Purple prose doesn’t just mean writing that uses nice words, rich imagery, or long, lyrical sentences. When people talk about purple prose, they aren’t saying everybody has to cut out all the frills and flourishes. It’s not an argument for minimalism – everybody has their preferences.
It’s just that there’s a difference between being lyrical, and waxing forth with the languid effervescence of a try-hard who’s just discovered a thesaurus and that Nobody Understands MeTM. Purple prose aims for meaningful language with evocative imagery, and ends up sounding ridiculous.
The Deep Emotional Narration is overly angsty or too self-consciously dramatic:
O, the vexation, the flood of turmoil that came upon his tormented breast as he witnessed the locomotive, missed by the slimmest of margins, vacating the station! Each of the long 500 seconds before the next train would make its appearance hung before him, mocking him…
The description drags, burying you in obsessive and awkwardly written detail. Detail, including a juicy section of it, can be used well. Purple prose stops to drone on at you about literally everything, as though the leaf getting blown along the path is as important and interesting as the sword hanging over the fireplace.
Small words aren’t used deftly to convey big ideas – or small ones, either. No, it takes a lot of syllables to reinforce how truly epic everything is. The protagonist doesn’t have blue eyes, or even eyes the dark blue of dusk (though is their eye colour that important, anyway?). No. They have sapphire orbs, brimming over with the voluminous depth of the heavens, the shade of encroaching twilight. They’re just that special.
Michael James’s post Showing vs Telling explains that ‘Showing activates a readers imagination. Telling activates a readers comprehension.’
Maybe purple prose could be seen as an approach to showing that doesn’t trust the reader to imagine correctly. That’s why it drowns you in details, while using attempted evocative language like the writer’s nudging you in the ribs, saying, ‘geddit? You’re meant to feel sad, do you feel sad yet? Eh? Feel sad?’
In Michael’s example of showing, it’s clearly late at night with a tired character. No problem. ‘The moonlight reflected off the puddles in the street. Her head drooped to her chin, as weariness soaked into her limbs.’ It’s easy to imagine what a writer who didn’t trust the reader to get that thoroughly enough would do with those two sentences.
Let’s make exhaustively clear that it’s night, with a moon, puddle, and tired character:
The moonlight reflected off the puddles in the street, highlighting the scattered wavelets the breeze formed on the water. A cloud crossed over the face of the moon, and she shuffled further along in the darkness, each foot like lead as she raised it, weariness soaking into her limbs like a carpet absorbing spilled wine.
As always, categories are fuzzy. One reader’s purple prose is another’s spellbound immersion. What comes off pretentious from one writer, another can pull off. But there’s still a divide between eloquence and purpleness, a point where pretty much everyone rolls their eyes.
To stay on the right side of that divide, trust your reader, and calm down a bit about your protagonist’s sapphire orbs.