The Purple Prose Dilemma

There’s something I touch upon a little in my book that I want to discuss it in more detail: melodrama, otherwise known as purple prose.

purple prose, melodramatic writing
If this is your protagonist’s reaction after stubbing his toe on a leaf, you might want to scour your manuscript for other instances of purple prose.

Some (Painful) Examples of Purple Prose

Sometimes I’m cruising along in a story and I encounter melodramatic writing. It can happen in interiority, description, or the overall prose. Here are some examples:

My heart dashed into a million jagged pieces as thoughts of betrayal swirled like a thunderhead in my frazzled mind.

I cried out, my breath rasping, my voice desperately pleading, “No!”

He snapped his neck toward me, his eyes laser-beaming me with an intense glare. “Leave. Now.”

It’s actually quite tortuous for me to write this way. There’s not a whole lot that bothers me more in prose. Melodramatic writing works so hard to convey emotion that it goes completely over the top. You may be guilty of it if you’ve developed a finely tuned adjective thesaurus. Or if you have a lot of physical clichés when you’re describing emotions. Or if you’re taking great pains to describe a tone of voice.

My Issue with Melodramatic Writing

Purple prose is going above and beyond to hammer home a certain emotion. It almost always reads as false to me. Here’s my real issue with it. Real drama comes when a reaction matches the situation or stimulus. If I stub my toe, I swear a few times under my breath and walk it off. If my car rolls down the driveway and into the lake, I will swear…well, not a few times. But if I stub my toe and I’m on the ground, moaning and wailing and thrashing around, then the magnitude of reaction doesn’t match the situation.

Most of the time, when melodramatic writing strikes me as especially fake, it’s because of this disconnect. If a situation is not particularly intense because there’s not enough tension or the stakes aren’t high enough, but the writer is trying their best to make it seem intense: melodrama. Whenever you see a lot of purple prose coming to the party, you’re likely trying to create a mountain out of a molehill.

Creating Authentic Tension

But tension isn’t created with a lot of melodramatic writing. It’s created when a situation puts a character further away from what they want. So if that tension isn’t naturally there through how you’ve set up your characters and plot, you might find yourself (even if it’s subconsciously) compensating by tying on the window dressing of intense descriptions and heavy physicality. Instead, ask yourself if you’ve created adequate objectives for your character, and whether or not you’re frustrating them in an effective way.

Remember, your characters shouldn’t get to win that often. Struggle and frustrated desires are par for the course with a plot that’s going to really challenge your character. This is not the same thing as a superficial wound that sets your protagonist into a histrionic hissy fit. Where there’s intense emotion, there should be intense tension underlying it, and a real cause for concern that’s driving your character crazy. (Even if you have a really good set-up for a dramatic reaction, you may want to play it more reserved, to begin with. The sooner writers wean themselves off of purple prose, the better.)

Inauthenticity Alienates Young Readers

If you’re worried that maybe your more flamboyant writing style is coming across as purple prose instead of desirable tension/conflict, ask your critique partners if a scene ever starts to feel fake or over-the-top. This is a very serious issue. Despite teens and kids getting a bad rap for being melodramatic in their personal lives, they are also really good at sussing out what’s authentic and what isn’t. You don’t want a flare-up of dramatics to alienate the reader.

Are you worried that your manuscript is riddled with purple prose? Hire my fiction editing services and I’ll help you create authentic tension and conflict.

2 Replies to “The Purple Prose Dilemma”

  1. Very good point, about how the dramatic reaction has to fit what’s happened, the seriousness of it.

    With purple prose, a good rule is to only leave in one description or reaction, like you had mentioned in a much earlier post. Readers will get it. And often when reading something over you can pick up on any melodrama quickly and objectively.

    Lovely post 🙂

    Thank you!

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