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Purple prose occurs when a writer decides to use overly extravagant or ornate language in his writing. The term comes from Horace’s review of Piso’s work in his “Ars Poetica” in 18 B.C. Horace used a Latin word similar to purple: purpureus, which means “dazzling” or “lavish.” The use of purple prose is first recorded in the 1590s in English. The term can also be called a ‘purple patch’ or a ‘purple passage.’
The lack of a term for poetry, “purple verse” implies that no poem can be too extravagant. The term is only applied to written prose. Prose is used in most writings from letters to articles and novels to journals. They are joined-up sentences on a particular theme or story. Purple prose is applied to descriptive elements of these documents that are over the top.
Avoiding purple prose is one of the many pieces of advice given to new writers, however, many published writers are guilty of overindulgence. Almost anything by David Eddings can be defined as such, including: “They breakfasted on fruits unknown to man, then lounged at the ease on the soft grass as birds caroled to them from the limbs of the sacred grove.” Another example is Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s first line of “Paul Clifford” written in 1830: “It was a dark and stormy night…” and the sentence goes on for another 50 words.
Purple prose tends to occur when too many adjectives are used or there is too much imagery, metaphor and simile in a piece of description. Stephen King, in his “On Writing,” would also champion reducing adverbs to zero. This does not mean that dense description is necessarily purple in nature; Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” series is filled with descriptions, but they are largely dense rather than extravagant.
For example, a minimalist such as Ryunosuke Akutagawa would say, “There is a cat on the table.” Other writers might like to point out the cat is ginger and the table is made of wood. A Robert Jordan-style ‘over-writer’ may give a full description of the cat’s big ears and small head as well as the provenance and style of the table. The purple prose writer will liken the cat to a Buddhist monk in gold robes sitting on a river bank meditating to lilies.
Writers can avoid writing purple prose in the first instance, but it is best to write the first draft in whatever style suits that writer. The best time to check for and tackle purple passages is during editing. At such times, the ginger Buddhist cat-monk can be reduced back to a normal cat waiting to be fed. Writers who are unsure about what is purple and what is not tend to ask trusted friends and editors for help. Raymond Carver, known for his minimalist writing, would have almost half of any story removed by his editor, Gordon Lish.