14

Time and time again, I have been told that my unfounded focus on description distracts from the main story line.

I mostly write stories in English, which doesn't happen to be my first language but I'm fairly good in it. My native tongue is a very colourful one, full of interesting idioms and sentence structures. I'm more of the chatty, girlish teen type, and so I tend to be annoyingly descriptive in my language. And that extends to all the other languages I speak.

Now every time I manage to scribble off a piece that's remotely worthy of civilised beings' time, it is deemed "purple". Not unexpectedly, given my tendency to be overly descriptive at times. However, I do try my utmost not to clutter the text with elaborate, beauteous descriptions of elements that bear next to no significance to the plot in the long-run.

The problem is when I immerse myself into writing, I cannot forego the temptation to for example, do justice to the long, lustrous locks of my otherwise average protagonist.

It took all of what she had to restrain from even so much as stealing a quick glance at her flushed, bony limbs. A blow of cool, spring breeze tickled Sabrina's ears, and whooshed aside a stray curl covering her left cheek. Instead of feeling revitalised, a surge of irritation rippled within her, which manifested itself in her sudden moans of annoyance and shuffling uneasily in the rickshaw seat. Sabrina had spent the better half of that morning painstakingly ensuring that that curl stayed fastened to its rightful place. Apparently, the clip had slid down her watery waves of decidedly unimpressive plain, crow-black hair. Cursing the silkiness of her slick, stick-straight hair, she moved onto focusing on the wide roads of concrete they whirled past.

So how should I go about disciplining myself to write with more consideration?

What are the limits to description in story writing? How do I know if I have crossed them?

EDIT

Keep in mind that the sample text used to illustrate my point is just something I came up with while writing this question. So it is not at all a true representation of my actual writing skills and I would request you not to base your thoughts on me as a writer solely on that little tidbit.

  • 7
    I think part of the problem isn't the words. It's the structure. Everything feels very stilted. You have short sentences. That stop and start. All the time. Then jump around. Randomly. There is no rhythm or flow. It's not a paragraph. Its a jumble of sentences. – Tim B Apr 17 '18 at 10:09
  • 3
    Out of curiosity: what is your native language? – Paula Hasstenteufel Apr 17 '18 at 13:01
  • 3
    FWIW I notice in the stories I enjoy that there is never (like, hardly-ever-never) more than one adjective preceding a noun. Often none. Two or more is very unusual in the books I read. Also FWIW, in the example above I found the description of hair as both 'watery waves' and 'stick-straight slick' ...uummm.... Not contradictory exactly but it made it harder for me to see her hair, not easier. – DPT Apr 17 '18 at 14:09
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    @PaulaHasstenteufel It's Bengali. – Soha Farhin Pine Apr 17 '18 at 14:15
  • 1
    Why for goodness sake do you post a sample which is not representative?? – Peter - Reinstate Monica Apr 17 '18 at 22:24
34

First, let me start by saying...wow! Your command of the English language is impressive.

Some people think purple prose can be boring and unnecessary, but when done well, I think it can really make plain words come alive. Considering we're always told that good writing requires you to cut out the excess fat however, that usually means doing away with all that purple.

I think it's important to first define and what purple prose is. Because of its poetic roots, it's not always easy to find a straightforward answer, but Wikipedia describes it simply as:

Purple prose is characterized by the excessive use of adjectives, adverbs, and metaphors.

But I prefer this definition:

Superfluous, extravagant, showy, elaborate, and flowery language.

You certainly have that going for yourself.


The thing is, I've read a fair amount of books in my lifetime, and I have to say, not everyone can purple prose like a pro. In fact, too much of the purple stuff can immediately stamp your work as amateur by the second time you've described what her hair is doing.

I always say, if you want to know how to do something right, learn from those who've already done it and do it well.

