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I try to watch out for bland, overused adjectives and I keep adverbs to a minimum but -- I hear this phrase a lot and I'm not even sure what it means?

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4 Answers

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I think you're off to a good start by killing the adjectives and adverbs. Overuse of modifiers are the #1 reason I reject a piece of fiction writing.

Some thoughts:

  • a specific, active verb is worth a dozen adjectives
  • adverbs more often shore up weak verbs (ie "he ran quickly across the room" ... how about "he bolted across the room" or something like that
  • I see a lot of beginning writers use adjectives that just aren't very descriptive (cold vs. frigid or red v. burgundy). I also see a lot of beginning writers try to use exotic adjectives just to sound exotic.
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"Purple prose" is overwrought metaphors, melodramatic and clichéd phrasing, and cartoonish actions.

She gasped, her snow-white breast heaving, and her emerald eyes filled with tears.

"How could you! You vile beast!" she sobbed. "I loved you and you — you used me!"

"I never loved you," he announced, cool as a glacier in January. "You were the pleasure of an hour, my dear, and that doesn't include commercial breaks."

Even as he crushed her with his dismissal, she could not help but feel an ache in her throbbing loins to watch him stride across the room like a bored panther. The masculinity rose from his tanned skin in waves, like the scent of the Drakkar Noir she had given him on his last birthday.

"I'm leaving you, Neaveh. I've found... someone else."

"No, Biff!" Her heart-shaped face contorted with grief and jealousy. "It can't be!"

"Don't act so surprised," he sniffed, pulling on his butter-soft leather jacket and slipping on his Ray-Ban sunglasses. "You know I can't be tied down to any one woman. I'm a free spirit. Gone with the wind."

"No — please — don't go — I love you!" she cried, but the door closed with the final, echoing thud of a guillotine, cutting her off from love, from light, from warmth, for her reason for existence. She crumpled to the floor, her fiery red hair spilling around her onto the carpet, and wept until she thought her heart might shatter in her chest.

In summary, don't do that.

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Except if you want to do that. Like, if you try winning the Bulwer-Lytton (Bad) Fiction Contest. ;-) Seriously, though, if you want to do that, do it. But do it in style. Honestly, I like the story snippet. ;-P –  Jürgen A. Erhard Jan 19 '11 at 10:37
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Nice pseudonym, by the way. And if "Lauren Ipsum" is your actual name, then of course you have to be(come) a writer (and your parents had humor). But unlikely. :D –  Jürgen A. Erhard Jan 19 '11 at 10:40
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@jae: The question is "how do you AVOID purple prose?" I wanted to give an example so Ben saw what it looked like. And my nick is a pseudonym; I'm glad that after two years someone finally got the joke! –  Lauren Ipsum Jan 19 '11 at 12:33
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Oh god, this is great comedy writing.. –  bobobobo Feb 11 '11 at 19:41
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I think you should write a short story in this style. I would buy it. –  Edward Rose Jun 26 '11 at 1:58
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In its broadest sense, I would define purple prose as excessive and imprecise description.

Adjectives and adverbs often qualify, as Final Draft illustrated, because a weak adjective + noun combo can be replaced by a single, stronger noun, and a weak adverb + verb combo can be replaced by single stronger verb.

This principle can be applied to almost anything, not just adjectives and adverbs. Look for vague or overly verbose phrases and try to come up with precise, tighter alternatives.

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Ok, how about this excerpt from a marketing email from thriftbooks.com

Please know that this is no whim of fancy but a sincere desire of the heart that is nearly indescribable. Since the day you lovingly wrote your email address on my login page I have kept it indelibly inscribed in the heart (of my database), never to be shared, as the thought of any other having it nearly kills me with jealousy. Just know that I think of it often and desire your love in return. ...

I know you cannot deny the chemistry between us. I can feel you thinking fondly of me, now, as I am constantly thinking of you. Please don't delay in logging onto my website, www.thriftbooks.com, as I fear my heart may explode in the agony of your absence. My fondness for you, if it can be believed, is even deeper now at the end of this letter than it was when I began. Until we connect again... Be Mine. - Thriftbooks.com
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Now I have to go visit this place, if only to reward a business with a sense of humor. –  Lauren Ipsum Feb 21 '11 at 14:29
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