Plum Prose

You have likely heard the phrase “purple prose.” If you have not, it means writing that is too ornate—a simple enough sin, but a pernicious one. Beginning writers, if they fall into an extreme, typically go towards “too much,” rather than “too little.” They hear about good writing engaging the reader with detail, then slather the adjectives and adverbs on with a trowel.

Good writing, instead, is to know when to use well-chosen words to add vivid and meaningful detail to a scene or passage…and when not to. And underline that phrase “well-chosen.” Many adjectives are overused, or bland, or contribute little to what is said on the page.

Let’s take color, for example.

Yellow, green, black, dark, light…what do all of these words have in common? They are broad and generic, painting color (or tint) on the mind’s eye with a wide brush (ow!). They are rarely helpful, so should be left out, or made more specific.

Leaving out color is often the wise choice, which can be surprising to beginning writers. Does it matter if she has “rich brown eyes,” especially when first viewed across a room? Not if she is a supporting character; even a major character can often get away with having those sorts of details left to the imagination of the reader, romances aside. If you do mention their eye (or nail or hair) color, never mention it again, even ten chapters down the line, unless it is important to the scene.

Using colors in a deliberate and thoughtful manner, on the other hand, can change the tone of an entire scene. Not convinced? Take the following two examples:

“He handed her his card. It appeared hand-drawn, crowded with tiny gold script on stock the color of a ripe plum.”

“He handed her his card. It appeared hand-drawn, crowded with tiny jaundiced script on stock the color of a bruise.”

Either example conveys far more than “yellow script” on “deep blue stock.”

In her excellent book on writing titled Sin and Syntax, Constance Hale references a passage by Diane Ackerman where a yellowish monkey is described as “a sunset-and-corn-silk colored creature.” Used sparingly, this is a strong sensory description that places the subject—and therefore the reader—into a particular frame.

The lesson here, and it is a lesson that will be repeated on this blog, is to use words as any expert craftsperson would use a specific tool. That is what writing is, after all—a craft, requiring the finest tools utilized with skill and purpose.

—Michael Fink

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