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Purple vs. poetic... where do you draw the line? - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
Purple vs. poetic... where do you draw the line?
Over at fanficrants, a poster complained that in Smallville fics, Clark apparently frequently "smells like sunshine." (Post here.) There's much discussion of sunshine not having a smell, which I agree with, but it did get me thinking about using imagistic language in prose.

I remember in an undergrad writing class (Intermediate, I think), I used imagistic prose (described the sunset on a lake as looking like the surface had been clawed and was bleeding gold, if I recall), and someone said--with approval--that I should write poetry. This confused me, as I don't see a reason why metaphor, simile, and just general imagistic writing shouldn't be perfectly normal in prose writing. At the same time, you don't want to cross the line into purple prose. But where is the line?

What's actually wrong with someone "smelling like sunshine"? Nearly everyone on the thread seemed to think it ridiculous, and if it's showing up over and over, my inclination is to assume that it's just plain overused, though I don't read Smallville fic and don't know for sure. Clearly, the image wasn't working because people were stopping to say, "Hey, sunshine doesn't have a smell!"

Except that I know exactly what the authors mean with it. Someone brought up "earthy," which isn't bad, but it's not just the earth. It's also the way the trees smell in the sunlight, and the water, and the baking wood of the docks and porches, and just... I've been around farms on sunny days. I'm not a farmgirl myself, but the image is quite clear. I can smell the corn and the grass and the loose dust at the side of the road where the little produce stand is set up. It's so many different things; "sunshine" more or less encapsulates them and gives them a happy, healthy feel.

There's also a lovely smell to mist and even to frigid winter days, though I avoid the last when possible.

All of which is kind of beating around the bush. I suspect most people actually know what sunshine smells like, even if the images the phrase brings to mind are slightly different from mine. Why does this phrase raise hackles and start making bright readers into literalists?

Random guess--I haven't read the fics in question--but it's possible that it occurs in otherwise purple prose, and the entire thing is making people climb the walls. Everyone, after all, hates purple prose.

But what is it, honestly?

I mean, mileage may vary. Some people have very little tolerance, some have a greater tolerance. But I think there's a point where everyone would agree... I just don't know where it is.

Is it just overuse of grace-notes, one metaphor after another, twenty ten-dollar words in a row? Is it applying the linguistic "big guns" to things that don't really need that kind of emphasis? Is it using grotesqueries (eg, "His eyes slid down her dress")?

I tend to think it mainly happens when writers use too much of the fancy stuff on mundane matters. I mean, you can use an extremely overblown image in a good place. Maybe a sentence like "The sun rose like hellfire" would be purple in ninety-nine out of a hundred cases, but there might be that hundredth where it's exactly right. For instance, if it follows an ordinary night and then the scene it goes to is Luna having a herbology lesson, it's going to be purple. But let's say it's the night before Tom takes Ginny down into the Chamber, and she's been awake all night fighting with him. The day will culminate with her near death as Tom comes out of the book. To me, that's a day when the sun might well rise like hellfire. It draws attention.

I dunno. Is it a question of people thinking that high-falutin' stuff like metaphor and simile is too darned good to be hanging out in a piece of fanfic? That it should be saved only for lit'ry sorts of things?


How do people recognize purple prose?


39 comments or Leave a comment
thunderemerald From: thunderemerald Date: February 25th, 2005 08:10 am (UTC) (Link)
I definitely agree with your idea of it not being about what it is, but where it is. There is a time and place for poetic language -- for instance, if the scene is actually dramatic enough to warrant it (like your example), or if it's a deliberate overstatement in a situation that is NOT dramatic enough to warrant it. But if you just have, say, two friends hanging out on the back porch, sitting on the swing and having a chat in the evening breeze, it probably isn't the best idea to say that "the wind rattled their frames like the icy hands of death" -- unless there's a tornado coming, or there's a serious ghost problem. (Bad example, but hey.)

Also, prose becomes purple with overuse. Some people aren't bothered by it, but I most definitely am, especially when it's the same author using the phrase over and over again. There's a certain author who's quite popular over at FA, whose name I will not mention -- and this is exactly what turned me off to her stories and made me not want to continue them. In one story in particular, Harry and Draco had a very angsty friends/notfriends relationship, and while the scenes between them often WERE dramatic enough to allow more poetic narrative, the author used the same phrases over and over again. Harry's hair was always "like a crown of thorns." Draco's was "like a halo" or something to that effect. She constantly referred to them as "the dark boy" and "the silver boy" -- to the extent that these fairly run-of-the-mill phrases became, in my opinion, purple. DARK purple. Freakin' INDIGO, dammit.

