Purple prose may be easy for readers to spot, but not so easy for writers. You'll be cranking along on a story thinking, this is great: clever phrasing, strong emotion, just the right words, even a little alliteration thrown in for good measure... All of which is just great, in moderation. Too much flowery, descriptive, or overly emotive and cliched prose will nauseate your readers. It's tough to know just how much well intended cleverness is too much. During the writing process, you may consider those crucial and crafty paragraphs to be plum. But if a rereading makes you laugh, that plum is bruised.
A prime example of purple prose is the opening paragraph of Edward Bulwer-Lytton's, Paul Clifford:
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.Not so bad in small doses but if sustained this type of writing can quickly drown the reader in its torrents. There is a well-known writing contest named after Bulwer-Lytton -- who, by the way was a prolific author, wrote in many genres, and also penned the classic historical novel, The Last Days of Pompeii -- aptly called The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest.
Another writing form susceptible to the purple patch is the romance novel, particularly the naughty bits. Although much awkward commentary can be found in this narrow genre, the most obvious infractions show up in mainstream or literary fiction The Bad Sex in Fiction Award conceived by The Literary Review is yet another favorite if infamous laurel bestowed yearly on some unwitting, otherwise perfectly fine author who is apparently clueless when it comes to describing sex. Case in point, last years nominees included Haruki Murakami, Sebastian Barry, and Stephen King. But the shame-faced winner was, David Guterson for his most recent work Ed King.
In the shower, Ed stood with his hands at the back of his head, like someone just arrested, while she abused him with a bar of soap. After a while he shut his eyes, and Diane, wielding her fingernails now and staring at his face, helped him out with two practiced hands, one squeezing the family jewels, the other vigorous with the soap-and-warm-water treatment. It didn't take long for the beautiful and perfect Ed King to ejaculate for the fifth time in twelve hours, while looking like Roman public-bath statuary. Then they rinsed, dried, dressed, and went to an expensive restaurant for lunch.For me, the worst of the bruised plums, as I now like to call them, comes from one of my favorite books I've read this year. Here is a scene from Shantaram by prison escapee and New Zealander novelist, Gregory David Roberts.
We shed our clothes on the tiled floor, and she led me to her bed. We lay close, but not touching. In the storm-lit darkness, the beaded sweat and raindrops on her arm were like so many glittering stars, and her skin was like a span of night sky. I pressed my lips against the sky, and licked the stars into my mouth. She took my body into hers, and every movement was an incantation. Our breathing was like the whole world chanting prayers. Sweat ran in rivulets to ravines of pleasure. Every movement was a satin skin cascade. Within the velvet cloaks of tenderness, our backs convulsed in quivering heat, pushing heat, pushing muscles to complete what minds begin and bodies always win. I was hers. She was mine. My body was her chariot, and she drove it into the sun. Her body was my river, and I became the sea. And the wailing moan that drove our lips together, at the end, was the world of hope and sorrow that ecstasy wrings from lovers as it floods their souls with bliss.
If this bloated verse doesn't make you titter, reams of romance pulp beckon, get to them. "...ravines of pleasure"? "Her body was my river, and I became the sea."? It's all too much. He should have quit while he was ahead, after licking the stars into his mouth.
Purple prose is literary low hanging fruit. From a distance, they may look so good even the most practiced writers will not see the rot, and pick them. The "titter" test above can be a good way to avoid the tainted bits. To paraphrase a familiar piece of literary advice: don't be afraid to cast off your bruised plums.