Now that we’ve cleared up the meaning of purple prose, I can talk a little bit about what makes great prose so beautifully vivid.
Please note that, for all I’m warning you to avoid the overly-ostentatious verbiage, I’m not recommending reducing your vocabulary to the grade-school level. No, your writing should always bring some challenge to the reader — it should expand their horizons, imaginative, philosophical, and intellectual.
Now, what makes prose beautiful? Quite simply, it is using good words well. Besides all the things we’ve talked about elsewhere (rhythm, cadence, sound), it is fundamentally about using the right words at the right time. For instance, both “foggy” and “murky” can describe an obscured environment, but they convey this sense in two totally different ways. Foggy has a more pleasant connotation, whereas murky suggests latent evil and mystery.
Likewise, “gloomy” and “murky” both have dark connotations, but in different ways. Gloomy has a feeling of something sad, repressed, weighted down, rather passively bringing people in that environment into the same sort of state. Murky almost feels more actively evil…something that tries to entangle hapless travelers in confusion and danger. (It is not for no reason that Tolkien called the dark, sinister version of the Greenwood “Mirkwood.”)
All right. So, we know that we need to use the right word for the job, and to construct our sentences carefully, descriptively, and rhythmically. But what else? Is there anything else?
I’ve read some great fiction where the writers used clear, expressive prose. Sentences flowed with no jarring rhythmical errors, scenes came to life with bright and lush description…. And that was fine. I love those books. They are beautiful, well-written, and have their own flair of poetry and lyrical merit.
Lately I’ve discovered something else, though — a new way to bring life to prose. I first noticed it in Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races. Some people may think she went overboard on her metaphorical prowess, but simply the fact of what she did made me completely reevaluate how I thought about “poetic” prose.
For instance, in The Raven Boys, she talks about how Ronan “dissolved what was left of his heart in electronic loops.” This simple sentence is sheer. utter. genius. Just look at how much she conveys, how vividly she conveys it, in so few words. The dissolving suggests just how loud the music is playing. Instead of telling us exactly that Ronan is listening to techno or electronica, she suggests it through “electronic loops.” And the best part of all is that she says “what was left of his heart” instead of “his heart” which in just a few words clues the reader into a hugely important aspect of this kid’s character.
So what exactly did Stiefvater do? She used fairly typical language — but in remarkably unexpected ways. I remember in The Scorpio Races she talked about bicycles “bucking off” their riders, or how someone’s breath is “dark, the underside of the sea.” For one thing, we don’t usually think of someone’s breath being “dark”…but what a vivid picture that paints! And describing it as the “underside of the sea” links the character to the wild, mysterious, and deadly sea. She employs a metaphor without ever using “like” or “as”, but in a way, the comparison is even stronger.
I have to credit Stiefvater for opening my eyes to a whole new way of understanding vivid language. It invokes a fresh and almost…skewed…way of looking at reality, in the sense that you’re still examining reality, but not straight-on as most people do. You look for connections that you never knew existed. When you make a comparison or a metaphor, you avoid the old cliched tropes, the old standbys, the familiar similarities. You look for the unexpected, the startling, the “why didn’t I ever think of that” connections — and I don’t mean you’re trying to shock or appall your reader. You’re trying to delight by making them see the world in a new way.
For instance, say you wanted to describe your character running away as fast as possible. You could say, “Anna bolted, fast as a rabbit.” Yawn. Everyone knows rabbits are fast. Everyone knows that when you want to describe something as fast, you use a rabbit. Booooring. Well, what if you said, “Anna bolted, quick as fear.” Huhhh??? Suddenly that invokes whole new vistas of meaning. Not only is there the suggestion that Anna is running because she’s terrified, but it also makes you think about what fear is like, maybe in a way you’ve never thought of before. In other words — you think about the thing being described as well as the thing used to make the description.
Sometimes even inverting a description can be a fun way to convey an idea. For instance, going back to the fear idea, we all know how “fear runs like ice through her veins.” But what if you read, “a chill inched through her veins like fear.” Nice. Or, similarly, “shame rushed like blood to my cheeks.” We all know that blood does rush to your cheeks when you’re ashamed or embarrassed, but really, you don’t feel the blood so much as the shame. It’s a quirky way of making you think twice about how you understand both shame and blushing.
Another way of spicing up the prose is to use a metaphor which itself contrasts two things that are either vastly different in character, or vastly different in degree. For instance, in Prism I describe a conflict between two characters as being “like watching a fight between lions or gods.” On the one hand, I suggest the rather raw, animal anger driving them — something not human, but in a sub-human way (though the lion image is intentionally used to convey something awesome and majestic, as well as terrifying). But on the other hand, they are compared to gods, suggesting something so high above ordinary human experience that it’s almost incomprehensible — something also not human, but in that lofty, super-human sort of way. In both cases, you get a sense of the utter foreignness of their conflict, but in two opposite ways. They are both these things, and yet at the same time we know that they’re just two men.
Using language like this can really add another dimension to your prose. It’s not necessary to do it all the time (and some readers might not like it), but when you do, using language in new and unexpected ways can really delight and tantalize your reader.
Notice that, even while the descriptions are unexpected, they don’t pull you out of the fictional world the way purple prose does. I’d almost argue that it weaves you into the world of imagination tighter than ever. The experience of reading a book like that — for me — is so…wildly alive that I don’t want to leave. Especially if the descriptions really do a good job of matching the narrating character’s voice. That’s hugely important — but the topic for another post.
Finally, notice that in these few examples I’ve given, no huge long multisyllabic words were used that required the venerable Oxford English Dictionary to decipher. You can create beautiful, vivid, unbelievably poetic prose with ordinary (though not necessarily simple) words. In a sense the most important skill it requires is not a vast vocabulary, but an ability to see the world in an excitingly fresh way. Give it a shot. I bet you’ll find that it makes you a better writer — even if you don’t use these metaphoric techniques often — simply because it broadens your vision and view of reality.