple your work-in-progress), I’d like to offer you a parting gift in the form of writing exercises. These little word workouts will help you drill down to the details that matter and tell a compelling tale.

Study Authors Who Do It Well

Study your favorite passages from your favorite books. Return to the scenes that moved you and made you think, “I want to write like that.”

Copy those passages out by hand, then examine them closely. What makes the prose so effective? What details do they include? What do they omit, leaving it up to your imagination? How do they engage your senses? How do they get maximum impact from simple and familiar words?

Sharpen Your “Show, Don’t Tell” Skills

Avoiding purple prose gets easier when you fully embrace the goal of helping your reader experience the story.

You know they can’t visualize a scene they don’t understand. You’re aware that simple, specific concrete images will pack a bigger punch than a string of poetically vague words.

Focus your efforts on showing over telling and purple prose avoidance will come naturally. I recommend starting with these handy “show, don’t tell” worksheets.

Rewrite Flowery Passages From Classic Literature

Bold, I know. But I don’t think they’d hold it against you. Styles change, culture changes—every writer knows that.

How would you rewrite Dickens for today’s readers? What about Jane Austen or Shakespeare?

Pick a passage of archaic, convoluted prose and communicate the same message in a style that would resonate with your target audience.

Above all: 

Keep Writing

Screenshot of a section of Pride and Prejudice in a Dabble manuscript with a comment.
Dabble makes it easy to review, revise, and hone your writing style.

The best way to sharpen any creative writing skill is to simply show up and do the work. Embrace the mess, missteps, and yes, even those accidental patches of eggplant-colored prose. Learn from the greats, learn from yourself, and keep moving forward.

Remember that if you could use a little backup on this journey (can’t we all?), Dabble is here for you.

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Whatever you do, just keep writing.

Abi Wurdeman

Abi Wurdeman is the author of Cross-Section of a Human Heart: A Memoir of Early Adulthood, as well as the novella, Holiday Gifts for Insufferable People. She also writes for film and television with her brother and writing partner, Phil Wurdeman. On occasion, Abi pretends to be a poet. One of her poems is (legally) stamped into a sidewalk in Santa Clarita, California. When she’s not writing, Abi is most likely hiking, reading, or texting her mother pictures of her houseplants to ask why they look like that.