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Purple Prose, and How to Avoid It
Offline 06-27-2017, 06:07 AM (This reply was last modified: 06-27-2017 07:34 AM by LittleBirdhouseInYourSoul.)(Edited by LittleBirdhouseInYourSoul.)
Reply: #1
Purple Prose, and How to Avoid It
This was an insert made by a friend of mine's friend, specifically for SWTOR, but it's got some great passages that I feel apply to writers here as well.

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There’s no shortage of content on what I’m going to talk about here. If you don’t know the term ‘purple prose’, you may be new(ish) to the field of writing, chronically short of a drive to self-improve, or just lack the necessary Google-fu. I’m going to write all of this addressed to the first and last groups because the one in the middle will probably be at the comments section by now anyway.

Purple prose is, at its most basic, writing too much. Stuffing too many words where they don’t have a place. Spotting it is a matter of counting the adjectives and judging what they do (and don’t do). Reading it is a matter of eye-gouging distress. Most people skip purple prose when they see it. I can usually soldier through about a line of the most florid shavit imaginable before I have to give up and go lie down with a damp towel on my head.

Which is all very strange. You’d think it wouldn’t be so painful to read through what is just ‘too many words’. There’s something more fundamental going on here.


In the wide world of writing, there’s something known as a vomit draft. It’s what writers do when they want to get a concept or story down without stressing themselves about honing it. When you hear ‘just write it!’ this is what you are being encouraged to do. Vomit drafts are useful, but they usually have the same fault: too many words. Anyone who has written a vomit draft in the past will probably admit that they scrolled back through it with horror at the verbose pile of steaming kriff they’d just dropped onto a page. The step that comes after a vomit draft is cutting out absolutely everything that can be cut out. In long form, that means anything that doesn’t serve a purpose. In short form, it means anything that doesn’t serve two purposes. In poetry, it means everything that doesn’t serve five purposes and solve a quadratic equation when you read it backwards - at least, if you believe my year nine English teacher...

That’s not a chip on my shoulder, that’s a redwood.

This all flies in direct contradiction of what is commonly accepted logic for new writers and roleplayers alike: more is better. If you want to be taken seriously, make that emote a paragraph, do more than five pages, and add those adjectives or you’re basically a five year old. This is so ingrained into people that they will even laugh at anyone who manages to write less and say more. It gets pretty bad, especially with roleplay. These guys have it exactly backwards. Less is better. No word should exist without purpose. Extremely accomplished writers can throw in adjectives as they please and they will all have a specific purpose, but it’s a matter of judging what words to use down to the sounds they make and in what order. If that’s not what you’re willing to dive into, less is more.

Purple prose is a clear and direct misunderstanding that less is more, and just like people repeatedly getting their grammar wrong, that’s niggling to read. It’s like stroking a cat the wrong way. That doesn’t explain completely why it’s so painful to work through though.

Just as with less is more, there are other fundamental principles which purple prose flies in the face of.

Verbs first, is one that isn’t so well known but heavily influences whatever it goes in - like the bass line to a rock song. It isn’t to do with the order of your words, more the priority. If you can describe something with verbs, you should start by doing that. The man sprints ahead, the boxer weaves under, the giraffe’s neck elastic-bands around. Absurdist and made-up verbs lean towards jovial Pratchettisms, compact and punchy ones push your writing towards the past paced Noir end. Whenever I witter on about understanding the fundamentals of what words do, this is the sort of thing I’m talking about. It’s also what purple prose gets wrong. Purple writing is jam packed full of unnecessary adjectives. Occasionally you’ll even get purple verbs as well, but mostly the issue comes from things being over-described, and adjectives are the main culprit. People who can’t describe with their verbs, or don’t know that they should often resort to throwing adjectives and adverbs at everything.

That brings us to adjective pollution. When you machinegun adjectives and adverbs at a page, what escalation do you have to go to when something really is absurdly beautiful, or really does move lightning fast? Overuse of adjectives paints you into a corner where you’ve nowhere to go, nothing to separate the mundane from the extraordinary. In a roleplay environment, where everyone is putting words down, it also dilutes the effect of other people’s adjectives when you’re throwing them around like it’s going out of style.

With purple prosers flying in direct opposition to all these fundamentals of writing, it’s easier to understand why it riles other people so drastically, but that’s still not the full story. There’s something so basic and integral that is being befouled whenever Myraery Moreu-Durand effortlessly sparkles with delight as she traces her diamond-pointed cordwaines down the ubiquitously lit spiralling staircase of-..

Urgh.

