Differences in style series #1 Purple Prose vs the Pared Down Style

“Kill all your darlings”, they say.

“I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs”, King claimed.

We’ve all heard this advice before- but what if I told you it was only one way to look at your work? Because there is more to writing and literature than these absolutes. There are *lots* of styles and usually a writer uses many, many techniques, all working in tandem to create a unique voice or “literary DNA” if you will. Today I want to talk about two opposing styles, explain the different philosophies behind them and discuss some of the pros and cons of using each one.

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And yes, as you may have noted from the little “#1” sign, this will be a series- though I’m as yet unclear on how often I’ll do these posts. But my desire to do this stems largely from my wish to expand on the idea that everyone has different tastes and just to inform people about their choices when it comes to writing.

Disclaimer: One thing I want to make clear is that although I clearly lean towards one style over the other, this isn’t a criticism of the other style- it’s just pretty impossible for me to hide my preference and I will state my biases as I go. I hope you will take what I’m saying in the spirit in which it is intended ie to examine the two techniques, not to bash anyone.

Purple Prose Defined

prose that is too elaborate or ornate”

Yes, I’ve used the more negative moniker for this- so it may surprise you to find that I’m not even slightly opposed to purple prose- in fact this is my preference. I only use the term in defiance of those who would bandy it about like an insult. This is defined by Wikipedia as “excessive use of adjectives, adverbs and metaphors” etc- which I find broadly covers a great deal of atmospheric and lyrical writing. Consequently, I have always seen this as a misnomer- because, as is the point of this series, there are a variety of styles and writing is either executed well or poorly- the style itself is not inherently “bad”. “Too much” is incredibly vague, because how long is a piece of string? *Shocker* but there are plenty of popular authors who fit this criteria anyway: meet my good friend F Scott Fitzgerald… but more on that in a moment.

Pared Down Style Defined

“no unnecessary features, and has been reduced to a very simple form”

To put it simply, this is simpler prose 😉 Styles that fit into this category might be called balanced or clean. Good examples of this would be Stephen King or Hemmingway.

Purple Prose Philosophy

Now we get to the fun bit! While I think it would be difficult to pin down all the purple prose in history, I think the best place to start is with Romantic poets, who believed in centring their poetry on emotive language in order to better understand the human condition. Consequently, the aforementioned Fitzgerald sought to emulate Keats (great post on that here) and this marks a distinctive note in the history of purple prose in literature, as it serves as a direct link with the philosophy and ideas of Romanticism, which, I believe, still permeate this style of writing. There is far more focus, therefore, in this style on feelings, atmosphere and the aesthetic value of the work.

Pared Down Philosophy

Oh goodness, the perspective here is *totally* different. As King and other authors in this vein have frequently made clear, the idea is to reduce the distractions flowery writing might provide from the plot, characters and narrative structure. Here, the idea is to give all other aspects of a novel, beyond the writing, a chance to shine. It is also important to note that this style of writing came into vogue as books were popularised for the mass market. The idea here is that simpler books are more accessible.

Pros and Cons of Purple Prose

Pros: when it’s done right, it’s beautifully breath-taking. There is, to my mind, no greater pleasure than a well-executed, well-placed metaphor for instance. It can completely transform writing from dull to iridescent. It also gives a book a multi-faceted edge- to read purple prose is like looking through a prism (is it clear yet how much I love it?) Plus, there’s plenty of room to leave clever, spoilery nuggets, like breadcrumbs, to be picked up on a second reading. It makes a book more luxurious and complex, even on the surface. And like I said, it nearly always makes it more atmospheric and emotive. However, there are some downsides…

Cons: admittedly, richer prose can be a distraction and more difficult to get through (even at the best of times). It’s also *so easy* to get wrong. And when it does go wrong, or you don’t click with it, man, it’s like wading through sludge. You certainly can’t get away with weird/random metaphors that go nowhere or comparisons that are just why or clunky phrasing. Careless editing or trying too hard will stick out like a sore thumb- each device has to be carefully checked and you’ll have to tighten and tighten the screws on every passing phrase. You can, with pleasure, do a Fitzgerald and have a literary device virtually every word- but every single one of them has to work- which means it’s a lot of work.

Pros and Cons of the Pared Down Style

Pros: there’s far more clarity of purpose. The meaning, while not as decipherable from the language, can be equally complex in terms of symbolism, characters and plot. In fact, because there is less signposting, it can be more challenging to draw out the meaning, as everything seems like it’s there on the surface, but it really isn’t. It’s a neat trick if you can pull it off. It also allows for more precision of detail and makes a book appear clean and less fussy. And if you’re writing something action related, it can allow the book to flow better.

Cons: it can be dull. Really, really dull if you’re me 😉 . It can also be harder to develop an emotional connection. Also, it can be surprisingly difficult for people to follow and can end up like a game of whack-a-mole- no matter how many darlings you kill, a few more will always pop up. Also, playing executioner to adverbs in particular can create rather than remove a lot of faff- which can potentially get in the way of the author’s intent for clean prose (for the love of all that is holy, if you want to say “slowly”, say it dammit, don’t say “at a speed which was not his best” or suchlike)

Accounting for Differences in Taste

Okay, you may have detected in that last part where I fall in terms of preference 😉 However, in case you’re still unclear, I always call it the Hemmingway-Fitzgerald Divide, because a lot of people tend to prefer one over the other, and, well, they’re the best examples of these opposing philosophies. Both are excellent writers, yet they are diametrically opposed stylistically (of course you are free to like both or neither, just an example 😉 ).

