Image: Matthew Loffhagen
There are many ways to craft your prose, but when writing is over-decorated or as dry as sawdust, potential readers are easily dissuaded. Audience demand for embellished, overly descriptive prose, now commonly called ‘purple prose’, died sometime in the 20th century. Beige writing, stripped of all frills, can be similarly off-putting, though there are times when it’s the right tool for the job. Read on to learn how to keep both of these literary faux pas under your control so they don’t run away with your story.
Crossing the line from colorful to purple
The Buliver Lytton Contest has turned purple prose into a recreational side-hobby for writers, but I wish I could say I’ve never read anything verging on this recent entry:
He blended with the bleak city storefronts as people fled the cold, hard rain that sounded like a funeral dirge on an unforgiving sidewalk, seen yet unseen, someone yet no one, and like a lion stalking a weakened wildebeest from the tall grass of the Serengeti, he sprang toward a beautiful woman struggling to find purchase in her high heels and handed out another coupon for twenty percent off at Sneaker Jungle.
– Mark Wisnewski, Flanders, NJ
Alone, ‘bleak’, ‘dirge’, ‘unforgiving’, and ‘Serengeti’ are power words. Above, they are obnoxious. So what pushes writing from stylistic to purple? Sometimes, it’s a matter of quantity. If every noun comes with a string of adjectives, you’ve definitely gone over the top.
Another way authors stray into purple territory is by using words that don’t really fit because they’re ‘more interesting’, like when an author tries to cram ‘alacritous’ into an ‘eager’ sized hole.When writers become obsessed with their own vocabulary, that’s when things turn purple.Click To Tweet
Things may also start to look a little mauve when description supplants action and character development; think Fifty Shades of Grey or Twilight here. That’s not to say there isn’t a place for description – just that it’s important to keep it in its place.
Here are a few ways to keep the purple prose monster in check:
- Limit adjectives and adverbs. If you have a penchant for these parts of speech, try deleting all of them – yes, all – and then adding them back in where they are necessary for clarity.
- With flavor-only adjectives (that is, they add color, not clarity), try this: use one per picture. That is, if you’re describing a room, imagine taking snapshots of it; each angle is allowed an adjective. If you’re describing a person, choose one feature to highlight and let the rest be more subdued. If you want more detail, go ahead and draft all the description you have in mind; then ask how much of what you’ve written needs to be included. Often, one or two well-chosen details are enough to provoke the reader’s imagination. They don’t need to see what you’re seeing, exactly; they need to see what will connect them to the story. Letting them fill in the blanks can prove more personal, not less.
- Only use the thesaurus to help you remember a word you were trying to think of anyway. Never use a word from the thesaurus that you didn’t already know.
- Use common words in uncommon ways, rather than smearing a text with pompous and overbearing language most readers will need a dictionary to decipher. There’s a place for million-dollar words… and that place is: a handful of times per book. Make them count; don’t make them compete with each other.
- Ask your most pragmatic friend to read your descriptive passages and cross off anything that’s too cheesy. Don’t look at it until you’re emotionally prepared to trust their deletions. Repeat this process with a few people. If any two people say to delete the same part, I suggest following their advice.
When beige is your friend
Beige writing is often recommended as an antidote to purple prose, though when used religiously, beige writing is just as bad as its counterpart.
Unlike purple prose, beige writing can be a useful tool when used at the right time and in the right way. Think of description as salt. Just the right amount can enhance certain meals without overpowering them, but you don’t need or want it for every meal.
Beige writing is particularly useful, arguably even vital, when depicting scenes of intense action or survival, or when the mind of the character(s) is otherwise likely to be preoccupied. Minimizing detail will assist with pacing, allowing the reader to occupy the same space-time continuum as the character.
When an author describes a scene in detail that the characters would not have the time or presence of mind to perceive, the reader is distanced from the experience of the character. There are places where this distancing effect may be useful, but for more immersive reading, authors may wish to consider beige writing as an effective way to ensure the reader’s experience parallels or empathizes with that of the character.Beige writing – writing with minimal descriptive frills – can be useful when depicting action.Click To Tweet
Another instance in which beige writing is useful is in providing background details. This is similar to what we discussed immediately above, where flat, efficient description is used to point the reader’s attention to specific details.
