Telling VS Showing – Differences in Style #5

“Show don’t tell” is squawked from pretty much every writerly parapet. I’ve even seen it used as a criticism in descriptive paragraphs or simply when a character thinks “I don’t like pickles” for example- which seems like an odd criticism, cos, believe it or not there are times when stating a fact is a-okay and long-winded ways of saying “I don’t like pickles” are not. Now fortunately there are some people finally waking up and realising that sometimes you need to tell and sometimes you need to show (hello Jenna Moreci). Yet since it’s such a hot topic, I thought it would be fun to address for my style series!

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Showing vs Telling Defined

Well, I thought about all the ways I could explain it and realised I could demonstrate both techniques in just two sentences from one of my favourite authors, Laini Taylor:

“Zuzana arched an eyebrow. She was a master of the eyebrow arch, and Karou envied her for it.”

The first sentence is showing, the latter is telling. What’s magnificent about this is you have a visual image to latch onto and at the same time get an emotional response. It also demonstrates a fantastic use of contrast from one sentence to the next. But if you want an even better example of showing, you’ll have to read on…

Showing Pros and Cons

Pros: showing can create some beautiful, descriptive language. It’s a fantastic method to transport the reader, allows for some emotional insight for the reader and creates tangible relationships within the story. Without any showing, the story quickly becomes very flat. With it, writing comes alive. I mean, again, look at Taylor’s description of Prague:

daughter of smoke and bone“Fairy-tale city. From the air, red rooftops hug a kink in a dark river, and by night the forested hills appear as spans of black nothing against the dazzle of the lit castle, the spiking Gothic towers, the domes great and small. The river captures all the lights and teases them out, long and wavering, and the side-slashing rain blurs it all to a dream”

Cons: still, it can be unnecessary. I’m pretty sure we’ve all read those melodramatic passages that were wayyy OTT! One piece of advice when it comes to any art form is know when to stop. I know how tempting it can be to add that one last brushstroke but step away from the canvass a moment, leave it to dry, and maybe consider you might be done.

Telling Pros and Cons

Pros: It can be used to create a very strong narrative voice and can be an interesting technique for authorial intrusion- but since this is such a contentious issue, I’ve decided to show you some classic examples:

northanger abbeyAusten: “The anxiety, which in this state of their attachment must be the portion of Henry and Catherine, and of all who loved either, as to its final event, can hardly extend, I fear, to the bosom of my readers, who will see in the tell-tale compression of the pages before them, that we are all hastening together to perfect felicity”- this is used for humour at the end of Northanger Abbey  and shows self-awareness of the novel’s construct, poking fun at the fact that you can expect a happy ending and actually breaking the fourth wall to tell the reader this.

jane eyreCharlotte Bronte: “Reader I married him”- I mean, do I even have to tell you why this is good? It’s a statement as romantic and striking as “I love you”- there’s no need to leave it up to ambiguity, especially after all the torment that has gone before.

 

eastofedenSteinbeck: “I believe there are monsters born in the world to human parents. Some you can see, misshapen and horrible, with huge heads or tiny bodies. . . . And just as there are physical monsters, can there not be mental or psychic monsters born? The face and body may be perfect, but if a twisted gene or a malformed egg can produce physical monsters, may not the same process produce a malformed soul?”- Steinbeck, in my opinion, is one of the masters of authorial intrusion. This moment is the introduction of his villain Cathy in East of Eden and provides a brilliantly stark moment of characterisation and ruminates over what it means. The author’s own struggle to find common ground with this character and actually by confessing this confusion shows the reader just how bad she is.

And there are many more reasons to use telling, such as dropping a *bombshell* and even introducing a moral. To my mind, the absolutism of the rule “show don’t tell” is pretty ludicrous when you think how well this technique can be employed. That said, there are obvious reasons to curb this impulse at times.

Cons: Obviously this can get dull if overused. And if you’re using it for shock value, *newsflash*, this will lose its power very quickly. There’s a reason it should be used sparingly.

Accounting for Differences in Taste

As always I want to draw attention to the fact there are lots of styles and techniques. Like I said earlier, the most important thing is to know when to stop, because, there are times when any technique can be too much. But the reason why I was eager to do this post is that, frankly, whenever I see one of these blanket rules, it grates on me a little. Especially if there’s plenty of evidence that this can work.

Other posts in this series:

Pared down vs Purple prose – Differences in Style #1

The art of Intertextuality vs Innovation – Differences in Style #2

*ALL the Viewpoints – Differences in Style #3

Coherence Vs Incoherence

My only preference for this is “everything in moderation”- but I wonder, what do you think? Are you a stickler for the “show don’t tell” rule? Or do you prefer telling? Let me know in the comments!

