Just Hold Your Breath
Until Your Prose Turns Purple

(Or, “Put the Thesaurus down and nobody gets hurt!”)




Trembling digits gripped the bronze chain that activated the lamp switch, pulled gently, and brought electric illumination glowing into the murky, dusky atmosphere of the guest cabin's minuscule bedroom.


Personally, I would've written: "He turned on the lamp."


This sentence is paraphrased (in other words, the prose has been altered to protect the guilty) from the first line of a fic I read part of recently. It's a prime example of tortured, overworked, purple prose. It attempts to imbue the act of turning on a light in a dim room with a ridiculous importance, distracting the reader's attention from what's really important. It occupies three lines on the screen without giving the reader any indication of who is turning on the light--I was picturing a disembodied hand, rather like Thing from The Addams Family.


It's a real shame to see a writer go to this much trouble to try to create something artistic and have it fail so utterly on so many levels.


But you may be thinking something like "Bitch, bitch, bitch, Nessie. She was trying to be expressive. She was trying to create a mood! She was trying to be artistic!"


To which I respond: Yeah, that's the problem.


I have a theory about why there's so much purple prose in fan fiction, but first let me emphasize what my theory is not: This kind of abuse of the language doesn't happen because readers don't care or don't know any better. They do know, and they do care, so don't blame it on them.


My theory is that purple prose happens because, in general, writers are human. (Believe it or not.) They get bored writing "he said" or "she asked" and become tempted by the demons of "he stated" and "he inquired" and "she wondered aloud." Some of us have spent a good deal of time and effort amassing an impressive vocabulary. We've worked to develop our "literary voice." Having done that, we want to show it off.


Some writers have taken this natural eagerness a step farther. They've come to take their literary efforts so seriously that they've essentially abandoned simple, effective story-telling and communication. They're so anxious to impress their readers with their skill at manipulating words and concepts that they'd rather bury the reader in metaphors than provide a clue about what's really going on in the story. They've stopped being mere writers and become, in their own minds at least, "artistes" (to pronounce that correctly, tilt your nose skyward and earnestly intone "ah-TEEST").


And despite their outward bravado, writers are among the most insecure creatures on God's green Earth. We're all afraid of writing something that'll be too mundane to touch readers' hearts. We want our words to soar like eagles.


Well, eagles may soar, but bedraggled mutts never get sucked into jet engines. You can't go wrong with simple, effective words and sentence constructions.


Part of the problem with purple prose is that it's not as easy to see as, say, a grammatical error. There are no specific rules you can use to determine what is and what's not purple--what's purple to one reader may be only vaguely lavender-tinged to another. But in general, purple prose is any description that seems to go over the top--it slavishly rhapsodizes what it describes in an obvious, frequently saccharine way. In the process, it often creates a mental image that has an effect opposite of that intended--readers may be left grossed out, confused or laughing uncontrollably at a moment when those reactions are not what was intended. Here's an example:


While the wide-eyed youngster watched, anxiety and angst sculpted in his features, [character name] gently wiped the moisture from his eyes with the heel of one hand, then tenderly dabbed away the hint of dew from those expressive azure eyes.


First of all, whose eyes are whose? I had to track backward to be sure. And they're tears, not a "hint of dew" or "moisture." For all I know, these two characters have been rolling in the grass in the middle of the night, not weeping (that would explain why the writer didn't just call the "moisture" what it is, right?). And perhaps most importantly, unless you're writing about a master glass-blower plying his trade, any time you start using words like "sculpted" or "azure," you're pushing into the purple-prose zone.


If you're getting the idea that I think you should use simple words most of the time, you're catching on quick. Back when I was working with writing critique groups, I once advised a young, earnest writer to take his Thesaurus up into his attic, lock it in a strongbox, then wind heavy chains around the box, each chain in turn secured with a separate padlock. He still could've used the Thesaurus, but he would've had to think about whether it was really worth the trouble.


Big words don't necessarily make a sentence profound. There's a famous poem about an ill-fated World War II tail gunner that ends with what I think is one of the most powerful lines ever written:


They washed him out of the turret with a hose.


Note that there's only one word in that sentence that has more than one syllable, and it's a technical word for which there is no readily understandable, accurate substitute.


Do I use big words sometimes? Yes. Do I occasionally consult a Thesaurus? Guilty as charged...and not especially remorseful about it. But in general I don't think you should spend a $5 word when a 25-cent word will do the trick. And I think you shouldn't ask your readers to reach for the dictionary any more than is necessary to get your meaning across. Do you want them looking stuff up, or do you want them gripped by your magical prose?


