10 May 2016

Purple prose

In literary criticism, purple prose is prose text that is so extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw excessive attention to itself. Purple prose is characterized by the extensive use of adjectives, adverbs, and metaphors... Purple prose is criticized for desaturating the meaning in an author's text by overusing melodramatic and fanciful descriptions. 
Here are some examples I encountered this past week while reading The Lie Tree, by Frances Hardinge:
"The boat moved with a nauseous, relentless rhythm, like someone chewing on a rotten tooth." (p. 1)

"Slowly Faith slithered her way up the sloping stone floor." (p. 167)

"The wind fluted in the flues and flattened glossy spirals in the grass, and the trees flung up their boughs like drowning sailors." (p. 172)

"She felt some of the tense coils in her stomach loosen as she watched the snake pour like oil out of its cage.  Its jaws gracefully gaped and enclosed the furred dollop." (p. 200)

"Faith thought of the hints she had dropped on the cliff-top.  They had seemed so tiny and air-frail." (p. 287)

"His expression changed, anger forming soft, ugly bulges like porridge bubbles... he would break her face like a meringue." (p. 300)

"His brown mustache and beard had once been neatly clipped, but neglect had seen them break their banks, flooding his chin and cheeks..." (p. 320)

""How do my eyes appear?"  Paul raised the lantern and peered, then flinched back as if stung.  "Like molten butter in a pan," he said... "  (p. 323)

"The voices thronged about her, and now she knew why they disturbed her.  They spoke in her own voice, mangled and maddened into the gargling of a cat."  (p. 365)
This is not a bad book.  It is the recipient of multiple awards in the young adult fiction category, which presumably affords the author more leeway in resorting to odd similes and metaphors, so in all fairness I should emphasize, as the Wikipedia passage notes: "...there is no precise rule or absolute definition of what constitutes purple prose; deciding if a text, passage, or complete work has fallen victim is a subjective decision."


  1. The words "Like a" or " as if" to me are unnecessary. If you wrote, "The Light flooded the room" I already think of water; therefore it is not necessary to write "The Light flooded the room like water." I did however enjoy "the trees flung up their boughs like drowning sailors." That was good.

  2. Ray Bradbury does it just right. So does Jack Vance.

  3. For a nice sampling of purple prose, read the first page of The Bourne Identity. Or anything in the Bourne books.

  4. "His brown mustache and beard had once been neatly clipped, but neglect had seen them break their banks, flooding his chin and cheeks..."

    This sounds like PG Wodehouse. :)

    I, too, liked the trees passage although I may have found a different image depending on the context. It may have been enough to say "the trees flung up their boughs."

    1. Actually what struck me about the "trees" passage was the forced alliteration of "The wind fluted in the flues and flattened..."

  5. Yeah, I'm sorry, from the examples given, no matter how decent the story might be . . . this is still a bad book -- or at least a badly-written one.

  6. I'm in the middle of this book at the moment, and wonder if this writing style might be deliberate? It seems to fit with the feverish delusions of the one of the main characters, and the way Faith behaves as well (eg tricking the maids into believing there is a ghost). Also goes with the place and time the book is set. Just a thought!

  7. I adore Frances Hardinge, and the way she plays with language is a large part of her appeal. I enjoy spare writing, too, but sometimes I think fear of crafting "purple prose" has made new fiction more uniform than it should be. Give me alliteration, puns, metaphors, and flavorful adverbs in your fantasy fictions! But that said, I think Hardinge integrates fancy writing into Fly By Night and The Fly Trap more adroitly, where the love of unusual language and the written word are key traits of her two primary characters.


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