The opposite of purple


What does good look like?

Last time we talked about bad writing. In particular, we looked at purple prose – the beginner’s habit of stuffing lots of stuff into a sentence in the hope that it will make the sentence shine.

But that only gives half of the answer, doesn’t it? If purple is bad, then exactly what is good?

What is the opposite of purple prose?

The answer is paradoxical. In order to make our writing better, we need to take things out. We need to say less. The real power in writing is not what we write – it is what our readers conjure up in their imagination in the white spaces that we leave on the page.

Okay, that may sound a bit mystical, so let’s have some examples:

Eleanor Rigby picks up the rice

In the church where a wedding has been

Lives in a dream

Waits at the window, wearing the face

That she keeps in a jar by the door

Who is it for?

On the face of it, that’s very simple writing. It has no adjectives. The words are very simple. They are mostly monosyllabic. Ordinary words. We might be tempted to add a few adjectives into that sentence, but it doesn’t need them. Truly it doesn’t.

Why does it work? Because it makes the reader/ listener add in the details. Why does she pick up the rice after a wedding? Who or what is she waiting for? Is she young or old? She puts on a face when she leaves her house – what does this face look like?

Our minds create far more vivid pictures than the writer ever could. We dredge up memories of people that we have known who have been like Eleanor. Or times in our own lives when we have felt the same way. And if we don’t have memories, we invent characters and explanations.

What’s that – you don’t like poetry? Then try this:

Princess Leia: I love you.

Han Solo: I know.

This line was ad-libbed by Harrison Ford. The line he was supposed to say was “I love you too.” But that would not have been as strong. “I love you too” is a standard phrase. It has very little depth or meaning.

But those two simple words “I know” carry a huge amount of meaning.

Han deliberately ignores the standard response. When someone says “I love you”, they are usually asking a question – “you do love me, don’t you?”. Which is why the standard response is “yes, of course I love you too.”

Han is tough. He doesn’t take the easy option. He is a rule-breaker. He is also so confident in Leia’s love for him that he doesn’t need to follow the normal rules of “I love you” / “I love you too”.

He is also hinting at their relationship up to now – they have loved each other for some time but haven’t been able to say it.

And all that from two little words.

What about a quote from a novel? Here, I am to say something a little bit controversial. Good novels are rarely about great lines. They are about the effect of putting lots of sentences together to create something better than a sentence.

A good line in a novel is often one that you don’t notice. There are no adjectives jumping somersaults or polysyllabic words doing back flips.

But over time you get to know a character, a place or a moment. The meaning comes when you add all the words together.

Novel writing isn’t like playing tennis. You don’t win by serving ace after ace. Instead it’s like building a brick wall. It is the wall that matters, not the individual brilliance of a single brick. No-one waxes lyrical about the fourteenth brick from the right, twenty seven rows up.

Let’s talk about Harry Potter. Why were the books and films so successful? For me, it wasn’t about the technical quality of the writing. In my humble opinion, there are far better technicians than JK Rowling when it comes to stringing words together.

What made Harry Potter so successful was that this okay-but-not great writing combined to give us a likeable set of characters in an imaginative world. We like Harry because he is honest. He cares for his friends. He does his best. He may be yet another chosen one (yawn) but he doesn’t get everything his own way. He has to fight against people who are trying to stop him.

Indeed, the only reason that Han’s “I know” line works is because we have already seen glimpses of his character – shooting Greedo first, running away from the first Death Star battle, coming back to the Death Star battle, not believing about the force, his friendship for Luke.

I am coming to the conclusion that readers don’t really read sentences.

I can see that you are puzzled. Of course they read sentences. How else would they get to the end of a book?

What I mean is that readers zip over sentences in far less time than it took the writer to write those sentences. They don’t really pay attention to individual words. Instead, they are focussing on character, world and plot.

When writers build a wall, we do it sentence by sentence. When readers read, they do it moment by moment. Readers remember scenes, not “clever” overlong words.

I have been critiquing a few self-published books recently. And the one issue that seems to come from just about all of them is this:

  • Take out the purple prose
  • Put in more character defining scenes
  • Leave white space for the readers to use their imagination.

5 thoughts on “The opposite of purple

  1. I suspect that these things change over time, We look back and struggle with the conventions and assumptions of our forefathers. How about

    Now was riot raised, the ravens wheeled,
    The eagle, eager for carrion, there was a cry on earth.
    Then loosed they from their hands the file-hard lance,
    The sharp-ground spears to fly.
    Bows were busied – buckler met point
    Bitter was the battle-rush, warriors fell
    On either hand, the young men lay!
    Wounded was Wulfmur, a war bed he chose,
    Even Brithnoth’s kinsman, he with swords
    Was straight cut down, his sister’s son.
    Then to the Vikings was requital given.
    I heard that Edward did slay one
    Straightly with his sword, nor stinted the blow,
    That at his feet fell – the fey warrior.
    For this his thane did to him give thanks,
    Even to his chamberlain – when he had a space.
    Thus we wrote then, the leavings of wordsmiths,


    • Ah, Anglo Saxon poetry! The Battle of Maldon, isn’t it?

      But even there we have an economy of writing. After all, this is a battle scene with lots of one on one combat. A less confident writer would spend ages on thrust and parry, describing weapons, the feelings of the combatants, the weather.

      Instead the author gives us very pithy descriptions of weapons and people. He leaves out a lot more information than he gives us.


  2. I have a wonderful mental image about the Battle of Maldon. It was an oral poem, so it would have to be taught from generation to generation. I can see a father teaching the words to his son (sorry, this is almost certainly a male thing). The son listens as the father tells the story to a packed mead hall. Then the son tries to tell the story himself, stumbling over some of the phrases. And his Dad nudges him and teaches him until he gets it right,

    And they carry on doing that, from father to son, generation after generation, until someone learns how to write it down.


  3. schillingklaus

    No, I will not follow any of your tyrannic commandments. I prefer reading purple prose and telling over showing. Consequently, I will not be deterred by any of your propaganda from shamelessly breaking the barbaric rule of “show, don’t tell”, or from deliberately providing purple prose.


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