Purple Prose Cause #2: Over-application of World-building and Scene-setting

This is the second installment of a series on the causes and fixes for purple prose. If you missed the first post, it’ll help if you read it now before continuing.

Your character enters a room and you describe every piece of furniture, the quality of light, the clothes of the other people present, their facial expressions, the music playing, and the smell of dinner wafting in from the kitchen. This is called scene-setting, right?

WRONG. This is called boring your reader to tears before anything happens.

World-building is going to be most important for speculative fiction writers. I am putting it alongside scene-setting for the sake discussing descriptions because both are prone to the same mistakes. It may seem like giving the reader every little detail upfront will allow them to feel immersed in a scene. Instead, with too much front-loading, it can be difficult to know which details are important.

There’s only so much we can hold in our minds at once. Many readers only skim big blocks of description, so all your hard work choosing exactly the right shade of yellow to describe the firelight could be wasted.

Precision in writing isn’t just about choosing the perfect words, it also means you have to be mindful of how and when you let the reader in on details. If you give people too much to think about at one time, they will likely miss the things that are actually important to the plot or characterization. They don’t know where to focus.

(image from My Life in the Shadow of the Twilight Zone)

Purple Prose Fix #2: Choose the Most Vital Details and Ignore the Rest

Every detail shouldn’t be given the same amount of “weight.” One pitfall I see often is people going to great lengths to describe a place even though it is only used in one scene in the entire book. If your character never revisits a place, don’t bother telling the reader every little detail. Otherwise, you are setting up an expectation that this location is important and the reader may struggle to hold onto your details at the expense of something that comes later in the book.

If you know the character’s cigar case is going to jog a powerful memory later on, by all means, tell the reader about it. But if it is just a thing they hold for a moment, the filigreed scrawl and the way it catches the firelight are just fluff. I have read books where I know precisely what each character ate for every meal before they even start eating. Don’t be that writer.

You need to be careful about deciding what the most important details are so your writing doesn’t get bogged down in too many adjectives or careful descriptions of the character’s clothing. Knowing a suit is “threadbare” is way more important than figuring out if it is mahogany or burnt umber. Like choosing a verb that “shows” more than one thing at a time, try to figure out how to focus on details that can convey more than one type of information at a time. This can go a long way to creating more economical descriptions that will keep your reader enthralled and still get the point across.

Purple Prose Fix #3: Sprinkle Details Throughout the Action

Word choices that might seem too complex when the sentences are lined one after another may feel intriguing when interspersed with other types of prose. The same way that “familiarity breeds contempt,” too much of the same thing leads to dullness.

So, once you’ve decided what is actually important, spread the details throughout the action of the scene. When I say “action” here, I don’t necessarily mean things like running and jumping. Characters speaking to one another is also a type of action in your story. It’s a wonderful vehicle for peppering the scene with details at easy to digest intervals. Action tags are a perfect way to sneak those vital details in without the reader even realizing it.

Want to let the reader know the room is full of expensive furniture? Have someone lean on something as they speak. (Bonus points if you choose a double duty verb like “slouch” or “perch” instead!) If someone gets emotional, send them pacing across the Persian rug instead of mentioning its presence up front. Which leads to the next tip…

Purple Prose Fix #4: Attach Descriptions to the Character’s Emotions

I was critiquing the introduction to a chapter recently that involved a detailed description of a castle keep. The first thing the writer told me what how the towers “loomed” over the scene. It’s a fantastic word because it conveyed a sense of both height and bulk, and showed the character felt intimidated. By giving me insight into the character’s emotional state, this choice offered more than just what the character saw in front of their face. You get to set the scene and add characterization in one stroke of the pen (and fewer words!).

This is also a great way to add “voice” to your narration. Use how a character feels about what they are perceiving to color the word choices. Is that smell coming from the kitchen a stench? Or is it comforting? Is it something they can recognize? Is it something they want to eat? Or is it roasting meat and they are a vegetarian? When was the last time the character ate? Do they have a physical reaction to the smell?  

Purple Prose Fix #5: Avoid Redundancy

Unfortunately for the castle keep writer, he then went on to describe the palisade that connected the pair of towers as “tall and wide” right after using “loomed.” I already had that information from the much stronger word choice he’d already used. Throughout the next three paragraphs of description, he often followed that pattern. This led to rampant redundancies before finally, hundreds of words later, grabbing my attention with the assassin hiding in the shadows.

This wasn’t the only author to fall into this trap. I have seen it tons of times. A writer finds many ways to express the same thing, and rather than choosing, they keep them both. You’re usually not doing yourself or the reader any favors by stating the same thing more than once. There are exceptions, for instance, details that are vital to understanding something that is going to come next. Most of the time, once is plenty, so choose one way to express something and run with it, or you may be seeing purple.

I’ve given you plenty to digest for one post, so I’ll sign off for now. If you missed the first post in the series, go and check it out. You can also follow this blog to make sure you don’t miss out on the rest of the series.

Until next time, stay splendid, my friends!

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