Author Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash starts off with nothing but purple goodness, and none of it makes us cringe. Check out the first paragraph of his book:

The Deliverator belongs to an elite order, a hallowed sub-category. He's got esprit up to here. Right now he is preparing to carry out his third mission of the night. His uniform is black as activated charcoal, filtering the very light out of the air. A bullet will bounce off its arachno-fiber weave like a wren hitting a patio door, but excess perspiration wafts through it like a breeze through a freshly napalmed forest. Where his body has bony extremities, the suit has sintered armorgel: feels like gritty jello, protects like a stack of telephone books...

So let's break down what he did right.

 

1. HE KEEPS IT MOVING.


Every sentence gave us more description without feeling as though he's repeating himself.

When we look at your passage, you first start with mood: A haunted look marred Sabrina’s face perpetually... Then you mention her hair in the second sentence: A blow of cool, spring breeze tickled her ears, and whooshed aside a stray curl covering her left cheek... You then move back to mood: Instead of feeling revitalised, a surge of irritation rippled within her... But then you go back and mention her hair for the next three long sentences.

The TAKEAWAY:

Once you've moved on, you cannot go back. You'll only be beating a dead horse.

Reconstruct your sentences so that even if you're describing the same thing, it feels like the story is moving along. In your case, adding Instead of feeling revitalised, a surge of irritation rippled within her, which manifested itself in her sudden moans of annoyance and shuffling uneasily in the rickshaw seat... broke up your description which felt as though you were done talking about her hair, so we were also ready to move on.

So if you rewrote this, it would read:

A blow of cool, spring breeze tickled Sabrina's ears, and whooshed aside a stray curl covering her left cheek. She had spent the better half of that morning painstakingly ensuring that that curl stayed fastened to its rightful place. Apparently, the clip had slid down her watery waves of decidedly unimpressive plain, crow-black hair. Cursing the silkiness of her slick, stick-straight hair, she moved onto focusing on the wide roads of concrete they whirled past...

Now I'm ready to know what happens down that concrete road.

 

2. SELECTIVE WORD CHOICE


We've established purple prose is all about excessive use of adjectives, adverbs and metaphors and Stephens first paragraph has it's fair share, BUT every word pulls it's weight and every word feels appropriate for what he's describing. They're used to describe the character's appearance without exaggeration.

His uniform is black as activated charcoal, filtering the very light out of the air...

  1. Filtering is a fitting visual description for describing the air's behavior.

  2. A bullet will bounce off its arachno-fiber weave like a wren hitting a patio door,

  3. ...but excess perspiration wafts through it like a breeze

When we look at your passage, some of your adjectives and metaphors call attention to themselves because they're either inappropriate for the description or don't add any value.

For example:

A haunted look marred Sabrina’s face perpetually.

Marred seems like an odd choice to describe her haunted face.

It sounds like you're saying the Haunted Look is an actual object that ruined her face forever. Its exaggerated and calls too much attention to itself when I should be focused on Sabrina's mood.

Perpetually also feels out of place and doesn't add any value to the sentence.

Additionally, the entire sentence could use a little more purple. You've told me she looks haunted, but you didn't SHOW me.

For example, what does a "haunted look" look like?

Give me more description here, and maybe not so much in others.

Example:

She looked haunted, her eyes vacant and still as she focused on the wide roads ... It took all of what she had to restrain from even so much as stealing a glance...

Let's look at this sentence as well:

Instead of feeling revitalised, a surge of irritation rippled within her, which manifested itself in her sudden moans of annoyance and shuffling uneasily in the rickshaw seat.

Again, revitalised is too flashy. Tone it down, simplify.

A surge of irritation rippled within her... Over-exaggeration, too much for the mood...

...which manifested itself in her sudden moans of annoyance and shuffling uneasily in the rickshaw seat. All of this is a little too much for misplaced hair wouldn't you say?

Let's try this maybe:

A short burst of the cool (insert season) air breezed passed her hair, whipping out a rogue strand of curls she had painstakingly tamed into submission that morning. She moaned, cursing the silkiness of her bone-straight mane...