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Coherence vs incoherence – Differences in Style #4

So I will admit, I wanted to skip last week’s discussion on viewpoints and go straight to this. Because even though it makes sense to cover viewpoints before going deeper into modes of narration (although ooh err you’ll probably notice I’m not covering every mode eg time, place etc 😉 ) this is by far a more interesting topic to me. Now I’m gonna be honest straight off the bat, I have a passionate dislike for stream of consciousness books, but I can’t deny that it’s an interesting phenomenon, which is why I’m excited to discuss it!

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Stream of consciousness defined

There are lots of ways to tell a story and the how can be one of the most interesting ways to enhance the voice (including unreliable narration). Stream of consciousness is a technique developed in the 20th century to show the flow of thoughts going on in a character’s mind. The term was coined by William James and is also known as “interior monologue”. It’s kinda the opposite of a dramatic monologue/soliloquy where the speaker addresses an audience (think Shakespeare). Ways you can identify stream of consciousness are by leaps in thought or lack of punctuation. Some of the most famous examples are Woolf, Joyce, Faulkner and Garcia Marquez.

 

 

Stream of consciousness philosophy

The aim of stream of consciousness is largely to show the flow of thoughts and feelings, reflecting the actual impression of being inside someone’s mind. Unlike where an author simply tells the reader what a character is thinking, stream of consciousness reflects the inner workings of a character’s thoughts in a way that authentically represents the fragmentary reality of thinking eg by jumping from one event to another and not necessarily following on in a logical manner.

Pros and Cons of Stream of Consciousness

Pros: Well, this certainly creates interesting and realistic psychological portraits of a character. And if you can get into it, it’s an intense experience. Especially as it can be used to really demonstrate individuality by making subtle changes from one character to another and showing the idiosyncrasies of one person’s thoughts close up.

Cons: However, it’s easy to get lost in a stream of consciousness narrative and, in my experience, is very hard to follow. As most people’s minds are a complete mess, you can imagine that being in someone’s head for an extended period of time can be quite the headache. It can also lack coherence and affect the structure, which, yeesh, like I said, not a fan.

Exposition defined

Now as per usual, I like to set these pieces up in a dichotomous relationship, showing two opposing styles. I did have to give this one some thought, as I didn’t want to muddy the waters too much. But since I decided to talk about coherence and incoherence in this piece, I thought I might go with another mode of storytelling: exposition (the other four being: dialogue, thoughts, action and description). Edit: the basic definition is that it’s the author giving information to the reader (and can include authorial intrusion, info-dumping or just be integrated into the text).

Exposition philosophy

As a form of contrast, exposition above all offers clarity. And while there isn’t a philosophy per se, exposition has been used since the dawn of time, or literature, to present information. I personally notice it in more Victorian novels and in ancient epics, where the reader is simply given information. Sometimes this can also be used as a flashback or flash-forward.

Exposition Pros and Cons

Pros: not only does this offer clarity, but it can also be a powerful and directive voice in a narrative. It can be used to show a great deal of control or to foreshadow later events.

Cons: oh boy, I don’t want to get into the show vs tell debate too much at this stage, but that’s certainly a factor to consider (not to spoil potential future posts too much, but I think there’s a time for both 😉 ) And one of the main issues here is that it stops readers from drawing their own conclusions.

Accounting for different tastes

What’s important to note is that neither of these techniques have to be employed for a whole book. It’s possible, for instance, to include some stream of consciousness without going the whole nine yards. And while I begrudgingly admit there’s a plus side to stream of consciousness novels, no matter how much I personally dislike them, I am happy to say that I like both of these styles in moderation. But if you’d like a whole book of either technique (though exposition tends to be paired with other styles) then whatever floats your boat is fine!

Other posts in this series:

Pared down vs Purple prose – Differences in Style #1

The art of Intertextuality vs Innovation – Differences in Style #2

*ALL the Viewpoints – Differences in Style #3

So do you like/dislike either of these styles? Or do you have a preference? Let me know in the comments!

*ALL the Viewpoints* – Differences in Style Series #3

Annnd I’m back *finally* with another of my “differences in style” pieces. The point of this series is largely to talk about different techniques/styles, while acknowledging a lot of these choices come down to different tastes. Since this is such a common topic, I’m going to be specifically talking about my personal views on viewpoints, some of the ways it can work well and some of the pitfalls of each POV. Let’s get into it!

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First Person Point of View

Kinda what it says on the tin. The benefit of First Person is you get to see the inner workings of one character (usually the mc). There is also “first person peripheral”, which means it’s not the narrator is not the protagonist, instead forcing the reader to view the story through a prism of someone else’s experience. As with The Great Gatsby, it can be used to great effect.

gatsby

Second Person Point of View

stolenThis can be interesting. Okay, I can’t lie, I don’t much like the use of second person for an entire book. Still, I will admit it can be intriguing for certain concepts, like Stolen, where it’s used to address a kidnapper. And I know a lot of people love how unique that is- so again, yay for personal taste!

