The Truth About Throbbing, Pulsing, Purple Prose

“Cup.”

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.”

Now: “Goblet.”

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.

26 comments

  • The following is not so much in response to your post as a comment – question – divine guidance from above, which at the moment is you….

    A couple of posts back you yanked me back into reality, by reminding me of planning in the novel writing process.

    I did planning about six months ago – but as the planning went on I got incredibly excited and almost antsy. I wanted to start getting the story down. The ideas started coming at me with lightning speed and I feared loosing the momentum and even though against my better judgment, one morning I started writing the draft and kept at it fast and furious.

    I am an outliner, a list maker. Always have been, always will be. I don’t find an outline hinders any “creativity” or slows down the fun of writing. I just need to know where these characters are going; how they get there I leave up to them. But ah-ha!! In the rush to write I wrote at least ½ of the outline in little sketches of one or two sentences and a few words in point form, I thought I did not need it; I was doing just fine and having a great time. Not so. Pitfalls, roadblocks, I think I may have jumped the gun a bit. Put cart before horse and all that stuff…so now I have stopped the actual writing and taking your advice and gone back to the planning.

    This is hard. I am in a much better mood when I write actual fiction….you know what I mean. When I go to my middle earth and live there for a few hours a day. All too soon I am yanked back into this world and face real life. Plus…I have underlying sense of urgency to get this story completed for some reason. I don’t know if I am explaining this correctly. It’s like OMG! The rest of the world needs to know this..as if..but still, ya never know..

    Has this ever happen to you?

    • @Tina:

      Sure, it’s easy to be impatient — you want the thing done. It’s like birthing a baby (says the man who will never birth a baby). You want it done, but it has to be what it has to be. The brownies in the oven need to bake all the way through before they’re done, and nothing you can do will rush it in a way that gets you the best brownie.

      Fiction needs time and patience, so take the time and have patience. :)

      — c.

  • Well, I am a beginner. Jeez, how can you tell…?

    It is overwhelming and I am experiencing the biggest learning curve of my life, which is funny at my age, after years of having been there and done that. I thought I would spend my retirement blissfully writing away.

    But I look around me and all I am reminded of daily is that I have started this little journey late in life and may not live to see the end. I have lost years and years, doing things like raising a family and keeping bill collectors away. I am jealous of people who been working at the craft since graduating…and I had to shelve my writing for 30 years. I feel like I have so much time to make up.

    This is probably where the impatience comes in. It is one thing to be able to string a few words together…quite another to actually write well.

    • Well, @Tina — patience is one thing, but don’t get discouraged. It’s not like you’re going to need to take another 30 years to get going. I’m just saying, don’t rush it. Take the time you and the WIP need to take.

      — c.

  • p.s. Very good post by the way…haha!!. Sorry, obviously self absorbed today. I am printing it out….it goes above the desk. Details, details hmm?

  • Do you think this is the sort of thing Shakespeare was aiming for when he said, through Polonius, “Brevity is the soul of wit”?

    (Or, as Mr. Plinkett says it, “Don’t waste my time.”)

    I know it’s kind of odd to point to Shakespeare during a conversation on de-flowering language since he tends entire gardens in his soliloquies and dialogs, but he did say that.

    • @Josh —

      It’s a next-door neighbor to what I’m saying, but brevity is not necessarily a marker of clarity. Some purple prose wanders so far afield that it keeps building onto a sentence, yes — you shouldn’t take ten words to say something you can describe in five — but some purple prose can be kept contained. “My tumescent man-branch!” is purple. “My hard cock” is not. Both are fairly brief, at least as far as word count (syllables are higher, though, so maybe there’s something there).

      — c.

  • As a newb, I wrestle with purple vs. no purple a lot. It actually kinda freaks me out. On one hand, I want to have vivid description. On the other, I don’t want to be that writer with the purple tiara on.

    Since I’m on the first draft of my novel, I’m simply moving forward with what feels right. Then on my edits I hope I can sprinkle on or scrap off the description my story needs.

    Thanks for the post, Chuck.

    • @Michelle:

      Word. Moving ahead is the best plan; language is always something you can adjust after the fact. Actually, I suspect this method of purple-prose detection (does it clarify, or does it muddy it up) might work particularly well when you’ve got a full draft in hand.

      Also, keep in mind, I don’t think that “vivid” and “purple” are the same thing.

      Vivid, in fact, often relies on forceful-yet-simple words. Vivid is, in a way, a form of hyper-clarity. A bright color is vivid — it’s not muddy, it’s not uncertain, it’s bold and clear and declarative.

      Language can work like that. And in certain scenes, should. A book like Jeff Vandermeer’s FINCH offers very vivid descriptions, but it doesn’t go purple, it doesn’t get muddy.

      — c.

  • Which is worse: short and purple or long and clear? I mean, most high fantasy is the latter, since it’s apparently written with the assumption that the reader is drawing a map as they go, but it’s boring as shit. I guess “don’t be boring” is a good motto to write by, but my false dichotomy needs satisfaction, dammit.

    • @Danielle:

      Ehh, neither? I mean, that’s like asking, “Which is better? A punch to the nuts? Or a kick to the nuts?”

      Well, okay — “long and clear” can be good if it’s written with evocative, interesting language. High fantasy gets boring because it’s basically just rattling off facts.