Picture a canvas, washed in tones of sand and gray, almost monochromatic. And on one part of the canvas, elegantly placed and intricately drawn, is a baby giraffe learning to stand. Picture the same illustration buried on a page of a Where’s Waldo book. Both pictures have a purpose, and both have market appeal. The first is perhaps artistic, or perhaps wants to tell the story of a giraffe. The second wants to give people the thrill of looking for something and finding it. This is why beige writing is not well-suited to the mystery genre. Mysteries may not be quite as chaotic as a children’s seek-and-find book, but they will include excess detail in order to keep the reader looking for the right answer. If the story is about the giraffe, though, don’t lose the giraffe in a field of adjectives about how dry the Savannah is.
As with any technique, absolutism rarely produces the best results. Here are a couple of examples from literature with a deliberate, considered use of beige writing and just enough color:
Before it was really light he had his baits out and was drifting with the current. One bait was down forty fathoms. The second was at seventy-five and the third and fourth were down in the blue water at one hundred and one hundred and twenty-five fathoms. Each bait hung head down with the shank of the hook inside the bait fish, tied and sewed solid and all the projecting part of the hook, the curve and the point, was covered with fresh sardines. Each sardine was hooked through both eyes so that they made a half-garland on the projecting steel. There was no part of the hook that a great fish could feel which was not sweet smelling and good tasting.
– The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway
The narrative in Hemingway is minimalist, but the details are vibrant. The words ‘shank’ and ‘garland’ are sharp, and the detail about the sardine being hooked through both eyes simultaneously repulses and connects the reader to someone who fishes so often that stabbing sardines through the eyes isn’t repulsive anymore. Hemingway doesn’t describe the sea and the dawn ad nauseam. ‘Before it was really light’ is all we get of the dawn, and he paid homage to the sea a few paragraphs earlier. No need to say what it looked like that day, with the ‘gray mists swirling across its billowing green waves, which surged beneath an umber sky pregnant with storm but not yet ready to give birth’, blah blah blah. The point is the fishing, and all of Hemingway’s details point to the fishing, not away. Here’s another well-balanced passage:
We’re on a flat, open stretch of ground. A plain of hard-packed dirt. Behind the tributes across from me, I can see nothing, indicating either a steep downward slope or even a cliff. To my right lies a lake. To my left and back, sparse piney woods. This is where Haymitch would want me to go. Immediately.
I hear his instructions in my head. “Just clear out, put as much distance as you can between yourselves and the others, and find a source of water.”
But it’s tempting, so tempting, when I see the bounty waiting there before me. And I know that if I don’t get it, someone else will. That the Career Tributes who survive the bloodbath will divide up most of these life-sustaining spoils. Something catches my eye. There, resting on a mound of blanket rolls, is a silver sheath of arrows and a bow, already strung, just waiting to be engaged. That’s mine, I think. It’s meant for me.
– The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins
The setting details are extremely minimal. That’s good because it’s what Catniss is seeing; that’s what the reader should be seeing. If she scans her surroundings in 60 seconds and gives us 5 minutes-worth of detail, it’s disorienting – even alienating. The one decorated moment is the ‘silver sheath’. She takes in the lake, the bare ground, the sparse woods (enough to hide in? it’ll have to be), and her eyes fall on her source of hope. The sheath and arrows should glisten in the passage, not the lake.Master beige writing and you’ll learn how to direct the reader’s gaze.Click To Tweet
Utility and art
The harmony of beige writing and carefully cultivated description brings out the magic of the story. You can achieve this balance one of two ways, unless you are the only person on earth who writes a perfect first draft.
Option one: write the story the way you want it, with all the details and all the adjectives and swatches of purple your heart desires. Then chip away everything that doesn’t belong.
Option two: write everything in beige, laying the story out flat, then weave in touches of emphasis and color.
As always, I’d love to hear your comments and questions below, or share your favorite passages of purple prose from literature old and new. You can also check out 3 Questions You Need To Answer Before You Can Write With A Strong, Distinctive Voice and One Simple Tip To Improve Your Description for more great advice on this topic.