However, there are lots of pitfalls. It can feel quite gimmicky, especially if there’s no clear reason for it. Also, one mistake I’ve seen is making it unclear who is being addressed. Also, unless it is a “choose your own adventure” book, it doesn’t really make sense to address the protagonist, who is a particular character, as “you” (I saw this in Half Bad and wasn’t a fan).

night circusOn the other hand, I love occasional uses, like the effect it has in Night Circus to make readers feel like the audience. Even better is when it’s used by a narrator to break the forth wall (gotta love Deadpool!)

 

 

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Third Person Limited

This is basically narration limited to one character (and largely encompasses the “deep pov” perspective as well). It’s great for writing more intense close ups of a single character.

Third Person Multiple

Basically as above, just with more than one character. Usually this switch is between chapters. The part where this can get tricky is when it comes to *DANGER UP AHEAD* head hopping territory. I’m going to say something controversial now: I don’t think it’s guaranteed to be bad. I think even this can be done well, in a way that’s not noticeable or makes sense. The biggest issue that can arise is that it can be confusing. Throne_of_Glass_UKHowever, I’ve seen people critique authors like Maas for this, and personally I think she sometimes uses it to great effect or for a reason (like a very intense romantic scene). Obviously I can’t argue with individuals who didn’t like it or found it disorientating, but I have to point out, since this is the whole point of this series, that this is a personal taste thing and I don’t always see it as a problem. Unless it’s unclear to me who is thinking what, or someone has knowledge of thoughts they can’t possibly know, then chances are I won’t bat an eye. I mean, there are exceptions to every rule (even when it comes to “not being able to read minds”, you can have a telepathic character in fantasy, so…)

On this POV, the only question that remains to be asked is: can a book have too many POVs? The answer is, well, yeah. Apart from the issue of character soup, if there’s no real differentiation between characters, all of them can blur together and become feast for crowsdisorientating. Not to mention how unnecessary it can be. Even with books I like, there can be additions that feel superfluous to the plot (*coughs* the later GOT books #sorrynotsorry). That said, the question of “how many is too many?” is entirely personal- what may not work for me, may work for someone else and so on. The only thing I’d advise is to make sure all the characters are relevant/add something to the story and it’s easy to tell them apart.

Third Person Omniscient

tess of the d'urbervillesThe *I SEE EVERYTHING* narrator. I’ve seen people argue that this cannot be mixed with Third Person Limited- I personally view this as poppycock, given a blend of the two types of point of view make up the likes of many a-great novel (I’m thinking of Hardy as a fantastic example, though there would be far too many for me to list). Yes, sometimes an omniscient narrator can see inside a character’s head- they’re all-knowing, it’s not implausible!

Accounting for Personal Taste

When it comes to my own choices, I’ve used most of these at different times- so I really don’t have a strong preference. I think the most important choice is what kind of story do you want to tell? When the focus is on “coming of age” for instance, I prefer first person. And when it’s an epic, I feel like it’s got to be omniscient to have that extra *oomph this shit’s important*. But that’s just me, everyone makes different choices, and they all work in their own way.

Other posts in this series:

Pared down vs Purple prose – Differences in Style #1

The art of Intertextuality vs Innovation – Differences in Style #2

And that’s all for now! Do you have a personal preference? Disagree or agree with anything I’ve said here? Let me know in the comments!

The art of Intertextuality vs Innovation – Differences in Style #2

Hello! I’m back with my second post on differences in style– hopefully highlighting different techniques in writing.

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To create a clear picture, I want to set up a dichotomy. Imagine on one side something like like The Road (which does plenty of unusual things, like dropping quotation marks and blending an extreme version of the pared down style with archaic vocabulary) and on the other something Death Comes to Pemberley (which, while different in subject matter, painstakingly recreates Austen’s voice). Now the latter is a pretty extreme example of intertextuality, or in this case straight up borrowing a style, but it’s an interesting opposition to draw.

