What Is Purple Prose, Beige Prose, and Blue Language?
Maybe you’ve heard of purple prose, beige prose, or blue language. Or, maybe you haven’t. Either way, a primer on each of them can help prevent some common writing faux pas.
Let’s start with the most controversial: purple prose.
Purple prose is flowery and ornate language. It sacrifices plot and clarity for indulgent detail. A piece of prose can be entirely purple, or it can have ornate bits sprinkled throughout. We call cases of the latter “purple patches.”
Purple prose is like showing up in stilettos to go on a hike. The language doesn’t match the occasion or the character. It draws attention to itself. It doesn’t advance the action, clarify the plot, or reveal a character’s intentions or thoughts. It’s fluff — description for description’s sake. Imagine being thirsty and drinking out of a fire hose instead of just getting a glass of water. This is what purple prose does. It drowns the reader.
Purple prose is not simply the use of “big words.” One person’s ten-cent word is another’s dime-a-dozen, and higher level vocabulary is not the issue. The problem occurs when you insert a ten-cent word into writing that is otherwise grammatically simple. Purple prose and patches can be identified easily, because when either crop up, everything from tone to lexis doesn’t “match.”
Purple prose is also not the same as lyrical, poetic writing. If your character is about to open a wardrobe, you don’t need to describe the wardrobe in ornate, repetitive detail. Here’s an example:
The young, precocious child of elementary school age was commanded by his endearing and loving mother to put on a change of clothes. He lumbered up the crooked and creaking stairs to his massive wardrobe that could rival Narnia’s. It was very old and worn, made of a dark and foreboding walnut, reliefs of ancient Roman and Greek gods festooned its rough visage. He opened it gingerly and it creaked and groaned in ominous protest.
This is way too much. Describing a child’s simple wardrobe with words like “visage” and “foreboding walnut” is overwrought. Words like that will blur the tone of the story, and take the reader on a confusing tangent.
Moreover, the entire paragraph didn’t actually show us anything — although it certainly did a lot of telling, something you don’t want in your writing. A good rule of thumb in determining whether or not writing is purple is if there is a lot of elaborate telling.
A purple passage will also be lacking in rhythm. It will seem awkward and lumbering, like the boy on the stairs. Here is a cleaned up, simplified version:
“Go change your clothes,” his mother commanded with a tone of tenderness in her voice. The young boy climbed the stairs to his room and opened the door of the old wardrobe.
To fix the passage, I added some action. Instead of telling the reader what the mother told the boy, I show it with a piece of dialogue. I’ve also omitted most of the adverbs and adjectives that were detracting meaning from the original passage. The word “festoon” really should never be used unless it’s in a piece of dialogue from a historical fiction story.
Here is another example of purple prose, this one from Twilight by Stephenie Meyer:
His skin, white despite the faint flush from yesterday’s hunting trip, literally sparkled, like thousands of tiny diamonds were embedded in the surface. He lay perfectly still in the grass, his shirt open over his sculpted, incandescent chest, his scintillating arms bare. His glistening, pale lavender lids were shut, though of course he didn’t sleep. A perfect statue, carved in some unknown stone, smooth like marble, glittering like crystal.
Look, I don’t want to jump on the “I hate Twilight” bandwagon, but this is why I don’t like Twilight. Most of the books were filled with purple garbage like this. Since the Twilight books, I can’t write a vampire story without people asking me if “he sparkles.”
To make matters worse, Meyer’s syntax and grammar is simple. There is nothing wrong with that. The problem is that she throws in, at random, these ten cent words — words like “scintillating” and “incandescent.” You could argue that she is more guilty of purple patches than purple prose.
Nevertheless, the paragraph draws attention to itself. There is no action. It tells us nothing, except that Edward is a sparkly vampire who is dozing in the grass. It could have been said in fewer words.
Here is how I would rewrite it:
He lay still, on the grass with his shirt half-open, eyelids closed, although he did not sleep. His white skin, faintly flushed, sparkled like thousands of tiny diamonds.
That is really all you need to get the point across. The rest of that paragraph is distracting and cause for ridicule.
Some will argue that purple prose is merely a style choice; that it is, therefore, really a personal opinion whether or not an ornate passage is “good” writing. I would disagree.
There is a big difference between lyrical writing and purple prose.
Work by F. Scott Fitzgerald offers a great example of lyrical writing. It’s ornate, but poignant, and has an inherent rhythm to it. It’s “pretty,” yet elicits a visceral, emotional reaction from the reader. Meyer’s writing is juvenile, which is why it was such a big hit with the teenage crowd.