You'll notice in the last few examples, I rearranged your sentences and omitted lots of words. This allows for the words that are there like, burst, cool, whipping, rogue, painstakingly, submission, moaned, cursing, silkiness, slick-straight...to stand out. No unnecessary words to distract us from understanding her mood.

TAKEAWAY:

Be super selective with your word choice and show, don't tell.

 

3. MAKE SOMETHING HAPPEN


In Stephenson's opening paragraph, by the third sentence, you're told something is about to go DOWN!

Right now he is preparing to carry out his third mission of the night.

In contrast, we don't see any action until your last sentence, where we realize, she is driving.

In one of the examples above, I moved that action up to read to like this:

Example:

She looked haunted, her eyes vacant and still as she focused on the wide roads of concrete ... It took all of what she had to restrain from even so much as stealing a glance...

Right away, I get a sense of movement which creates the illusion of action.

THE TAKEAWAY:

Action is why people want to keep reading...they want to know what is happening and what is going to happen, so when you feel a purple prose coming on, make sure you paint in some kind of action early on, even something as mundane as driving.

My examples are in no way perfect (they too need work) they're just suggestions. I particularly like it when I can see examples of how it's done so hopefully you found it constructive.

I found this particular article very helpful. It doesn't necessarily tell you how to write, but definitely highlights those things that gives purple prose a bad name. Simply avoiding them could improve your descriptive writing dramatically. https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/purple-prose/

Happy purpling!

  • 2
    Really appreciated the connection of keeping the story moving and once you've moved you can't go back. I had too much of that in my story - but didn't have a concrete way to think of the mistake I was making. Your explanation helps me visualize it more concretely. – DPT Apr 17 '18 at 14:11
  • Hey! It was awesome. Every bit of it. I consider myself blessed to be in such wonderful company. Thanks for the unusual but great advice. (You're the first I've ever come across who actually recommends purple prose). – Soha Farhin Pine Apr 17 '18 at 16:46
  • @NeghieThervil There is a deeper reason why she's making such a fuss over one misplaced bunch of curls. The protagonist hates the sight of herself and tries to veil as much of her flaws as she can. And suddenly a small tuft of beauty marks on her left cheek appears out of nowhere, which is why she wanted to hide it with her hair. – Soha Farhin Pine Apr 17 '18 at 16:53
  • @SohaFarhinPine I actually got that the curl was a big deal. "Painstakingly" says everything I need to know about how serious that curl is. There was a lot of prose, but not a lot of purple which is why I stressed word selection. Notice my example included words like tamed...and submission to stress how important it is for her to get those curls to behave. You did a great job at drawing attention to her insecurity...just needed to help us feel her anxiety, rather than just tell us. – Neghie Thervil Apr 17 '18 at 19:32
  • In the quote, "His uniform is black as activated charcoal, filtering the very light out of the air...", "filtering" is the perfect word because it is almost a pun. Activated charcoal is the base for many filters in the real world. – NomadMaker Apr 17 '18 at 21:56
4
  1. Do not try to control your descriptions while you write.

    If you try to write a perfect first draft, that will only block your flow and hamper your process.

  2. Get feedback on your finished draft from qualified beta readers.

  3. Revise your descriptions (and other aspects of your text) where the beta readers agree.

    It is important that you do not follow each and every bit of criticism, but only those issues raised by at least two separate readers.


Different genres have different amounts and different styles of description. Your description might be perfect for a historical romance, yet out of place in an action thriller. So the best approach is to see what readers of your genre say to what you have written.

If you find that they agree that your descriptions are too sprawling and flowery, try to cut and straighten them during revision. With time – that is, which the next novels you write – you will learn to write better descriptions and the need for revision will diminish.

3

There are three questions I see in this post:

  1. How do I discipline myself to write more considerately?
  2. What are the limits to description in fiction writing?
  3. How do I know if I've crossed those limits?

I'll start with question 2, move to 3, and then back to question 1.