Those are some pretty extreme examples of how books can veer from intertextuality to innovation. HOWEVER, I want to state for the record that the difference between innovation and intertextuality can be by degrees- so a book can easily employ both. There’s plenty of room in between. Actually one thing that makes this the perfect topic is it’s an excuse for me to talk about how these things are on a spectrum. Now I understand that I may have given the impression last time I did one of these posts that there is a binary choice involved (ah well, it’s a learning experience for me too 😉 ) but I want to make it clear, especially in this case, books can use multiple and even opposing styles. In fact, a book can innovatively borrow, like the Waste Land. So yeah, if you take away nothing else, styles do not have to be one extreme or the other and you can like both. Maybe it’ll be more obvious this time, since I don’t have a preference 😉

Innovation vs Intertextuality

Art is far from linear in quality, and yet the cycle of intertextuality vs innovation has played out over and over in history. I’m going to explain this in the way I think about it and the best example for me is the differentiated really nicely in three phases of Greek art:

Archaic vs Classical vs Hellenistic

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(for the sake of clarity I’m ignoring earlier forms and massively oversimplifying this)

In brief: archaic borrowed heavily from Egyptian styles, Classical was the height of realistic forms and finally Hellenistic became a time of innovation. The idea of doing something “new” was very popular with Hellenistic poets for instance- and incidentally shows us that “being original” was cool back in the day too and there is nothing new under the sun 😉 (but I’ve talked about that a little before).

Naturally, we are always in the midst of these cyclical issues. Intertextuality is a technique best associated with the medieval writing. Authorship was seen as strengthened by its interdependence with other texts (partly to avoid criticism from the Church for writing fiction and to give an author more weight in its claims of “truth” telling). More recently, the focus on telling stories differently would indicate (to me at least) that we are very much in the Hellenistic phase in terms of valuing originality and the use of intertextual allusions is less common. Still, this is by no means a cut and dry issue, as is apparent from the recent popularity of retellings.

Ways a book can use innovation

Innovation in writing is such a broad idea, because it can really be anything from trend setters, to the first in a genre, or individual experimentation. There are infinite ways a book can feel new or different and a lot of the time it can cover content as well (though I’m resisting the urge to stray too far off topic 😉 ). Honestly the sky is the limit here!

A few examples I’d give of an innovative style is stream of consciousness, such as One Hundred Years of Solitude, or spare and poetic, like We Were Liars. There’s also the use of Brechtian techniques/breaking the forth wall and speaking out to the audience. I’ve even seen modern books, like Stolen, be entirely written in second person. Obviously, the benefits of such a practice are that it can make a book stand out from the crowd, though, as I’ve already mentioned, it’s pretty darn difficult to come up with something even somewhat unique.

Ways a book can use intertextuality

Picasso once said, “Good artists copy, great artists steal”- which heavily implies taking the art and making it your own. As such, Picasso didn’t merely copy African art- he opened a vein in his own work and imbued it with the lifeblood of a different culture (and hence intertextuality led to innovation…). Now I have mentioned before that the lines are incredibly blurry when it comes to plagiarism, yet making nods to other art is a form of enriching writing. I want to be clear: hinting/quoting/referencing other literature *is not* plagiarism. It is by design, has value and is a tradition going back millennia. Perhaps it is the medievalist in me, but I think there is a value in literary allusions. While I am trying to avoid using subject matter as examples, it is interesting to note the clear line of progression from Norse mythology to Germanic stories to Tolkien to modern fantasy in terms of borrowed ideas and creatures. That is an inheritance that is passed down from book to book.

One of the best examples of intertextuality, to my mind, is T S Eliot, whose poem The Waste Land is a patchwork of references, particularly to classics. In fact, knowing the Medieval preponderance for referencing other authors, it’s incredibly appropriate that the first line of the Eliot’s poem, “April is the cruellest month”, recalls and inverts the opening of Chaucer’s Prologue:

“Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote

The droghte of March hath perced to the roote

And bathed every veyne in swich licóur”

In this way, the poem creates a puzzle for the reader to solve and gives the work boundless scope and depth.

There are of course retellings that deliberately reference other work and, insofar as it is a retelling (it’s a bit more complicated than that), Hazel Wood did make a fair amount of references which I appreciated.

And naturally, there is the use of epigraphs (quotes at the start of chapters) which come in innumerable books from Middlemarch, to Infernal Devices, to my good friend Daley’s use of song lyrics in the opening of her chapters- it’s a great literary tradition to set a mood or create a sense of epicness.

Difference in taste

I don’t know that people have a specific preference for either one- so it’ll be interesting to see what people say in the comments. I have seen some people making an argument that it’s “not something that’s done anymore”- again this is an issue with fashion, so I don’t hold much stock in it. I have also heard people making the argument that “we are not classic authors” or some such poppycock. Now of course, not everyone is going to be the author of a classic, but I can already see books with promise that might one day be considered as such, and I don’t see any reason to discourage people who want to try writing something *great*. I mean, if they succeed, we all get to read it. So if people that want to give their ideas a go, I say DREAM BIG- I’ll be cheering you on from the side lines 😉

Pared down vs Purple prose – Differences in Style #1

So I did this post a little differently to last time, hope you liked it! Do you think there is a tremendous difference in taste here? Let me know in the comments!

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!