Fiction writing tip: Avoid “purple prose”

Purple prose is writing that is so extravagant, ornate, hyperbolic, or flowery that it interrupts the flow of the writing and draws excessive attention to itself. Purple prose is characterized by the extensive use of adjectives, adverbs, and metaphors. The culprits of purple prose are usually modifiers that make the writing wordy, overwrought, distracting, silly and, in most cases, quite funny.

The term purple prose comes from the Roman poet Horace, who compared this style of writing to patches of purple sewn onto clothes. Purple was a sign of wealth (and pretentiousness), and so we now have the phrase to describe such writing in fiction, typically created by inexperienced writers.

In purple prose, skin is always creamy, eyelashes always glistening, heroes always brooding, and sunrises always magical. Purple prose also features an abundance of metaphors, figurative language, long sentences, and abstractions.


“Her silken, sun-kissed locks made a golden frame around her perfect heart-shaped face. Soft, ruby red lips curved up, crystalline sky blue eyes sparkled as she looked down at the brilliant, beaming emerald clasped in her long, elegant, lily-white fingers.”

“His eyes spoke eloquent volumes of walks in the rain and white beaches, cool mountain paths, and crisp forests. She felt like she was floating from one place to another faster than she dared imagine, all the while his eyes daring her to move, to let go.”

“She answered him haughtily, the smirk on her face touched by a naughty flash in her eyes that tugged at the male part of him. He noticed she sat tall and relaxed with her nubile legs twisted in lotus position. Her poise reminded him of queens of old sitting dominion over loyal followers in huge temples of worship with rich gold and crimson fabrics cradling them as followers came and dropped down to pay homage.”

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

“She lay upon her silken sheets in her ornately embellished robes of satin, her chest ascending and descending easily with every passing second, deep inside the caverns of her subconscious mind.”

“My heart is pounding, my blood singing as it courses through my body, desire pooling, unfurling . . . everywhere.” (From Fifty Shades of Grey)

Do you feel nauseous now? Me, too. Please oh please don’t write this kind of dreck.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services

Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

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