So, to question 2: First, there really are no "limits" in writing fiction. That is to say, as soon as you hear a "rule" about fiction writing, you'll find someone who breaks that rule and makes it work. But there are two take-aways from this comment. One is, the writer in this situation usually knows they are breaking a common "rule" and are doing so on purpose, and two, they have probably worked within the "rule" (whatever it may be) enough to fully understand why it exists. All of this being said, probably the most common rule in writing fiction is "show; don't tell." This rule exists for a reason. Fiction where the author tells us what a character does as opposed to showing us what the character is doing, distances us from the character and we can't identify. As the author James Hynes of the Great Course "Writing Great Fiction" says, we need to "build fictional worlds through evocation." That is, we need to provide specific details in a situation so that the reader can see and hear what the character does, but leave enough room for our own imagination to fill in the other half of the details. Too much description doesn't allow for this and the reader is not as engaged with the story. To know you've crossed the limits of over description in your own writing it is probably helpful for you to know why one might want to limit description (as in, because it helps your reader engage with the character/story).

To question 3, how to know if you've crossed the limit of "over description," I'd recommend two things--one, have a trusted writer friend provide feedback on your work, asking them to specifically respond to the level of description in your writing. Two, given the example above, you might consider trying an exercise. When you find yourself describing a character's expression, such as "A haunted look marred Sabrina's face perpetually," ask yourself what image you see in your head when you read this. How would you describe Sabrina's facial features without using the word "haunted?" i.e. What are her eyes, mouth, facial muscles doing that indicate "haunted?" What is her posture? What does she see or smell at this exact moment? This kind of description may help your reader engage more with the character than telling us her expression is haunted. You may also want to consider watching out for repetition, such as "crow-black hair" and "slick, stick-straight hair" within two sentences next to each other.

And as to question 1, how should you discipline yourself to write with consideration--I guess that depends on your goals as a writer. If you want to continue writing stories with lots of description and that is your main goal because you enjoy doing that kind of writing, then let that guide you. If your goal is to write fiction that has description that engages the reader and makes them want to keep reading further, you might use that as motivation to better understand description and its purpose in fiction by reading books such as John Gardner's "The Art of Fiction" as well as many other sources and guides. Understanding the details of what makes great fiction work may provide you with that motivation.

3

The central issue here is not the extent of description, it is focus. Good prose allows the reader to focus on one thing at a time. When it is time to describe, it describes. When it is time to deal with action, it deals with the action. If a description of the setting is necessary to understand the action, then the setting is described first and the action afterwards.

If you look at the sample you provided, however, the focus is all over the place. It moves rapidly back and forth between description and action, between past and present, between detail and general scene. The reader cannot find a point of focus.

A common reaction to this is to tell the writer to cut out the description and get on with this action, but you should not interpret this as an instruction to provide less description. Rather, you should interpret it as an instruction not to pollute the focus of an action scene with description. Describe when it is time to describe. Show action when it is time to show action. Keep the reader focused on one thing at a time.

1

All writing is description. It's just a matter of what you're describing. So it's impossible to describe things too much, or to be writing descriptive prose when you should be writing some other kind of prose. With "purple prose", the issue as I see it is either describing the wrong thing, or describing badly.

When you look at any object, or live through any kind of experience, there is a general impression of what that experience is like created in your brain. That general impression is much more than just the retinal data received from looking at the object. Your job as a describer - in fact, what the verb "to describe" means - is to reproduce that general impression inside the head of your reader. It is not to exhaustively list all of the sensory details of an experience, and then describe each one with as much intensity as possible.

For example, if I'm writing an intense action scene, I'm describing the experience of the action. If you were to live through that action scene in real life, there would be some kind of general impression of what it feels like to be there in that moment. If you stop to describe the stitching on the characters' jeans, you are failing to reproduce that general impression. If the object you wanted to describe was the jeans, then you would have succeeded. But that wasn't the object you wanted to describe. The object you wanted to describe was the action. This is like looking at a painting through a microscope, one square inch at a time, and then expecting to know anything about what the painting looks like.