I hope that made some semblance of sense. :)
thunderemerald From: thunderemerald Date: February 25th, 2005 08:11 am (UTC) (Link)
Good lord, I just reread that post again. I truly apologize for that horrific "icy hands of death" thing. Eesh.
laureate05 From: laureate05 Date: February 25th, 2005 08:29 am (UTC) (Link)
Maybe it's like pornography; you can't describe it, but you know it when you see it. Also, it has no artisitic or education merit. It's just there, trying to arouse interest, in a cheap way.
jesspallas From: jesspallas Date: February 25th, 2005 08:36 am (UTC) (Link)
I think it's entirely a matter of personal taste. I have a very descriptive writing style. My creative writing tutor at university (a poet), loved my "poetic prose". But my best friend, a writer and my proof reader, doesn't like description and is always telling me to cut it back. I think it's just what you like. If it annoys you, it annoys you, if you like it, you like it.:)
chocolatepot From: chocolatepot Date: February 25th, 2005 12:16 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think that that phrase has become a cliche in the fandom, as it isn't too terribly bad. I hope it isn't just the phrase alone, because I tend to use odd similes (in real life, too)- comparing tastes to smells, sights to sounds, &c.

I recognize purple prose when I start skipping paragraphs. I don't worry about it when I write because I don't use enough description anyway.
(Deleted comment)
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: February 25th, 2005 06:00 pm (UTC) (Link)
Burying an assumption there, aren't you?

At least I changed it from "descend into literalism." ;) No, seriously, what I meant by it is that I think most of the people in the thread seem able to understand the metaphor, but that there comes a point when readers become so annoyed with purple prose that they willfully ignore non-literal meanings because it's more fun to try and take them literally and make the whole thing ridiculous.

Lex's "purple spear of passion"

Oh, I'm glad I'd finished my breakfast and didn't have a mouthful of cereal to spit!
thewhiteowl From: thewhiteowl Date: February 25th, 2005 06:24 pm (UTC) (Link)
purple spear of passion

sonetka From: sonetka Date: February 25th, 2005 08:27 pm (UTC) (Link)
Purple? ALL of it? I'm afraid the first thought that comes to mind with that phrase is "That boy needs to get to a urologist, STAT."
From: laizeohbeets Date: February 25th, 2005 02:12 pm (UTC) (Link)
My opinion is, if Lysol, Pinesol, Gilette, All, and Surf can have "sunshine-scented" bottles of ... whatever, someone can "smell like sunshine."

Maybe a sentence like "The sun rose like hellfire" would be purple in ninety-nine out of a hundred cases, but there might be that hundredth where it's exactly right.

Do authors just not sit down and notice the connotations? I would equate hellfire with burning, destruction, foreboding, not some happy little sunshine-y day.
dramaturgy From: dramaturgy Date: February 25th, 2005 10:43 pm (UTC) (Link)
Similes and metaphors are all good and fine, but it's when you're depending completely on them for imagery. And basically... I judge it on whether or not I get bored reading it. For instance, I will get the point with the simile of "The sun rose like hellfire". It immediately sets a tone that I will read the section/fic/paragraph with, until the author changes it.

If this sentence were followed, however, with relating metaphors and similes such as "Light struck the tall buildings and reflected off the surfaces, as if these skyscrapers were bodies burning in the pits of Hell. Shadows danced in the alleyways like demons celebrating new flesh to torment for all eternity" -- well, you know? It's just too much and the metaphor has been beaten to death.

(You have no idea how much I just cringed at myself for writing that.)
elohvee From: elohvee Date: February 26th, 2005 05:09 am (UTC) (Link)

Here from <lj comm="daily_snitch">.

I think the line also varies depending on the writer's overall ability.

If what I'm reading feels like it was written by a six-year-old with no talent, then hardly any amount of poetry in the prose will seem blindingly violet.

