“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.
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!