Thus, figure out what it is you're trying to describe, or to put it more pithily, describe the scene, not (necessarily) the things in it. This is a case of describing the wrong thing.

Another problem with "excessive" description has to do with describing the right thing badly: not everything needs to be described with intensity, because not everything is intense.

For example, did a surge of irritation really ripple within her? Are you sure she didn't just feel a bit annoyed? The rage you feel when you find out your own brother has betrayed you and stolen your kingdom might ripple within you, I'm not so sure that irritation at the wind messing up your hair really does. Are you quite sure that it really took all of what she had to restrain from even so much as stealing a quick glance? It's not just that she felt a bit self conscious, that she fidgeted nervously, or that she kept glancing at herself with mild dismay? Is her hair really crow black, or just black?

How you describe something and how intensely you describe something are not independent variables. It is impossible to change the intensity or the level of detail of a description without also changing the color of that description, because the more words you pile on something, the more important and dramatic you make it seem to the reader.

  • There is a deeper reason why she's making such a fuss over one misplaced bunch of curls. The protagonist hates the sight of herself and tries to veil as much of her flaws as she can. And suddenly a small tuft of beauty marks on her left cheek appears out of nowhere, which is why she wants to hide it with her hair. – Soha Farhin Pine Apr 17 '18 at 21:33
  • The piece was to be about the insecurities of young woman, their body image issues and suicidal tendencies. – Soha Farhin Pine Apr 17 '18 at 21:35
1

What needs to be kept in mind is that writing isn't for you, it's for the reader. As a writer, we imagine the story in our heads, we see it vividly, and then we write. But that in itself doesn't guarantee what we see and feel is transferred to the reader's head. The problem with purple prose is that the writer is charmed by a visual idea, and writes down a bunch of words around that experience, yet utterly fails to convey its charm to the reader.

This is something I struggle with myself constantly. I think the problem in the writing sample you provided is less that the descriptions are purple than that they are incoherent and contradictory. You describe the hair as "long lustrous locks", "watery waves" and "silky", but also as "unimpressive plain, crow-black hair" and "slick, stick-straight hair." Not only are stick-straight and watery-waves physically contradictory, the descriptions are also emotionally contradictory. Does the protagonist love her hair or hate it? Does she experience it as "silky" (positive) or "slick" (negative)? What you end up with is a word salad that doesn't give the reader any consistent physical OR emotional impression. That, in turn, makes the verbiage seem self-indulgent and unnecessary.

I think you could easily go on about the hair at equal, or even greater length, without testing the patience of your readers, if you just made it more worth their while. Don't just spew words, use them to help your reader understand your character, her place in the world, her point of view, her emotional state, and so forth. "Long lustrous ebony locks, hanging straight down like a curtain of water --that's what the men who admired her saw. But to Jane herself, it was just plain, stick-straight, crow-black hair --one more thing to try to keep under control."

  • All that advice was to-the-point and concise. And equally helpful. But I do not agree that the adjectives I used to describe the character's hair were inartfully juxtaposed with one another. When hair is given the quality of being "slick", it means that it is smooth and glossy and by extension, "silky". So calling that kind of hair "silky" later on doesn't seem that jarring to me. – Soha Farhin Pine Apr 19 '18 at 12:13
  • And as for the contrast in the "decidedly unimpressive" bit, it highlights how the protagonist sees her hair, not how it truly is. The protagonist's perception of the world around her cannot possibly be completely faithful. – Soha Farhin Pine Apr 19 '18 at 12:13
  • Although the protagonist acknowledges that her hair is slick and silky, she doesn't regard them as positive adjectives. You see, her way of thinking is tinted by how her peers opine things are. – Soha Farhin Pine Apr 19 '18 at 12:19
  • 2
    Maybe it's a second language issue then --those two adjectives have similar meanings, but very different connotations to a native speaker. – Chris Sunami Apr 19 '18 at 18:55
  • And another thing...hair can easily be both wavy and straight at the same time. Thick, lustrous hair tends to puff up, regardless of how straight they are. Coupled with that, the slight movements of hair and a few curls here and there can effectively create the illusion of wavy hair. – Soha Farhin Pine Jun 1 '18 at 20:20
1