Naturally, preferring one of these does not mean you have to like every book written in this style (I *hate* when purple prose is sickly, random or pretentious!). Nor does any of this mean I won’t enjoy any books in the pared down style (although King is currently on my nope list and I’m not even sorry). And most importantly, these are, of course, far from the only styles and plenty of people try to navigate between the two.

To bring this back to the question of taste, I would like to say that, discounting for difference in quality, it is possible to see the merit in both approaches. There is, unfortunately, a lot of negativity about the use of “purple prose” in contemporary literature. Even the term, which I choose to reclaim from crusty critics, was largely created as a rod to beat certain types of writers. Frequently, arguments against this style stem from a “we don’t do it that way anymore” view- which I have a problem with because a) fashion doesn’t dictate what’s good, b) there are popular authors, like Laini Taylor, who clearly disprove this point and c) ergo there’s a market for it. So I guess the message here is you do you!

Phew- that was longer than I expected! Pat on the back if you made it to the end (don’t blame you if you didn’t 😉 ). I hope you didn’t mind me trying out something new! Do you have a preference for the pared down style or purple prose? Let me know in the comments!


141 thoughts on “Differences in style series #1 Purple Prose vs the Pared Down Style

  1. YES! I love this post! It’s brilliant. Personally, I am in the purple prose camp. Why? I love to get lost in the experiences happening. I want to understand the characters and their world. Things need to be descriptive and not stark for me to connect. This is why I love du Maurier’s work and not Hemmingway’s (though I can appreciate the latter).

    The real question is this: Why is it called PURPLE prose?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Gosh, that’s reassuring!
    I’ve tried to embrace the Raymond Carver style, but my last two issues of Carve magazine have been passed on unread. As someone who’s still finding my own ‘style’ I’ve curbed any earlier leanings toward elaboration (more lilac than purple) by entering competitions and having to edit towards a word count (always substantially less than my first draft). Not that I’ve been notably successful in competitions – two 3rds, one short-listed and one long-listed over two years – but I’m beginning to have more confidence in my own skin.
    I’ve unsuccessfully sent a few stories in to women’s magazines, but to be frank (whisper it softly) I don’t see the point of most womag stories. So that’s clearly not going to be my market. The stories that have brought me some measure of success have definitely been non-womag material, so perhaps I’ll ramble on in my own direction and see where I end up. Thanks for the encouragement.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. This post helps explain to me why so many people claim Stephan King is a “great” writer and I’m like “Huh???”

    He’s a SUCCESSFUL writer, no doubt. But his writing is so simple and plain I couldn’t understand why it’s considered great.

    Fitzgerald is great, to me, so I guess I must be TeamPurpleProse.

    Now Hemingway, I’ve tried to read him and can NOT and I don’t know why. However, I haven’t attempted to in probably 10 years and tastes change so maybe I’ll try him again some time.

    Thanks for this great series you’re doing!!!!


  4. Wow. Lotsa comments here, but I cannot hold my tongue.

    Excellent insights both pared-down and purple.

    I guess I like both. Which one you use depends a lot on genre. Purple prose is more acceptable in fantasy and even sci-fi, where as thriller, noir and perhaps contemporary are genres meant for the pared-down style. (Sorry if I’m using incorrectly the names of the genres and even the term genre. I know there is a whole technical vocabulary there, and even after 18 mos of learning about the publishing industry, I haven’t mastered it.)

    I could be wrong, but my experience so far is that purpler = harder to sell. As far as I’ve been able to determine, agents want lean, spare action right from the first line or they aren’t grabbed by the book. I think that might be my problem. My first WIP is a post-apocalyptic situation narrated by people from the ancient world. Accordingly, I drew for inspiration on the somewhat calm, elegant voice of the narrator of The Swiss Family Robinson. That doesn’t appear to grab many people these days.

    I like King and I like wordier writers too, but it’s nice to know someone out there enjoys the more leisured, elaborate kind of writing.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. “Also, playing executioner to adverbs in particular can create rather than remove a lot of faff- which can potentially get in the way of the author’s intent for clean prose (for the love of all that is holy, if you want to say “slowly”, say it dammit, don’t say “at a speed which was not his best” or suchlike)”

    Omg yes. I decided adverbs had a bad rap when I noticed the tendency in my own writing to phrase things like “he said in a tender voice” versus “he said tenderly.” Like, at that point, what are we even doing–just say the damn adverb.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve only discovered you today ‘theorangutanlibrarian’ and thank you for this article. I tend toward the pared down writing style and do worry about presenting ‘dull’ work, particularly when showing emotion. And I’m a great fan of Stephen King, so feel chuffed to be somewhat in his corner!


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