Here is an example of great Fitzgerald writing, from The Great Gatsby:
His heart beat faster and faster as Daisy’s white face came up to his own. He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips’ touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete.
William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury offers another wonderful example:
Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.
And, for a shameless plus, my own writing, from Honor the Suffering:
As Wagoner stepped down from the fireboard, we heard the low whine of a bullet and a cherry blossom bloomed on the sentry’s forehead as his body went lifeless and fell. The mechanical ease with which Wagoner and the remaining sentry made off with his body would seem grotesque, but we were hardened, sunken-eyed and grim, our teeth grit firm against the reality and monotony of impersonal death that stalked us all.
Beige prose, on the other hand, is writing that uses brief descriptions, plain words, and simple sentence structure. It’s a very direct writing style that doesn’t allow for similes, metaphors, or imagery.
Beige prose is not bad on its own. In fact, it can be an effective way to get your point across. It can be witty. On the flip side, it can also be boring. Just like how purple prose, in all its complicated lavender glory, can confuse your reader and cause their eyes to glaze over, beige prose can glaze an eye with dullness. Don’t overuse it.
A good time to use beige prose is when you are describing a fast-paced action sequence, like a fight scene or a car crash. Lots of quick movement can be confusing; you would want to keep it simple so as not to lose the reader.
But if you are writing a fantasy novel that needs extensive world building, when describing a new realm, you wouldn’t want to tip into beige territory.
The same goes for when you introduce a new character that is going to play a significant role in your story; you want to flesh that character out a little bit, so that your reader is more likely to invest in the story. A good story teller is someone who can make the characters and the worlds those characters inhabit three-dimensional instead of merely two-dimensional. No one wants to read about the foibles of cardboard cut-outs.
At its worst, beige prose lacks emotion. A good writer should be able to adequately convey emotion. Here is an example of beige prose that elicits no feeling:
Aladdin and Jasmine stepped off the carpet onto the balcony of the new palace. They had never seen the place before. It was a large building set in a desert oasis.
Here we have two characters discovering a new palace in a new land. This is a bad time to use beige prose. Notice all the telling? However, you don’t want to take it too far and end up in a bed of mauve roses:
Aladdin and Jasmine, their eyes wide with wondrous disbelief, disembarked from the plush, magical flying carpet onto the glittering marble balcony of a palace they had never before laid eyes upon. It was a palatial and sparkling jewel set in the blowing sands of a welcoming desert oasis.
The use of “disembarked” and “palatial” is thesaurus abuse. Here is the excerpt written with the right balance:
Aladdin and Jasmine stepped off the magic carpet onto the balcony of the palace. It sparkled like a jewel in a desert oasis, and their eyes widened with excitement at the chance to explore a new land.
This is hardly Pulitzer prize winning prose, but it gets the point across. There is some description of the palace and of the emotions Jasmine and Aladdin are feeling, but the reader isn’t drowned in unnecessary adjectives and adverbs and the poor thesaurus doesn’t have to beg for mercy.
Here is an example of beige prose that gets the point across, from Hemingway’s essay, “Notes on the Next War.” It is a perfect example of how beige prose can work as a literary device.
They wrote in the old days that it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country. But in modern war there is nothing sweet nor fitting in your dying. You will die like a dog for no good reason.
Notice that there are no “fancy” words, and the sentence structure and grammar are simple, but what is being said is nonetheless gut-wrenching.
Sometimes, using beige prose is the right choice to describe that which is as stark as death and dying. Very raw human emotions and unpleasant experiences don’t always need excessive descriptors. Being precise and direct can go a long way.
Like purple and beige prose, blue language is something with which you must be careful. Usually used in dialogue, blue language is cursing, obscenity, and profanity. This is where we get the phrase, “to curse a blue streak.”
You might have a hard-boiled character who is a bit profane; someone salty can add feist to writing. But, again, it’s important for the language not to draw attention to itself. You want to write believable characters, not just write profane characters for the sake of making people clutch their pearls. The point is, don’t let the words steal the readers’ focus.
If you have a character who is broke and hungry with an empty fridge, make the reader sympathize with his plight. The focus should not be on his foul mouth while he curses his empty fridge and bank account—it should be on the plight itself.
All three writing styles can be used effectively, in moderation. To sometimes paint your words tan or vibrant sapphire or royal blue is fine — as long as you stay inside the lines.