If it's good, on the other hand, then the writing can be as purple as it likes and no one will say a word. For example, when it was first published, The Hunchback of Notre Dame was actually missing a chapter that was composed mostly of a very long, detailed description of some window on the cathedral. The only person who noticed the omission, however, was the author himself.
shaychana From: shaychana Date: February 26th, 2005 08:24 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Here from <lj comm="daily_snitch">.

*sniggers* my prof once gave us an essay to read on the history of language, the printing press and architecture. imagine my surprise when i found out it was part of hunchback. zero story in that entire chapter, it was a straight-up essay!
lilacsigil From: lilacsigil Date: February 26th, 2005 08:59 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Here from <lj comm="daily_snitch">.

I had to write an essay and a tutorial presentation on that chapter. It's actually pretty cool in context.
shaychana From: shaychana Date: February 26th, 2005 09:32 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Here from <lj comm="daily_snitch">.

*shifty eyes* i never read the entire book, but that chapter was very interesting to me as an opinion-essay.
curia_regis From: curia_regis Date: February 26th, 2005 05:59 am (UTC) (Link)
I think it depends on the reader as well as on the actual fic. Some people tolerate far more description than others. I think purple prose is fic-specific. I've seen some fics with a lot of description but don't descend down into purple prose. Purple prose, for me, is pretentious writing. And some fics, with less description, immediately give me the impression of purple prose.

Of course, anybody who spends two pages describing trees writes purple prose. In my opinion anyway.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: February 26th, 2005 06:00 am (UTC) (Link)
So you think of purple as being descriptive passages?
curia_regis From: curia_regis Date: February 26th, 2005 06:06 am (UTC) (Link)
For me, yes, purple prose is too much description. Of course, the description would be saturated with all sorts of metaphors and other such things. The thing is, if you are going to spend, say, two pages to describe a tree, you can't help but use metaphors and similes. The majority of the time, you can't get 'too much description' without the description turning into flowery language.

In my opinion, words that aren't necessary should be cut out. Always. That way you don't end up with sentences like: "His eyes were like glowing emerald orbs."
From: laizeohbeets Date: February 26th, 2005 06:43 am (UTC) (Link)
Of course, anybody who spends two pages describing trees writes purple prose. In my opinion anyway.

You mean, like JRR Tolkien? ;)
curia_regis From: curia_regis Date: February 26th, 2005 06:47 am (UTC) (Link)
Yay! Somebody got what I was referring to! :D

I love the ideas in Tolkien's works but his writing needs an editor and a red pen.
From: laizeohbeets Date: February 26th, 2005 06:51 am (UTC) (Link)
I love the ideas in Tolkien's works but his writing needs an editor and a red pen.

Either that, or a Peter Jackson movie adaptation. ;)

I definitely agree, though. One can only take an entire chapter on the description of Southron arrows, their significance to Faramir, their significance to Frodo, and why the heck did they just ramble on for 23 pages about the points of the arrow?

...Don't even get me started on the description of Lothlorien. I just may never stop.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: February 26th, 2005 07:05 am (UTC) (Link)
I love the description of Lothlorien. It made me want to live there full time. Of course, reading it with a fever of 102 probably helped with the hallucination of it.

Either that, or a Peter Jackson movie adaptation. ;)

Oh, G-d, no. Anything, anything, anything but that.

(Sorry. Big Tolkien fan here.)
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: February 26th, 2005 07:01 am (UTC) (Link)
His writing is a bit dry--I always warn people that he likes to keep at an arm's length from his readers--but I don't find him at all purple. I'd associate purple prose with really over-emotional, torpid sort of prose--Harlequin romances, pulsing purple spears of love and so on. Not with a guy who would have been quite comfortable writing textbooks about hobbits.
curia_regis From: curia_regis Date: February 26th, 2005 07:05 am (UTC) (Link)
I think that there are two types of purple prose. The first kind would be phrase like "his turgid, throbbing shaft of love". The second, however, is just excess description for the sake of description. And Tolkein was certaintly guilty of the second.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: February 26th, 2005 07:06 am (UTC) (Link)
I wouldn't call it purple. I'd call it dry.
curia_regis From: curia_regis Date: February 26th, 2005 07:09 am (UTC) (Link)
From memory (because I don't have his books here at the moment), I don't think the description of Lothlorien was dry at all. It was very 'glittering streams' and stuff.

