The Truth About Throbbing, Pulsing, Purple Prose
I say that, you probably know what I mean. Except, okay, maybe you don’t. I could mean a plastic soda cup. I could mean a child’s sippy cup. Maybe I mean, “athletic protector for some jock’s junk.”
Or, “Highball glass.”
Or, “Wooden dice cup.”
I say those things, I’ve just clarified my description. Now you really know what I’m talking about, right?
You have a good idea, but maybe some more details are necessary to get the picture across, especially if those details are critical to the narrative. “The highball glass is smudged with greasy fingerprints. The rim is cracked, a chip of glass missing, making its edge jagged, its contents dangerous to drink.”
Ideally, I’ve just clarified the image even more. It’s like that machine at the eye doctors where they keep flipping new lenses. Better? Worse? Better? Worse? This should be better. A highball glass is normally a thing of some elegance and class (in my mind), and here the glass is dirty and chipped. I’ve isolated what’s important about the glass and given it to you.
Now, let’s try: “The decaying mouth of the highball glass was syphilitic and herpetic, its contents an unfathomable stew nesting deep in the well of the alcoholic void.” Kinda sounds cool, doesn’t it? Unfathomable stew! Alcoholic void! Syphilis!
Except, going back to that eye doctor machine, the lens just lost clarity. From better, to worse.
Because I don’t know what the fuck it means. I suppose when I say “syphilitic and herpetic,” I’m trying to invoke the chipped rim, but didn’t I already do that with “decaying?” And really, is that the word we want? It’s not “decaying.” It’s chipped. Broken. Cracked. Only so many words mean the thing you want to say. “Alcoholic void?” Well, okay, I guess I’m trying to say something about the alcoholic condition as well as the glass itself? Really, an “A” for effort, but an “F+” for actually conveying an image that can be understood immediately. “Unfathomable stew.” Well, it’s… Lovecraftian, I guess?
Oh, and contrary to what people might tell you, “Lovecraftian” is not necessarily a good thing.
So, it’s pro-tip time. A while back, Filamena asked how to lend clarity to your language and how to “unpurple” your prose. This is easy. It’s really easy. I didn’t even realize how easy until last night.
Here’s the test. Ready?
Look at the words you just wrote.
Then ask yourself:
“Do these words give clarity? Or do they steal clarity?”
Clarity is everything in the language of prose. You know how when you get that public speaking advice, “Speak loudly, speak clearly?” Same thing goes for your writing. Here, we’re talking about clarity.
You start using descriptive words, fine. Description is necessary to paint the picture.
As you add descriptive words, you move towards clarity.
But, if you add too much — or add the wrong ones — you go well past clarity and start moving back into, well, an unfathomable stew of description.
Are you approaching clarity?
Or are you fleeing from it?
Language for the sake of language is a no-no. Stunt language by itself distracts and detracts. Mind you, I’m not saying you can’t get fancy. I’m not saying you can’t get clever. But fancy and clever better overlap with crystal fucking clear at the same damn time.
Someone like Bradley Denton, he rocks clarity and rarely strays into stunt language:
‘The woman’s nightgown was hanging askew, making her body look twisted. Her hands covered her face. She was trying to say something through her own screams. Blackburn couldn’t understand the words.
‘”Hey,” Blackburn said. When she didn’t respond, he yelled. “Hey!”
The woman stopped screaming. She uncovered her face and stared at him. Her hair was tangled, her face streaked. The flesh around her eyes was puffy and bruised. She was trembling just as Number Two had.’
– Bradley Denton, Blackburn
Then, someone like Joe Lansdale (another great Texas writer)… well, hell. He uses stunt language all the time, but usually to thrilling — and clarifying — effect:
‘I could see Leonard at the far end of the field, leaning on his cane. From that distance, he looked as if he were made of pipe cleaners and doll clothes. His raisin-black face was turned in my direction and a heat wave jumped off of it and vibrated in the bright light and dust from the field swirled momentarily in the wave and settled slowly.
When Leonard saw I was looking in his direction, his hand flew up like a grackle taking flight.’
– Joe Lansdale, Mucho Mojo
Some people criticize Cormac McCarthy for leaning toward purple prose, and maybe sometimes he does, but for the most part I’ve found his language clarifying (if not always immediately accessible):
“Charred and limbless trunks of trees stretching away on every side. Ash moving over the road and the sagging hands of blind wire strung from the blackened lightpoles whining thinly in the wind. A burned house in a clearing and beyond that a reach of meadowlands stark and gray and a raw red mudbank where a roadworks lay abandoned.”
– Cormac McCarthy, The Road
For the most part, I get what he’s telling me. Bold, descriptive strokes — only thing I don’t quite get is “blind wire.” Not sure if that’s a term, or if he’s just listing toward purple on that one. Can the wire not see? Since wire has no eyes, that shouldn’t even be an issue. A blind is also a hiding spot. Or, it can mean something that is hard to see rather than an inability to see? I dunno. Here, with that term, I’m forced to stop, to drive over the speedbump, to pause and consider. This is great for a book club book where people need discussion points. It’s not-so-great for other books. I don’t want to lay in bed and get hung up on the writing.
Then again, he can do that. He’s Cormac McCarthy. You’re not. I’m not. So don’t go that way.
And by the way, “purple” is not the same thing as “poetic.”
Some are comfortable conflating those two things because poetry — particularly bad poetry — is often muddy, uncertain, using language that unmoors it from experience. (I think some poets expect that ambiguity is universal, but ambiguity reveals a lack of confidence in one’s work.)
See, you go and read the poetry of Guy “The Dread Pirate LeCharles” Gonzalez, and you’ll see poetry that is crisp, clear, crystal. The poetry lurks in the beats and the rhythm and the words he chooses, but he doesn’t go purple with it. Example: check out Guy’s poem, “Behind The Music.” Or go read the blunt and forthright language in Howard Wood Ingham’s “Row.” Two great examples of what I’m saying.
The best poetry is clear. Concise. Direct.
It moves toward clarity and crispness.
It does not shy away from it.
The poetry does not lurk in ambiguous language.
The poetry — dare I even say, “the art” — in writing is how you choose to construct your words and convey the clarity of your ideas.
So, there it is. You want to unpurple the empurpled?
You want to know whether or not your writing has strayed toward throbbing purple prose? Easy.
Ask yourself: are you clarifying? Or are you muddying? Are you using language for language’s sake? Then you’ve lost the priority of language. The priority of language is not that it impresses, but rather that it communicates clearly. You can still aim to impress. Hell, you should. But that’s your second priority, not your first.