Here's one of my few hard-and-fast writing rules: Never use a word that you don't understand yourself. That may seem silly; after all, no one would do that, right?


Wrong. I recently read a story in which the author, with apparent seriousness, compared a jet airliner to a pasquinade. According to my Webster's, a pasquinade is a classical Roman statue to which satirical writings customarily were attached. It's always possible I just didn't get it, but what the blazes a classical Roman statue has got to do with an airliner is beyond me, and frankly, I concluded that the writer didn't know what the word meant and didn't bother to look it up. At the very least, it's a mighty stretch of the imagination.


Anyway, purple prose isn't just the use of big words. Purple prose can be made out of small words, too. For example:


Her lips had the silky, finely veined tenderness of pearl-white magnolia blossoms.


That sentence is made up of relatively small, common words, but there's an over-the-top quality to it that makes it purple prose.


Next, I'll focus on an area where purple prose has gotten totally out of control: Sex scenes.


At last he entered her, lancing her pure-white lily.


See, like I said, totally out of control. Or:


His name on her lips like a puff of smoke dissipated, yet the air was changed by its aroma, by its texture.


I know this line is supposed to be romantic, imbuing the act of speaking a name with some cosmic tenderness and meaning, but the only thing it suggests to me is that the character has a serious case of halitosis and the writer has a serious case of purple prose.


The vast majority of fan fics contain scenes revolving around sex and/or romance, and it's no wonder that some of those scenes are appalling--that's a type of scene that can be difficult to do well. It's a type of scene that, far too often, lures an unsuspecting, well-intentioned writer into hilarious lapses of language judgment.


Two things make these scenes difficult to do well. The first is that true love, grand romance and great sex are among the most elusive, wonderful and mystical experiences in human existence. There's a natural tendency to try to use prose to re-create that kind of experience for readers, to make them feel the sweeping grandeur of being in the middle of a once-in-a-lifetime love. But that kind of love isn't conveyed with a couple of well-chosen metaphors or well-crafted images--it must be built through meticulous character portrayal and thoughtful story-telling. Trying to simulate a romantic moment with a phrase like "His name on her lips like a puff of smoke dissipated," is shorthanding the experience for readers. It's both lazy and ineffective.


The second difficulty is that the actual mechanics of sex are pretty simple--at a basic level, the sex act can be reduced to a matter of body parts contacting each other in a way that leads to a predictable result. Penetration isn't absolutely required, but most adult fics eventually get around to it. And, unless you get really kinky about it, you're dealing with the same general set of body parts every time--mouths, penises, nipples, and vaginas or anuses almost inevitably come into play at some point. Thus, the temptation to prevent boredom by creating new names for these body parts, and for the various (but essentially similar) ways that they can be manipulated to produce orgasm, is very strong. That's especially true in cases where the writer himself or herself is desperately trying to avoid squicking anybody or is personally uncomfortable with describing the sex act in question, as is sometimes the case with newer, younger fanfic writers who haven't tried writing a sex scene before.


Think about how many different terms have been used to substitute for the word penis. Rod, tool, manhood, cock, shaft, dick…you get the idea. While I don't suggest that you get too clinical in your language in the middle of your romantic sequence (anatomical terms like "perineum" can be a real turn-off), you also should keep in mind that what readers want to be impressed with is the scene, not the hundreds of ways you can say penis without saying it. Don't leave them trying to figure out exactly what you mean by "his engorged lance" or laughing at how far you had to reach to achieve something you thought was creative.


Take, for example, the commonly used reference to a woman's vagina as her "core." When you think about it objectively, it's really pretty silly--among other things, it carries a subtle implication that sex is the primary reason for (or "core" of) a woman's existence, and is that really what you want the story to say? It gets worse when a reference like this one catches on with a lot of writers, inspiring variations on the theme. At one point it seemed there wasn't a fic writer on the planet who could write a sex scene without using the expression "her [insert adjective here] core." The one that bothers me most is "molten core." I mean, I'm visualizing the poor guy's genitals getting sautéed in there, and it's not a pretty picture.