It’s unclear. More than it going against the grain of all good practice of description, it’s just hard to understand. It makes the reader spend time googling and puzzling and asking a friend. Any pedants will notice that I’ve misused words and even made them up in the above example - only because I’ve seen it done for real.

Writing isn’t about showing off. It’s about communicating.

When people write purple prose, they’re stroking off their ego too rampantly to notice no-one understands what they’re saying. That is, I think, the single most frustrating thing about it. It’s not that it’s wrong, it’s that it’s rude.

If you haven’t already skipped down to the comments section, I hope you’ve enjoyed this one or learned something from it. If you find yourself in the gunsights, you’re not alone. Most of the writers I know have at one point or another vomited the most neon purple kriff that can be imagined. A few years ago it was all I ever wrote. So don’t get defensive, don’t think about how you can justify it. Have a look at some of the stuff I linked above and work from there.

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Online 06-27-2017, 07:04 AM
Reply: #2
RE: Purple Prose, and How to Avoid It
Thank you for adressing this! and you also raised an important point of how not everything that was fun to write can be fun to rtead.

(Purple prose does have its place in Homestuck but only as an in-character narration. I mean, have you seen Rose's writings? what about Mindfang's journal? (tbh Mindfang's journal has been intentionally written with the excessive amount of purple prose) And in case you don't want your roleplaying description to sound like something straight out of Mindfang journal please avoid purple prose.)

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Offline 06-27-2017, 09:33 AM
Reply: #3
RE: Purple Prose, and How to Avoid It
"Writing isn’t about showing off. It’s about communicating." I can't begin to express how grateful I am for this memo.

Purple prose, in my opinion, just makes a roleplay less enjoyable. It's hard to work with my roleplay partner when they're spitting out paragraph upon paragraph of gilded descriptions and I can just feel them judging me for not following suit. And I gotta say, to me sometimes excessive adjectives don't just clutter things up and leave you no room to move up, they also just... detract from the moment. Purple prose actually makes the narration less meaningful.

There is a way to "go up" from a very wordy, adjective-filled style if you ask me, and that's to suddenly say something direct and abrupt. Something like this:
though that's not necessarily an example of the most flowery writing, can really pack a punch. But if you've got to mire through miles of purple prose to get there.... yeah, it's just not worth it.

Please send the friend of a friend my highest compliments!! This is a fantastic resource and they've got a really nice, succinct way of putting it into words.

A walking choo choo catastrophe striving for horizontal width longening.
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Offline 07-08-2017, 03:39 AM (This reply was last modified: 07-08-2017 09:37 AM by Ghostsoul.)(Edited by Ghostsoul.)
Reply: #4
RE: Purple Prose, and How to Avoid It
Okay, In all honesty, although many uses of Purple Prose are dysfunctional and can only serve to damage a work, they are ways you can use justify using it.

This mostly comes from using it for characterization (although this is mostly isn't compatible within Role play). For example, if a character is easily overwhelmed by sensory detail and this is a part of their personality then you could use purple prose in order to express this; by having them describe their environment in detail, especially in account of daunting or new environments.

Or when a character is well, egotistical. Perhaps they seem themselves as a Private Eye Detective of some sort? (But really they are trying too hard to analyse little details and end up muddled).

Another way Purple Prose can be functional is within certain genres, Gothic Horror and Cosmic Horror often see Purple Prose (or Purple-ish Prose) and a staple part of the genre, the reader expects there to be some lavish description within the writing, more often than not. If your roleplay is of this caliber (like some kind of Vampire AU for example) then the odd purple description might be seen.

Yeah, as a writing tool it's unfair to dismiss it entirely, since most tropes, even insanely grating or cliche ones have their place sometimes. It all depends on the way the writer uses them, purple prose, like all writing techniques, can be used well with effort and skill.

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Offline 07-08-2017, 09:30 AM
Reply: #5
RE: Purple Prose, and How to Avoid It
This is a very nice piece? guide? work? I've actually noticed quite a few people that will add more than they should into their writing just to make rp responses longer, or to seem more experienced. In the cases that I've seen it usually ends up being kind of a mess. Hard to understand or power through and read.

My only suggestion to those who might be struggling with this, or that want to make their work look big and impressive would be just using a thesaurus, and using it sparingly.
Are you trying to describe something that's really, really big, but can't think of a word besides huge? Hit up a thesaurus and find a word like monumental. HOWEVER, don't try to do this every three or four words or sentences. That's a surefire way to jumble up your writing, especially if you end up using words that don't have the exact meaning that you want them to.

Just try your best with doing what you know, and sprinkle in some nice, big words when they seem appropriate.

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