Purple Prose Cause #1: A Misinterpretation of the Phrase “Show, Don’t Tell”

My general approach to both writing and editing is less is definitely more. I like tight writing that doesn’t waste any ink or a reader’s time. This means I rely on my beta readers to let me know if I was being too subtle and need to state something more explicitly. It also means that no one will ever accuse me of getting too “purple” with my prose.

This common literary term means that something has been overwritten. In other words, there are too many words happening in a sentence, paragraph, or heaven forbid, an entire book. In this series, we’re going to explore some methods for avoiding “purple prose” in your own work by:

  • Examining five reasons why writers can go overboard and nine tips for how to combat them
  • Discussing English as a language and how to communicate clearly
  • The importance of respecting your audience and their reading level
  • Tips for deciding when to be expansive and when to get to the point

(image from BookieBlog.com)

So what is over-writing and how can you fix it? I’m going to give you the answer to the second part first. Short and simple: EDIT your work. But that advice is also vague, and you likely already have a sense that this is true. So, over the course of the next few posts, we’re going to look at several different reasons you could become a purp-etrator and how to “mauve on” to a new and better draft. <nudge nudge>

Purple Prose Cause #1: A Misinterpretation of the Phrase “Show, Don’t Tell”

Like the term “purple prose,” you’ve probably run across the advice “show, don’t tell” before. I can’t tell you the number of times that I have seen people misunderstand those three words and how to apply them to their work. They seem to think it is synonymous with “paint a picture with your words,” but in reality, they are fundamentally different.

“Show, don’t tell” is worth an article or even series all on its own, so I’ll keep it brief here. “It made her sad” is telling, “She pouted” is showing. Notice how my “show” example uses fewer words than my “tell” example? It won’t always be the case, but it certainly can be.

Instead, many writers believe that to “show” something means to describe it within an inch of its life. They want the reader to see precisely what they perceive in their own mind. The problem is that no matter what you put on the page, you can’t be sure the reader is ever going to “see” what you see. Our brains constantly fill in details based on our individual experiences and interpretations. Furthermore, it can get tedious. Every hue in a woman’s hair, every minute twitch of a face, everything on someone’s plate – ugh. Snoozefest.

Purple Prose Fix #1: “Showing” Comes from the Intersection of Action and Emotion

Let’s start with the simple idea that a character named Samantha enters her home and removes her coat. “Enter” and “remove” are both plain verbs that convey the bare minimum. That means it’s a wasted opportunity. The words are just taking up space when they could be showing the reader something about the character’s emotional state at the same time. Let’s look at a few synonyms for each verb that can pull double duty. In these cases, “showing” is going to add to the overall word count, but will also be doing the emotional heavy-lifting. This can save you from needing to add “tell” sentences in as well.

Samantha feels flustered – Her front door swung open, knocking into the wall and leaving a dent in her haste. She cursed as she wrestled with her coat and missed the hook on the wall twice when she tried to put it away.

Samantha feels depressed – She leaned against the door frame, heaving a sigh before shuffling in. Her coat slid off and she hung it in the closet. If only she could free herself so easily from all her burdens.

Samantha feels happy – She bounced through the front door humming the last song she’d been blaring on her car radio. As she called out a greeting, she shrugged off her coat and tossed is onto a nearby chair.

In each of the cases above, many of the individual verbs conveyed both an action and the character’s emotional state at the same time. They don’t all have to carry that sort of weight, but thinking about emotions as you choose your verbs will add interest and variety to your writing. This can help cut down on the number of adjective you need to convey the right meaning, which is an important step to de-purplefication of your work.

That’s enough for today, but follow this blog or stop by again to find out the second reason that purple prose occurs and more tips for fixing it.

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