Before I offer some specific examples of how not to write lines in a sex scene, I have to say that most of the stories I'm citing have worse problems--much worse--than a little tortured language or a few laughable metaphors. The first example below comes from what I regard as the very worst piece of fanfic crap I've ever read, a story in which it's fairly clear that the characters are having sex, but it's impossible to determine how. The body parts are all in the wrong places for the acts described actually to occur. And yet, the writer has the consummate presumptuousness to summarize this piece by calling it, "A story, a poem - [a friend] called it 'a fabric.'"


Remember what I said earlier about writers getting above their own craft in an effort to become "artistes"?


The example:


Like a morning bird caught suddenly in the dark shadows, his tongue raced, raged back and around through her, over her, into her, looking for the way home. The way back into the light.


Uh, exactly how long is his tongue? I'm guessing about four feet. And apparently it has eyes. Pretty scary, no?


I could give a dozen more examples from that one story, but let's move on to another fic.


Arching up into his mouth, she moaned as she felt him tease her senseless.


So she can't feel what he does next? Where's the fun in that?


The next three examples come from that rare thing--a pretty good story in which only the sex scenes suffer from purple-prose syndrome.


Then he was touching, tasting that hot mouth a second time, letting the sexual need infusing his body take over as he plundered the silky haven.


Run your tongue around your own mouth for a second. Is it really hot or silky? And besides, just once I'd like to see a story where somebody kisses a mouth that isn't hot and silky.


Slowly Mac twisted two fingers up inside the hot silky channel he had penetrated, loving the way it effected this man as the shaft near his mouth hardened even more.


Nevermind the grammatical error, which isn't serious enough, in and of itself, to do the line much damage. The real problem here is that these guys are having anal sex, and the repeated use of the euphemism "silky channel" in this story makes me wonder if the author herself has some discomfort with the idea of anal sex. If not, then why the goofy euphemism? It isn't clear, either--whose shaft? Whose mouth?


Oblivion threatened to swallow him as his insides exploded and MacLeod climaxed hard, shooting his seed deep into the receptive body.


Ow! That would hurt…both of them!


Here's one from a Sentinel fic that, among other things, gives an unusual rendition of two of the characters.


"Did you know that when you really want it, when you are straining for your satisfaction, that you have an almost ethereal quality to your beauty? Your need for me becomes a physical presence in the room. It is an animal. I can feel your desire's hot breath on my throat."


I don't have to explain what's wrong with this, do I? The story then ends with an absolutely nauseating bit of purple saccharine:


Simon and Jim then shared a kiss so long and tender that Simon composed a poem about it when they broke for air.


Of course, nothing compounds the purple prose problem like a complete inability to compose a coherent English sentence, as in this Methos/Wolverine crossover slashfic (spelling and grammatical errors are original to the fic, not my typos):


He felt himself embraced and worshiped by invisible hands… Their thrusts got wilder. They more resemble two animals in heat than two men making love. Logan clutch Methos to him, gripped him, holding him by the waist thrusting deep within him. He could not hold it in any longer. He flipped Methos onto the bed, thrusted two times and finally let go, cumming inside him. Methos, feeling Logan loose control, joined him screaming Logan's name.


How can hands with foot-long claws be invisible? And I'll be stuffed if I understand why they're both screaming out "Logan."


So how do you avoid falling into the purple prose trap?


First, focus on characterization and story-telling, not on impressing your readers with your vast powers over the language. Don’t get lazy and try to use a tortured, convoluted metaphor to substitute for the real work of populating a compelling tale with engaging characters. This doesn't mean you ignore imagery or lyricism--it just means you don't sacrifice the characters or the story to them.


Second, say what you mean and call things what they are. Don't make up new terms for things. The additional benefit of this is that readers won't have to try to figure out what you mean--they'll know.


Third, think about how other people may read and interpret what you've written. Word choice is a delicate business, and the bad news is, it's not entirely in the writer's control--it also depends on the reader's tolerance. I recently got into a discussion with another author on the CriticalEdge mailing list over whether it was acceptable for a character to "glower" at someone he likes. (She said no; I disagree.) No matter what word you choose, there's likely to be somebody who'll think it's the wrong one, and if you try to please everybody, you'll probably end up writing something with about as much zing as an Army health manual. Which leads me to…


Fourth, get a beta reader you trust, and pay careful heed to what he or she tells you. That's one way to get a reading on how other people might react to the stuff you've written.


After all, there's already enough purple prose in fan fiction--we don't need any more lines like:


Her head fell back of it's own volition as he swept his mouth along her jawline, kissing hot fire down the long, creamy column to the hollow base.

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