I'm late to this, but I'll discuss a few ways your excerpt could be improved, in the opinion of whoever would critique you for purple prose. I suggest you apply similar techniques to another of your paragraphs and see whether these critics deem the result improvements, and whether their reasons why match the ones I'll mention.

Sudden moans accompanied her fidget in the rickshaw. The Spring breeze tickled her ears, and a stray curl now covering her left cheek despite a half-morning's effort. A clip had slid down her corvine hair like a silken waterslide. Almost stealing a glance at her flushed bony limbs, she moved onto focusing on the wide roads of concrete they whirled past.

What have I done here?

  • Where possible, I have replaced multiple words with one that conveys all the same information: an uneasy shuffle has become a fidget.
  • The same basic ideas have been expressed in fewer, punchier words. Techniques include omitting words the imagery is likely to stir (such as cold or seat), and where possible letting nouns and verbs do the word of adjectives and adverbs. (Had I kept an uneasy shuffle, that would at least have been better than her shuffling uneasily.)
  • Show, don't tell: I've not mentioned how she felt, or that her actions revealed such details; the reader does all that work themselves.
  • Rearrangements have grouped topic progression, and alternated sentence length.
  • 1
    Thanks a bunch for taking your time to read my question and rewrite my sample. It was incredibly helpful and eye-opening. I'll keep your points in mind when writing from now on. Sorry for replying this late. – Soha Farhin Pine Jul 7 '18 at 14:05
1

There is no clear rule sometimes detailed description does the job at other times you are better off evoking what you want with a few well chosen words.

The first thing to note is that detail also has an effect on pace, more description tends to slow things down.

there is also always a bit of a temptation to see writing as being 'paid by the word' and to use adjective and adverbs as a sort of seasoning at the expense of more sophisticated tools like metaphor and simile.

Lets look at your exaple text and remove all of the adjectives.

It took all of what she had to restrain from stealing a glance at her limbs. A breeze tickled Sabrina's ears, and moved aside a curl covering her cheek. Instead of feeling revitalised, a surge of irritation rippled within her, which manifested itself in her moans of annoyance and shuffling in the rickshaw seat. Sabrina had spent half of that morning ensuring that curl stayed fastened to in place. Apparently, the clip had slid down. Cursing the silkiness of her hair, she focused on the wide roads of concrete they whirled past.

It took all of what she had to restrain from even so much as stealing a quick glance at her flushed, bony limbs. A blow of cool, spring breeze tickled Sabrina's ears, and whooshed aside a stray curl covering her left cheek. Instead of feeling revitalised, a surge of irritation rippled within her, which manifested itself in her sudden moans of annoyance and shuffling uneasily in the rickshaw seat. Sabrina had spent the better half of that morning painstakingly ensuring that that curl stayed fastened to its rightful place. Apparently, the clip had slid down her watery waves of decidedly unimpressive plain, crow-black hair. Cursing the silkiness of her slick, stick-straight hair, she moved onto focusing on the wide roads of concrete they whirled past.

For me all the cut bits add nothing to the scene which isn't already implied. This is what the infamous 'show don't tell' advice really means.

Think about how you would describe this scene in person. As I read it this person is annoyed because she has nice hair which she has spent a lot of time arranging and it has been disturbed by the wind. How would you descipbe the scene to someone you were t alking to face to face ?

Spoken English is by no means identical to English but they do share something of a common rhythm. Often the natural rhythm of a non-native speaker will be a bit different but this is not at all a bad thing and the last thing you want to do is to try to write in a style which is not really your own.

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