06 July 2014

How to Make Purple Prose a little more Blue

Dear Blog Readers, once again Yours Truly has been accused (albeit in a playful manner) of writing Purple Prose! 

Pshaw! My first thought was about which color might be in question because my usual font color is black. But it quickly occurred to me that I really do tend, at times, to lean toward the morbidly obese when it comes to richly compiled sentences. What I have just written may be an unworthy example of it.

I suppose we are all guilty of flowery language and purple prose when we are writing. At least at some time or other. It's not really that we want to show off. It's not that the scene or the character really needs it in order to be authentic. And we know what it is and that we should avoid it. After all, it slows down the reading, makes the reader have to work harder to comprehend what is happening, and in the end does not afford us any kudos for our highly honed verbal wordplay.

Recently, I had such a linguistic joust with a writer colleague who swears she is going to have her own blog post on the subject. One thing that came from that exchange was the idea of metaphors and, in particular, how a writer can build a beautiful, poignant metaphor (perhaps even one that advances the story) as a substitute for using purple prose or flowery language. 

Yes, it's possible to craft a deep thought or feeling from plain, ordinary language.

Now that I've finished my Work-In-Progress (WIP), *A DRY PATCH OF SKIN
, which I now can refer to as my Work-Just-Finished (WJF), I was able to quickly pull out a couple of convenient examples. Let's deconstruct one of them to see how a simply-worded metaphor can stand in for flowery language or purple prose.

[Set-up: At this point in the story, the protagonist is facing a desperate situation and, with no other recourse, turns to God--with whom he has been feuding during his journey to seek a cure his for his fatal disease. The following paragraph comes after the end of the soliloquy (spoken aloud) but is in standard first-person narrative.]

A flake of snow alighted on my nose, then more flurries fell around me. Probably it was God sending me a sign, but as usual nicely disguised and suitably vague. But I did not stop to gaze at the snowflakes. I knew they would melt. They always do. And become someone’s tears.

Not a high-brow word in that entire paragraph. 

Sentence #1 is merely a statement about the weather. Some readers may instantly latch onto snow as a metaphor, but that would only be because we have been trained through all of our previous reading of the literary canon to think that way.

In Sentence #2, the protagonist himself makes the comparison between the snow and a message from God, and by extension, so does the reader. His personalized assessment of the message (disguised, vague) gives us some of his (the protagonist's) mindset, further building the metaphor. Hence, if the sudden snow falling upon him is a message from God it is typically vague, thus requiring him to do the interpreting of the message.

Sentence #3 is a bit of a switchback on the road to metaphor. He takes the snow as a message from God but refuses to get caught up in interpreting the message.

Sentence #4 becomes a rebuttal to Sentence #3: He did not concern himself with the snow because he knew the flakes would melt. In a metaphorical sense, the symbols that the snow flakes represent will melt, hence become nothing (in a moral sense)--or in a practical, realistic way, nothing of significance. 

Sentence #5 is simply a trailing fragment of Sentence #4 but, left as a fragment, it becomes a separate, added comment rather part of the original comment of Sentence #4. The effect is two separate ideas, not one combined idea. There is a difference. If one wanted to, a semi-colon would probably work just as well to join these two sentences.

A day after writing the paragraph, I returned to read through it and make sure it said what I wanted it to say and felt the way I wanted it to feel. Then I added the final sentence. Just four simple words.

Sentence #6. Here is the metaphor--the leap of link between a fact of snow falling, a character's thoughts about God that are sparked by the snow falling, then a rebuttal or dismissal of those thoughts, and finally that leap into the metaphor. Snow obviously does not become actual tears. That happens only in the imaginary sense. It is the character who, like many real people might, makes that comparison.

That is what metaphor is. 

I've been reading a fascinating book about metaphor (I is an Other) in which author James Geary declares that everything is a metaphor. That is, if it is not the actual, physical thing itself, it can only be a description of the thing (my words). He further elaborates on the brain's unique ability to form patterns from each and every experience we have. Then, upon encountering a new experience, the brain relies on the patterns it has stored to determine if the new thing is in any way like something previously encountered. Metaphor is that practice of pattern-forming. This is like that, therefore, I can identify certain properties of this new thing which match the old thing and I'm ahead in the game of identification. 

But I digress....

In fiction writing, we do not use metaphor for survival or to make patterns per se, but rather as shortcuts, as more interesting ways of introducing emotions, connections, and other perhaps esoteric claptrap. Sometimes they work, sometimes not.** But purple prose and flowery language can be dismissed in favor of the carefully constructed metaphor which, in the end, is usually going to be more powerful and more beautiful than a stream of beautiful words themselves.

*I hope to have this medical thriller/vampire tale available for end of year holiday shopping.

**My first novel, AFTER ILIUM, has sections of "flowery language"--'tis true--but I believed it was warranted and appropriate because it is reflecting the romantic hero's mindset as he works his way through a seduction and an affair. Conversely, once the affair ends and reality is thrust upon him, the writing style is quite lean, even terse--matching the survival effort he faces where there is no room for frivolous thought.

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  1. In regard to your trailing fragment, I dislike the use of semicolons, preferring the look of the trailing fragment in the printed prose. I am fond of allegories and moderately purple prose, but I am old-school in my taste.

    (Many aspiring authors overuse semicolons anyway.)

  2. Regarding the example of which you refer, most trailing fragments are new but additional thoughts linked to the preceding sentence. Many writers will use the dreaded comma-splice (insert comma instead of semi-colon) to "physically" link the fragment to the preceding sentence. I've busted many a freshman writer for such errors! Bwah hah hah haaaaa!