Some of his prose is dry though. But I'd call some of it purple.
jodel_from_aol From: jodel_from_aol Date: February 27th, 2005 07:24 am (UTC) (Link)
Nah, nah. Tolkein just wrote as if he'd never heard of Hemingway.

The real problem of course, is that there *is* no single hard and fast rule about writing "for the ages". Readers were looking for a whole different experience when they tucked into a novel back before there was television, or even radio, and it wasn't really safe to go out after dark, especially if you were female, than they do today. And that is the kind of grounding in "literature" that people of Tolkein's generation had.

It helps to remember that Tolkein wasn't some hot, trendy new "literary voice" who suddenly was the flavor of the month on a publisher's whim. He may have become a best-seller, but he wasn't writing for the best -seller market. He'd been writing Middle Earth since he was a very young man, before he married and it was his own private imagnary world for decades before any of it saw print.

For all that LotR was published in the mid-20th century, Tolkein was essentially a 19th century writer, and his work ought really to be compared to that, rather than what was being printed at the same time it was finally getting publication.
magicicada From: magicicada Date: February 26th, 2005 09:09 am (UTC) (Link)
This is really interesting to think about, and it makes me wonder if I’ve been guilty of writing purple prose or at least someone’s definition of it. I’ve always thought of purple prose as occurring when imagistic passages and metaphors are so thick that the actual story gets lost somewhere in the telling of it. This, of course, is different for every story and probably for every reader, and I’ve seen it used in professional novels and short stories at least as much as I’ve seen it used in fanfiction.

I don’t find anything wrong with using simile and metaphor in fanfics, especially if it’s to add power to a scene or create atmosphere, and I wouldn’t consider it purple until it bogs down the plot or if there is no real plot to begin with and the author tries to hide that beneath fancy words and overblown descriptions. I’ll keep reading something long after the descriptions become tedious and redundant as long as the story intrigues me, but I think it’s fanfiction that’s most guilty not having strong enough plots for stories to stand on that alone.
From: ex_theatrica309 Date: February 26th, 2005 07:06 pm (UTC) (Link)
Here via daily_snitch.

I think of purple prose as overly formal, cliche-ridden, and/or unnecessary description.

Emphasis on that last. In my opinion, you can go on for as long as the hell you want about anything you want as long as it really, honestly contributes to the story. Does the description set a clear mood for the scene? Will the room you just spent three paragraphs describing be an important setting? Is it crucial for the reader to have a very clear picture of the new character you're introducing?

If so, then go right ahead. If not...well, you might want to cut down a bit. (Note: Even if a detailed description is necessary, don't go overboard. If two sentences will supply the needed information/imagery, leave it at that. Add too much extraneous information, or do a particular metaphor to death, and your readers will stop reading and start skimming.)

It might be good to note that I have a fairly high tolerance for poetic prose compared to other people I've come across, so what I find acceptable might be irritating to someone else. The readers' personal views on purple prose definitely do matter.
h311ybean From: h311ybean Date: February 26th, 2005 11:40 pm (UTC) (Link)

Smelling like sunshine

Here in the Philippines we describe a certain smell as "amoy-araw" - literally "smells like the sun." Unfortunately, we use it to describe the funky smell that many kids develop after playing outdoors for too long. Peee-yew! :-p
From: driedplums Date: February 27th, 2005 02:04 am (UTC) (Link)


Hi, here by way of snitch.

I like where you were going with the relevance of context. In fact I think this is such an interesting discussion (about which I know so little) that I cross-posted to La Societe des Femmes Dangereuses (the Sentence Lab board).
(Deleted comment)
stasha2g From: stasha2g Date: February 27th, 2005 04:11 pm (UTC) (Link)
Here through metafandom.

It seems to me that the difference between the poetic and the purple isn't the wordage, it's the usage.

Poetic language can be wordy, but every word has a purpose and there is a maximum amount of meaning stuffed into the minimum number of words. There are layers to the text and each reading will show you something new.

Purple prose, however, uses whole sentences and chapters to describe something which really only needs a word or two. Repetition, multiple adjectives and abuse of synonyms are the typical symptoms.

The line between the two isn't so much a line as it is a sliding scale.
In the midrange cases it's the eye of the reader that decides.
stakebait From: stakebait Date: February 27th, 2005 04:34 pm (UTC) (Link)
Mostly I recognize it when I stop reading. Which is a very non-defining definition, I do realize.

