Purple vs. poetic... where do you draw the line?

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Title: Purple vs. poetic... where do you draw the line? - The Phantom Librarian
Creator: fernwithy
Date(s): February 25th, 2005
Fandom: pan-fandom
Topic: Fanfiction
External Links: https://fernwithy.livejournal.com/224598.html
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Purple vs. poetic... where do you draw the line? - The Phantom Librarian is a post written by fernwithy in 2005.


Over at fanficrants, a poster complained that in Smallville fics, Clark apparently frequently "smells like sunshine." (Post here.) There's much discussion of sunshine not having a smell, which I agree with, but it did get me thinking about using imagistic language in prose.

I remember in an undergrad writing class (Intermediate, I think), I used imagistic prose (described the sunset on a lake as looking like the surface had been clawed and was bleeding gold, if I recall), and someone said--with approval--that I should write poetry. This confused me, as I don't see a reason why metaphor, simile, and just general imagistic writing shouldn't be perfectly normal in prose writing. At the same time, you don't want to cross the line into purple prose. But where is the line?

I mean, mileage may vary. Some people have very little tolerance, some have a greater tolerance. But I think there's a point where everyone would agree... I just don't know where it is.

Is it just overuse of grace-notes, one metaphor after another, twenty ten-dollar words in a row? Is it applying the linguistic "big guns" to things that don't really need that kind of emphasis? Is it using grotesqueries (eg, "His eyes slid down her dress")?

I tend to think it mainly happens when writers use too much of the fancy stuff on mundane matters. I mean, you can use an extremely overblown image in a good place. Maybe a sentence like "The sun rose like hellfire" would be purple in ninety-nine out of a hundred cases, but there might be that hundredth where it's exactly right. For instance, if it follows an ordinary night and then the scene it goes to is Luna having a herbology lesson, it's going to be purple. But let's say it's the night before Tom takes Ginny down into the Chamber, and she's been awake all night fighting with him. The day will culminate with her near death as Tom comes out of the book. To me, that's a day when the sun might well rise like hellfire. It draws attention.

I dunno. Is it a question of people thinking that high-falutin' stuff like metaphor and simile is too darned good to be hanging out in a piece of fanfic? That it should be saved only for lit'ry sorts of things?



I definitely agree with your idea of it not being about what it is, but where it is. There is a time and place for poetic language -- for instance, if the scene is actually dramatic enough to warrant it (like your example), or if it's a deliberate overstatement in a situation that is NOT dramatic enough to warrant it. But if you just have, say, two friends hanging out on the back porch, sitting on the swing and having a chat in the evening breeze, it probably isn't the best idea to say that "the wind rattled their frames like the icy hands of death" -- unless there's a tornado coming, or there's a serious ghost problem. (Bad example, but hey.)

Also, prose becomes purple with overuse. Some people aren't bothered by it, but I most definitely am, especially when it's the same author using the phrase over and over again. There's a certain author who's quite popular over at FA, whose name I will not mention -- and this is exactly what turned me off to her stories and made me not want to continue them. In one story in particular, Harry and Draco had a very angsty friends/notfriends relationship, and while the scenes between them often WERE dramatic enough to allow more poetic narrative, the author used the same phrases over and over again. Harry's hair was always "like a crown of thorns." Draco's was "like a halo" or something to that effect. She constantly referred to them as "the dark boy" and "the silver boy" -- to the extent that these fairly run-of-the-mill phrases became, in my opinion, purple. DARK purple. Freakin' INDIGO, dammit.

I hope that made some semblance of sense. :)[1]

Of course, anybody who spends two pages describing trees writes purple prose. In my opinion anyway.

You mean, like JRR Tolkien? ;)
[curia regis]: I love the ideas in Tolkien's works but his writing needs an editor and a red pen.

I love the ideas in Tolkien's works but his writing needs an editor and a red pen.

Either that, or a Peter Jackson movie adaptation. ;)

I definitely agree, though. One can only take an entire chapter on the description of Southron arrows, their significance to Faramir, their significance to Frodo, and why the heck did they just ramble on for 23 pages about the points of the arrow?

...Don't even get me started on the description of Lothlorien. I just may never stop.

I love the description of Lothlorien. It made me want to live there full time. Of course, reading it with a fever of 102 probably helped with the hallucination of it.

Either that, or a Peter Jackson movie adaptation. ;)

Oh, G-d, no. Anything, anything, anything but that.

(Sorry. Big Tolkien fan here.)

Further Reading


  1. ^ https://fernwithy.livejournal.com/224598.html?thread=2686038#t2686038 February 25th, 2005 08:10 am (UTC)] comment by thunderemerald