What is Purple Prose, Beige Prose, and Blue Language?
I’d like to talk about some style techniques — purple prose, beige prose, and blue language. What are they, and how can we use them effectively?
We will start with the most controversial — purple prose.
Purple prose is when language is flowery and ornate at the expense of plot and clarity. A subcategory of this would be purple patches.
Purple patches are random, flowery snippets of language interspersed throughout a relatively plain text. It’s like showing up in stilettos to go on a hike. The language doesn’t match the occasion or the character.
Purple prose is language that 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.
Now, describing things is obviously a good thing to do in a story, but purple prose takes it too far. Imagine being thirsty and drinking out a fire hose instead of just getting a glass of water. Purple prose drowns your reader.
Purple prose is not simply the use of “big words.” That’s too broad. One person’s ten cent word is another’s dime-a-dozen. Higher level vocabulary is not the issue. The problem occurs when you insert a ten cent word into writing that is grammatically simple and uses plainer text, or when you have a character, say a twelve year old, use the word “pulchritudinous” and it’s not meant as humor or hyperbole. It’s when things don’t “match.”
Your vocabulary is pretty fixed. The only way to change it is through extensive reading. Don’t try to liven up your vocabulary artificially by going crazy with the thesaurus. You’ll paint your words violet. Make sure every single word is precise and supposed to be there. Don’t indiscriminately type because you love the sound of your keyboard.
Also, purple prose is not lyrical, poetic writing. I will get to that in a minute.
If your character is about to open a wardrobe, you don’t need to bang on and on about the type of wardrobe it is.
Here is an example of purple prose:
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.
That is too much, just way too much. Describing a child’s simple wardrobe with words like “visage” and “foreboding walnut” is overwrought. Words like that will confuse the tone of the story, and subsequently confuse your reader.
Also, the entire paragraph didn’t really show us anything, though it certainly did a lot of telling; something you don’t want in your writing. A good rule of thumb to determine whether something is purple or not is if there is a lot of ornate 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.
So, what I’ve done here to fix the passage is added some action. Instead of telling the reader what mother told the boy, I show it with a piece of dialogue. I’ve also omitted most of the adverbs and adjectives that detract from the passage. How is a creaking hinge ominous? And the word “festoon” really should not ever be used unless it’s in a piece of dialogue from an historical fiction story.
Here is another example of purple prose, this one from Meyer’s Twilight:
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. And to make matters worse, most of the books were filled with garbage like this. I can’t even 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, she throws in these ten cent words at random, 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 Edward is a sparkly vampire that likes to doze in the grass. That could have been said in less words.
Because I like to mentally masturbate, 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.
BTW, feel free to rewrite that passage in the comments section if you are also prone to mental masturbation. Writing should be fun.
Now, some will argue that purple prose is merely a style choice; therefore, it’s really a personal opinion whether an ornate passage is “good” writing or not. I would say no.
There is a big difference between lyrical writing and purple prose.
Fitzgerald is 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 in the reader. Meyer’s writing is juvenile, hence the reason it was such a big hit with the teenage crowd.
*No offense to those of you who like the Twilight series. I can see how some would find the stories entertaining.*
Example from 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.
Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury:
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.
Shameless plug: Moncrief’s 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.
Another good rule of thumb is, if teenagers will go crazy over it en masse, it’s probably not purple. Now, moving on to beige prose.
Beige prose 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. But the flip side of that is 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 cause a glazed eye because it is dull. Don’t over use 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 confuse the reader, so you would want to keep it simple so you don’t lose them. But, let’s say you are writing a fantasy novel that needs extensive world building. When describing a new realm, you don’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 them out a little bit so your reader is more likely to invest in the story. What makes a good story teller is someone who can make the characters and worlds they inhabit 3d instead of 2d. No one wants to learn about the foibles of card board cut-outs.
At its worst, beige prose lacks emotion. A good writer can adequately convey emotion. This is where tone comes into play, but I will cover that some other time.
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 laid eyes on before. It was a palatial and sparkling jewel set in the blowing sands of a welcoming desert oasis.
Blech. The use of “disembarked” and “palatial” would be thesaurus abuse.
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 the emotions Jasmine and Aladdin are feeling when they encounter it; however, it doesn’t drown the reader in unnecessary adjectives/adverbs and the poor thesaurus doesn’t have to beg for mercy.
Here is an example of beige prose that gets the point across, and is a perfect example of how beige prose can work as a literary device. Notice there are no “fancy” words, and the sentence structure and grammar are simple, but what is being said is gut wrenching nonetheless. From Hemingway’s essay, “Notes on the Next War”:
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.
Sometimes, you will want to use beige prose for something as stark as death and dying. Very raw human emotions and unpleasant experiences don’t always need descriptors. Being precise and direct can go a long way.
We will conclude with blue language:
Blue language is cursing, obscenity, and profanity. This is where we get the phrase, “to curse a blue streak.”
Blue language is something you must be careful with. It’s usually used in dialogue.
You might have a hard-boiled character who is a bit profane, but you don’t want the language to draw attention to itself. You want believable characters, and not just profane characters because you like to make people clutch their pearls. The point is, don’t let the words steal the readers focus.
You have a character who is broke and hungry with an empty fridge. Make the reader sympathize with his plight, not focus on his foul mouth while he curses his empty fridge and bank account.
I’d love to hear your opinions on purple prose, lyrical writing, and when to effectively paint your words tan and vibrant sapphire. Thanks for reading.