Purple or Poetic? The Fine Line in Prose

Since I spend about an hour and a half to two hours every day in my car, I use a lot of that time to think and observe. I figure, if I must have a commute that takes away time from my  writing, I can at least use that time to hash out things about or within my stories.

This morning was an observation kind of day. We had thunderstorms last night, which left everything quite wet, and lingering patches of thick haze hung in the air, depending on the elevation or the proximity of low, boggy places along my route. Since I take "the back way" to my job, I spend it driving through the hilly, wooded terrain of southeastern Pennsylvania, a route dotted with covered bridges, venerable fieldstone farmhouses, and mottled sycamores. Today, the sun was rising over the crest of a sloping farmstead, and the sunrise shone through the water droplet-laden grass grass with a silver glow. I fixed that picture in my mind, for use in a later book, I'm sure.

For me, if the description of a setting doesn't paint a vibrant picture of the place, and if the word choice doesn't also convey the feeling a person gets by being in that place, the description is dead weight. Yes, a reader needs to understand the layout of the scene, but in my mind, there's so much more one can do than explain where the tables and chairs sit relative to the stairs and the nearest exit. I love rich descriptions of textures and smells and the color of the light in any given space.

But I begin to wonder if that makes me a lover of purple prose. So many books I have read lately subscribe to the "layout" version of setting, and wanting to be a good student of what makes books marketable, I worry that my love affair with intricacies of the world around me is causing other folks to roll their eyes.

For example, and excerpt from a novella I currently have out to one of my publishers for their consideration:

Major Telenius eased his horse beside that of his liege, King Aeleronde of the Vareinor. Side by side, they crested a grassy rise, the chicory and the candytuft a mottled canvas of pink and periwinkle all around them. The road wended before them, riding the rise and fall of the land like a ship on high seas, to lead them to a pinnacled fortress in the distance. The castle’s walls gleamed in the sunlight, a pearl that crowned a hillock of green.
Does it paint the picture, or does it load the reader with meaningless detail? I,obviously, believe the former, since I wrote the thing, but the trouble with writing is in its solitude, it is so easy to develop an obsessive love affair with one's own imaginings, and lose perspective on where good storytelling becomes indulgent prattling. (An accusation most of the detractors of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time make.)

And so, I ask you, friends...when you are reading, what do you look for in terms of setting? Does it matter much to you at all? Is the descriptive prose common at the turn of the 20th century now stylistically too "purple" to work for today's audience? I certainly hope not, but if I want to write for anyone but myself, these are the dance steps I must learn.


  1. I wish I had a good answer for when description is too much. I love good description. Winter Haven is lush with good description that I enjoyed as it reminded me of some great hikes I have been on and made me "be" on that island off Maine. When I posted my five star review, I was so surprised to see many readers hated what I loved in the book. I guess if you are writing for your average thriller fan, you need to leave out most of the color. If you are writing for me, please leave it in. I like chicory.

  2. I forgot to mention that Winter Haven was written by Athol Dickson.

  3. I don't think description is necessarily the pitfall of "purple prose." What I dislike most is explanation, and if the author tries to romanticize the explanation, that makes matters all the worse. I think poetic flair can often be used well, as long as you aren't dramatizing an emotional epiphany or explaining the subjective emotional cast of a scene or setting. I'm not educated in this, but I would guess that the problem of the "purpose prose" from early 20th-century novels is not so much the amount of description, but that the narrative style has changed. I also think the excerpt about Major Telenius is good.

    ...Actually, description and explanation seem opposed to each other. Some novels have a casual explanatory style that I dislike, and I notice that those same novels also seem to be light on description.


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