      But, as you describe them, neither.

      — c.

  • The quote that jumps to mind for me is from Clint Eastwood. “A man’s got to know his limitations.” Every writer’s got his own gifts. Description ain’t one of mine. I read James Lee Burke, and he’ll rattle off the occassional metaphorical paragraph with heat lightning throbbing through a living sky of purples and black and it’s poetry. It’s evocative. It adds to the sense of place and the mood and it’s all good. I try that shit and it’s jarring and off-key.

    Maybe it’s where we were raised. He grew up in New Iberia, surrounded by bayous and the ocean and antebellum mansions and a countryside soaked in history and history’s blood. I grew up in the fucking suburbs. Strip malls and tract homes lining the barely treed streets of subdivisions with the self-same monotony of relatively kempt teeth. Why describe that?

    So I pretty much don’t describe shit beyond the bare essentials, and I think that works OK — for me. In my work, it’s usually the dialog that matters — I do OK with dialog. I’m better off letting readers fill in their own details.

    You gotta go with your strengths. If you can describe shit like Burke (or McCarthy) then do it. If you can’t, trying to is just gonna make you sound stilted and false. Dance with who brung ya.

    Dan

    • blink, blink.

      Maybe it’s where we were raised. He grew up in New Iberia, surrounded by bayous and the ocean and antebellum mansions and a countryside soaked in history and history’s blood. I grew up in the fucking suburbs. Strip malls and tract homes lining the barely treed streets of subdivisions with the self-same monotony of relatively kempt teeth. Why describe that?

      Psst. Dan. You did just describe it. And you described it beautifully. Shhh. I won’t tell anybody.

      — c.

  • But I didn’t MEAN to. OK, caveat, when description just kinda burst out of me all ejaculatory like, then sometimes it’s OK. When I decide “this here shit’s important. Gotta describe me some of this,” that’s when things go south And not like good south, not liek Faulkner south. No, Chicago south. Alsip south. Never been to Alsip? Well, OK, then you don’t know what I’m talking about, but Alsip wants to be Gary when it grows up. So accidental description good. Puposeful description bad.

    Damn you Wendig, that’s why I don’t THINK about writing. Just gets me in trouble.

  • Well, color me educated! That was an awesome post that finally claryified what purple prose actually IS (and isn’t) and how to recognize it in my work. The “Do these words give clarity? Or do they steal clarity?” really puts the whole thing into perspective for me. Also, your cup example was incredibly helpful. Thank you, Dr. Wendig. I shall see you on the morrow.

    P.S. It would be super awesome if you could just post all of your golden nuggets of writing knowledge, say, tomorrow. You know, so every time you give me that “OH! NOW I get it!” moment on a different subject, I don’t have to go through the already-been-edited chapters of my WIP using my brand new, shiny Nuggets o’ Chuck Wisdom. You can do that no prob, right? Sweet. Thanks.

  • As you may know, my wife and I are editing an anthology covering a century of weird fiction. This question of “clarity” is the number one difference between material that seems to stand the test of time and that which doesn’t. Yes, the story itself–the plot/narrative/events/characters/whatever–has to be unique, but *clarity* is the deciding factor for us.

    Clarity, as you suggest, isn’t about invisible versus descriptive prose. It’s the accuracy of the prose, no matter how sparse or florid, and the contexts in which it is deployed.

    Karen Joy Fowler will always have *clarity* no matter what she does. So will Joanna Russ. Etc. Others gain clarity in some stories and then lose it.

    For my part, I let the rough draft take me wherever it wants to. Then I go back and examine the evidence and clean it up, test it, interrogate it.

    JeffV

    • @Jeff:

      Jeff, thanks for coming by. Excuse me while I gush a little bit, blubbering about how much I loved FINCH.

      Like, I really, really loved FINCH. (Thanks to Hindmarch for that recommend.)

      Looking forward to that anthology, by the by. :)

      — c.

  • I have an unhealthy fascination for purple prose. I’m paranoid about it creeping into my work — the few times I choose to write for pleasure — and I’m highly critical when I think I see it. The cynical, crusty old fart in my psyche comes to play and squints suspiciously at anything ending in -ly (including the aforementioned descriptive) and snorts at overly gleeful, enthusiastic characterizations. The old fart kicks puppies to make sure he’s got the sound right.

    And yet… when a writer is able to use very vivid and descriptive language that takes me out of myself and dream, I want to fall on my knees and worship it and emulate it.

    Sigh. That’s a bitch of a tightrope to walk, sometimes. I get the clarity issue, but sometimes you want to tack on just… one… more… and oops: the soup’s muddled. The design is Flemish Renaissance and Victorian Gothic, and they want their tchotchkes back. In other words: You went overboard with the dictionary, pud. Oh, I can fix it, and I strip it back down, but oh it gets tough.

    I also like the color purple.

    Hold on, I got some puppies to go kick.

  • April 28, 2010 at 11:00 PM // Reply

    Woah! Thanks for the complimentary shout-out, especially in this context. Purple prose, flowery language, abstract metaphors… All crutches, IMO, and few writers can pull it off on a consistent basis. One of my main rules of thumb is the read aloud test. If it doesn’t roll off the tongue, you’re doin it wrong!

    PS: That bit by O’Shea describing the burbs was absolutely poetic! Authenticity usually begets clarity.

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