View Full Version : 'Purple prose': Necessary to fantasy fiction?

Home - Discussion Forums - News - Reviews - Interviews

New reviews, interviews and news

New in the Discussion Forum

October 6th, 2005, 11:17 AM
It would seem to me, that a certain amount of 'purple prose' is necessary when writing fantasy. One wants to see highly descriptive passages and elaborate language when reading about mythical realms and epic deeds. It enhances the mood and brings the reader into the setting. I'm not saying you should describe every character's appearance down to their underclothes, or get ridiculous with the adjectives and adverbs, but I've read some (published) fantasy written in a very sparse, economical style, with characters speaking not too differently from modern people, and to me, it just fell flat. I guess there's a very fine balance that must be maintained. What are your opinions?

October 6th, 2005, 12:44 PM
I'm not much interested in fantasy, but I can see where pedestrian language would take away from the effect of a fantasy story. I think you do need an extra amount of detailed descriptions in the settings and characters. The dialogue too should put me in the mind of another world. At least in SF you can get away with common prose as long as the content is unique. Maybe that's why I stick to SF!

October 6th, 2005, 09:38 PM
If you're going for color, sure. But too much of it may turn the reader's stomach. Use with care.

October 7th, 2005, 06:51 AM
Use the prose you feel you need to tell the story.

Don't think you have to use "purple prose" just because others do. Don't use made up or "olde world names" just because others do.

The thing is to create a good story, no matter what words you use.

There is nothing worse than writers throwing in words they don't really understand or that fly in the face of what they are on about.

If I had 1 for every "fantasy" writer that call a longsword a broadsword then went on to write as if it weighed a ton, I would be quite rich ;)

October 7th, 2005, 10:01 AM
I have a fantasy story that started out as a exercise in setting atmosphere, and as such was very descriptive to that purpose. It evolved into something much more interesting (I love that about writing). When I offered it for critiques, the near-unanimous response was "too much description!" I'm still working on cutting the fat and fearing that fat isn't all that I'm cutting :p

October 8th, 2005, 12:51 AM
For me, writing is like building a house. You start with the foundation, which is the first draft. This draft contains the very basic language, prose, and story content to get you started. Then subsequent drafts are like building the walls, windows, roof, painting the damn thing, furnishing, etc.

At any rate, the first draft is like a foundation! Don't worry about trying to be descriptive, just write it like you're TELLING someone the story.

And don't EVER try to write like one of your idols. We're not all Tolkein or whoever so just be yourself and you'll either make it or not. There are other things to do in life if you don't sell books.

October 8th, 2005, 04:24 AM
I think there's a difference between description and "purple prose." The line may be thin, but it IS possible to fully describe without overwriting. In my experience, anyway.

October 10th, 2005, 03:03 PM
Technically, the definition of purple prose does not involve either large amounts of description or exposition, or elaborate or mythic language. It means over-writing or awkward writing. There are various kinds of purple prose, but the main types are:

1) Superlatives: everything and everyone being described as perfect, gorgeous, the biggest and most important thing ever, which can cummulatively create an artificial tone

2) Florid writing: imagery, dialogue, and such that is confusing, tangled, awkward and tortuous in expression

3) Melodrama: the most common form of purple prose, where characters go into paroxysms of grief and anguish, and all reactions and developments are overly exaggerated and operatic.

Heavy use of adjectives and adverbs does not automatically cause any of the above. Also, sometimes purple prose can serve an important purpose in a story, if deliberately used for effect by the author, and the assessment of whether a segment of text is purple prose is to a good degree subjective and subject to personal preferences. Fantasy stories, which are often about dire situations with high stakes, sometimes have their drama unjustly mistaken for melodrama.

But how much a writer does or does not use description, imagery, exposition, dialogue, pov, action or any other element of storytelling is a stylistic difference and hasn't much to do with purple prose issues. What Mark is talking about is that he likes fantasy stories that use a certain sort of writing style that uses mythic language, old-fashioned structures, and a great deal of description and exposition to support the storyline

He's not alone in this preference. Ursula LeGuin wrote an essay about fantasy writing in which she claimed that the mythic style was needed in fantasy and took to task fantasy writer Katherine Kurtz for sounding too "modern." This sort of amused me, as LeGuin's own style is more toward the sparse, modern approach than the mythic, but reading and writing preferences can be different. There always seems to be this split between the Minimalists, who like their prose style lean and focused on action and dialogue, and the Traditionalists, who like a lot of descriptive imagery and expository matter so that it sounds like it was written in the 1800's or earlier. And then there's the group in the middle who enjoy both. Luckily, the market can accomodate them all.

And I would once again caution other fantasy writers on two points:

1) Thinking of attributes of fantasy writing that you like as "necessary" and required in all fantasy writing for it to be considered fantasy writing, as if there was some mold into which all fantasy writers must fit.

2) Limiting fantasy writing only to the epic fantasy sub-genre. There is a great deal of contemporary fantasy writing, set in modern times, for which an ancient, fairy-tale style would likely be a great impediment. Fantasy is a content designation -- stories that have elements of the fantastic in it -- not a stylistic or setting label.

October 11th, 2005, 12:33 AM
KatG, I think that Mark13 has confused "Purple Prose" with the vatic -- i.e., oracular -- voice. In which case, I must agree: nay, the oracular, applied contemporaneously, might surely make thy narrations seem puerile.

October 12th, 2005, 07:35 PM
Oh curses, where is that dictionary? :)

I hope it didn't sound like I'm coming down on Mark. The question of writers styles is an interesting one and epic fantasy does perhaps employ more hyperbole than other types of fiction or fantasy, in order to give that mythic, old world feel to the narrative. I know Gary, for instance, feels that the sound of the prose is very important to what he is doing. But there is a difference between descriptive writing, which is what it sounded like he was talking about, and writing that doesn't work effectively, which is traditionally what purple prose is.