Purple prose is used to describe prose that are, sometimes intended to be poetical, but become too wordy. Simply put it’s using too many adjectives, and often the wrong adjectives. We don’t always need a precise shade or an in depth description of a table top, unless it serves a purpose. As with any part of writing there is a time and a place for in depth description and that place isn’t every page. As always I would say not to worry about this in first drafts because they can be trimmed down later.
Deep description wouldn’t necessarily be purple prose, for instance, during an erotic scene when one character is describing touching another character’s body. In such situations details about touch, taste and smell might make a scene more erotic and intimate. However, if a character is sat at a table paying no particular attention to it then it would be odd for a detailed description of its bumps and grooves and the sticky drink rings.
A place where purple prose can be tempting, and is usually directly associated with purple prose, is descriptions of landscapes with magenta sunsets, luscious emerald grass, golden corn fields. In such cases it’s not always the individual descriptions that don’t sit well but the amount of them. It can become a sensory overload for a reader and a little difficult to see the picture as a whole. In such cases it can better to perhaps describe the scene but give a particular element focus, something that the character is particularly drawn to or has relevance to the story, though the reader may or may not know this.
Sometimes when we’re describing a scene it can help to think of it like a painting. A landscape painting normally has a point that the eye is drawn to as the painter leads us through the painting, we might not realise we’re being drawn to it but it’s there. Writing is the same, except we’re creating the pictures in people’s heads. Over describing scenes can be like taking a Turner painting and splashing coloured dots on it so the reader doesn’t know where to focus. Their eyes are drawn all over the place unable to process it all. It makes for an unsettling experience.
As discussed in the previous article it can also help to spread the description through the scene so the reader doesn’t have to process it all at once and, when required, makes itself less conspicuous. I’ll repeat that I’m not saying you need to cut out all of your adjectives, you simply need to decide which ones you need and where you’re leading the reader through the scene.
For more writing advice see my Advice Page.