Some of it has to do with how much of it there is -- purple is an accent color best used sparingly. :) Image layered on image soon makes me claustrophobic even if I might have liked any one of them on its own.

Some of it has to do with whether I find it appropriate for the people or actions involved -- my biggest loathing of purple prose is in the speech, thoughts, or close POV of a character who emphatically does not talk that way in canon. For someone who does, or sparingly in the narration, I have a bit more tolerance.

Some of it is too-obvious cleverness -- if I'm noticing the language choices more than the total effect they contribute to on a first reading, that for me is purple. The prose is getting in its own way. (A particular line that gives me a chill is fine. Alliteration that's more obtrusive than the sense of the sentence, not so much.)

For me, at least, it has nothing to do with being fanfic versus litfic -- I don't draw any distinction there.
opera142 From: opera142 Date: February 28th, 2005 12:46 am (UTC) (Link)
Here via metafandom.

I think most accusations of purple prose stem from the poetics not matching the character or the tone of the writing. Certain characters think other chracters smell like sunshine and other characters don't. Putting a purple phrase into one character's thoughts makes it poetic. Putting a poetic thought into another character's thoughts makes it purple. It's more about fit of the cloth than the cut of it.
sallymn From: sallymn Date: February 28th, 2005 08:11 am (UTC) (Link)
Also here via metafandom...

Re the original "smalls like sunshine" image, my first reaction was "cute." A touch too cute, sliding perilously close to precious, for me personally, but not bad as a slight, pretty, one-off metaphor. But as I understand it (I'm not a Smallville fan) the phrase took the fancy of other writers, and others, and... I'm not actually criticising the copying, I've done it myself both consciously and unconsciously, but this isn't one that wears well. It depends for its impact on its freshness.

Purple prose to me is something different - the first time you hear it, it's stale (albeit in a lush, over-rich-fruitcake kind of way).

I like a judicious sprinkling of metaphor and simile in writing, it can give a sparkle, but I prefer it used lightly and sparingly (and always, always when in doubt, leave it out).
From: textualsphinx Date: March 1st, 2005 01:39 am (UTC) (Link)

The ordering of images

One of the things that irritates me is when the prose is merely descriptive in a 'lets try to replicate reality in all its senses' way for no other reason than a kind of pictorialism. To my taste, imagery is much more acceptable if it's wedded to a pattern of ideas intrinsic to a story's 'philosophy'. A short story can spin out from one particular image or conceit, just as a poem does, whilst a novel may deploy a related set of images. (I'm thinking of Virgina Woolf's novels here). I rather like spotting leitmotifs and restricted 'sets' of images that give the story a kind of colour scheme. It's not so much purple prose as any-colour-you-like-and-never-mind-if-it-matches prose that doesn't work.

I want to write silver prose.
From: textualsphinx Date: March 1st, 2005 01:40 am (UTC) (Link)

The ordering of images

One of the things that irritates me is when the prose is merely descriptive in a 'lets try to replicate reality in all its senses' way for no other reason than a kind of pictorialism. To my taste, imagery is much more acceptable if it's wedded to a pattern of ideas intrinsic to a story's 'philosophy'. A short story can spin out from one particular image or conceit, just as a poem does, whilst a novel may deploy a related set of images. (I'm thinking of Virgina Woolf's novels here). I rather like spotting leitmotifs and restricted 'sets' of images that give the story a kind of colour scheme. It's not so much purple prose as any-colours-you-like-and-never-mind-if-they-match prose that doesn't work.

I want to write silver prose.
profshallowness From: profshallowness Date: March 7th, 2005 08:21 am (UTC) (Link)
Here (belatedly) via metafandom: Good question, because it's very easy to use the label purple prose quite loosely and to mean 'overly descriptive writing that I don't like.' I think that what I consider purple prose is dictated by context and usage, as others have said. The instances you gave up above aren't purple in and of themselves, in relation to other images in the same piece, they could be, or if a metaphor is over-used within a type of writing (love scenes in romances, certain types of descriptions for characters within a subset of fanfiction.)

Generally speaking descriptive writing has to be used carefully, with intent. Is a phrase a cliche? Will that take away from the effect that a writer was going for.
39 comments or Leave a comment