Mmmm…everyone loves the lush feel of velvet, the way the texture imparts a depth to any color.
Black velvet feels cool, sophisticated and sexy, a little black dress and a vampire kind of cool.
Purple velvet, can feel royal, rich, but is frequently a bit too over-the-top for me.
Red velvet signifies something daring, just a bit risqué. This opulent fabric evokes emotion in us when we see and touch it.
In my mind, words are like velvet. They evoke feelings and memories, and can alter our mood just by the way they are used. When we craft our narrative we aim to please our readers, to make them want to read it again. To convey the atmosphere of our setting, we use descriptors. We also use descriptors to show our characters, to indicate they are long-haired, dark-eyed, or bearded.
Good prose contains a certain amount of descriptors, and like Goldilocks, we want to make it just right–not too little and not too much.
Too little, and the narrative is flat, uninvolving. To much and the reader finds themselves gagging. This heavy, cloying style of writing is called “Purple Prose.”
Like purple velvet, a little goes a LONG way. “But wait, ” you’re saying, “aren’t you being a little hypocritical? What about your love of all things Dickens? His work is rife with overblown, hyperdramatic descriptions.” Cool your jets, kids–that was the style when he was alive and rocking out the paranormal fiction. People wanted to spend an entire day savoring the well-crafted poem. That style of writing has a place, but not in the current culture of commercially viable novels.
If you want to sell books, you must walk the fine line between overblown prose and its antitheses, eviscerated, flat narrative
The Elements of Style calls “Purple Prose” “hard to digest, generally unwholesome, and sometimes nauseating.” To be fair, purple prose is subjective and each reader has a different level of tolerance for it, but it is something we definitely don’t want.
Plain: He set the mug down. (my choice)
Somewhere in the middle: He eased the tankard onto the table.
Bleah: Without haste, the tall, blond barbarian set the immense, pewter, ale-filled cup with a wooden handle onto the stained surface of the rough, wooden table.
Spare me the ‘creamy-blue eyes as deep a shade of amethyst as the lush, purple, velvet drapes.”
There is a tipping point where good, descriptive prose becomes distracting and cloying to the modern reader. I opt for a lean style in the majority of my own work, because, while I adore Charles Dickens,most readers just want a good novel that will provide a small diversion from the everyday grind.
Purple Prose done wrong bullies the reader into seeing only what the author tells them to see, and leaves no room for imagination. Telling the reader what to think forces her to walk away rather than suffer a moment longer. That book goes into the recycling bin, or gets deleted from my Kindle.
What I, as the author, think is good and beautiful may be ugly to you, as the reader.
Author Stephen Swartz recently posted a great blogpost on this very subject–available at Deconstruction of the Sekuatean Empire. He loves the nuances of the english language as much as I do, but understands how to create lean narrative that allows a reader to see the scene, but leaves room for the imagination to fill in the gaps.
Right off the top of my head, I can think of many authors who manage to walk the line between purple and eviscerated prose, among them Ross M. Kitson, Shaun Allan, Neil Gaiman, and yes, you too, Stephen Swartz.
These authors give you the framework around which your imagination builds the image, and they place that framework in well-crafted sentences that tease you, inviting you to read more. Like that little black dress made of velvet, their work is lush, sleek, and sophisticated.
My advice is to read, read, read. If you like a certain style, write in such a way to evoke the feeling the author of that work raised in you. But never , never force the minute details of your vision on your readers. When you bludgeon your reader with the minutiae of your vision, you lose the beauty of story, and you lose your reader.
I think Neil Gaiman nails that fine distinction in this quote from “The Ocean at the End of the Lane:”
Creepy and to the point–and allows us to envision the shock the main character feels at the realization he knows nothing of his past, without beating us over the head with it.
My goal is to write with an economy of words, yet give enough description that my readers can build the environment in their own minds.