Wikipedia (yes, that font of online wisdom) defines purple prose as:
...a term of literary criticism used to describe passages, or sometimes entire literary works, written in prose so extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw attention to itself. Purple prose is sensually evocative beyond the requirements of its context. It also refers to writing that employs certain rhetorical effects such as exaggeratedsentiment or pathos in an attempt to manipulate a reader's response.I'd say that's a pretty accurate definition. In my simplified language, purple prose = trying too hard.
In today's publishing world, writers are encouraged to create a style that will stand out from the rest and keep their work from being just another fish in the huge sea of books. Unfortunately, in that effort to stand out among the rest, the result can be prose that's so overwritten, it screams LOOK AT ME!!! I"M DIFFERENT!!
You've likely seen examples of this before. It seems to occur most frequently in the literary, romance, and fantasy genres, but like reruns of that deranged dinosaur, purple prose can pop up anywhere.
A quite popular example (from Wikipedia again) is from Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton (1803–1873), who begins his novel Paul Clifford (1830) with the sentence:
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.
Often shortened to just "It was a dark and stormy night", this opening has given rise to the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, in which contestants are asked to supply similarly florid opening sentences to their own otherwise imaginary novels.Deb Stover, who wrote a great article entitled "The Purple Prose Eater" for How To Write a Romance For The New Markets, researched romantic several texts for examples. Here's one of those gems:
Some of the participants in my research became a little...carried away. Example? "The dragon of his desire writhed beneath his tight-stretched trousers." Ahem.I suspect the hilarity of reading such things in romance keeps some readers from being fans of the genre and many writers from attempting love scenes.
So, what's a writer to do? How do you bring a strong voice to your work without writing something that either leaves a reader scratching their heads or laughing aloud because it's obvious you've tried too hard?
I don't think there's a really simple answer. Like most areas of writing, it boils down to hard work. Write, re-write, write again. Critique partners (good ones) are invaluable for pointing out these areas and giving you honest feedback when the prose turns Barney-ish. Eventually, if you can get to the point where a reader or critique partner says "I was so caught up reading that I forgot I was critiquing (or lost track of time)", then you KNOW you're onto something.
My goal, and perhaps it should be yours too, if you're a writer, is to write a story in such a way that the reader doesn't see the words. They see only the story and characters. I essentially become invisible. Some might scoff at that: If I'm invisible, how do I get noticed?
If that's a concern, then ask yourself: Why do you write? To tell a great story or to get noticed? If your goal is mostly the latter, sure you might get noticed, but maybe not in the ways you wanted. Strive for learning the art of storytelling without resorting to a fresh coat of purple, and when you do get noticed, your work will resonate more in the readers' minds.
Try something for practice: Take a sample paragraph from a published work or your own work that you feel is particularly purple (overwritten). Rewrite it to make it as simple as possible. Note how short it became. Now, play with the passage, paying mind to character voice and atmosphere. See what you can come up with--still keeping it simple, but as active and true to the text as possible. If you do this and want to share your exercise, please do so in the comments.
Or, feel free to share your own findings of Barney-colored prose (citing title and author, of course). Happy writing!