Purple prose draws attention to itself because of its flowery, exaggerated wording. You could say that purple prose is melodramatic writing. It often manifests in excessive descriptors, poetic elements, complex wording, and run-on sentences. Purple prose can also be complex prose that doesn’t match the shorter, simpler tone, rhythm, voice, or pace of the surrounding narrative.

Back-story and frequent descriptions of architecture, nature, food, or clothing can be problematic, as can in-depth character thoughts or internal monologues. Infodumping? Yes, sometimes too much exposition is purple prose. When that’s the case, purple prose is usually acting as a crutch for a lack of action, plot, or direction in the narrative.

All those extra words slow down a story’s pace. Here is an example of some purple prose:

They entered into a large and spacious dining hall, where mirrors lined every wall and the infinite reflections made them feel dizzy, lost in a never-ending room that faded into blackness. The elegant feast laid out on the elongated table was rich enough to kill those uninitiated into the art of aristocratic dining—exotic roasts and sumptuous fruits, fragrant pâtés and delicate pastries. Fats and sugars and all sorts of delights such as they had never seen. They attempted to hide the drool that was spilling from the corners of their mouths, unbidden. All this within reach, and they were forbidden to eat any of it. Their starving stomachs dropped as they steeled themselves for the conversation they must have without giving in to temptation. Their lord’s cruelty and cunning was all too obvious now. They must not waver in their resolve, or all was lost.

Even though some readers may not think that paragraph is overwritten, there are many readers who will roll their eyes at it. The writing is poetic with some archaic wording that would work better in dialogue instead of general narrative if the goal was to convey a certain setting or era. Many of those details do not do anything to move the plot forward, so the whole paragraph slows down a scene that is obviously supposed to build tension. Assuming this is from a horror story, giving readers a sense of urgency here is important, too.

How, then, can we improve that paragraph? Let’s break this down a bit before stepping back to reevaluate the whole piece. The first two lines are:

They entered into a large and spacious dining hall, where mirrors lined every wall. The infinite reflections made them feel dizzy, lost in a never-ending room that faded into blackness.

The words “large” and “spacious” both refer to the size of the dining hall. Which word is more powerful? I would vote for “spacious.” Let’s cut “large” from the sentence. The comma after “hall” is unnecessary, so we can remove that. The last portion—”lost in a never-ending room that faded into blackness”is lyrical, but a bit heavy handed. It’s easily removed without changing the meaning of the sentence. We could add the word “dark” earlier on in the sentence to help restore the concept of blackness. We could separate “the infinite reflections made them feel dizzy” from the main sentence to keep it all from feeling too long. Here’s what all those revisions would look like:

They entered into a dark and spacious dining hall where mirrors lined every wall. The infinite reflections made them feel dizzy.

Ah, that’s much better! Now, on to the next two lines:

The elegant feast laid out on the elongated table was rich enough to kill those uninitiated into the art of aristocratic diningexotic roasts and sumptuous fruits, fragrant pâtés and delicate pastries. Fats and sugars and all sorts of delights such as they had never seen.

That’s a good chunk of fluff writing. It offers vivid imagery, but the prose feels redundant in a few places. Let’s combine those two lines into one sentence and remove some of the specific food references to avoid distracting the reader from the point of this scene.

The feast laid out on the elongated table included numerous fragrant disheselegant delights such as they had never seen.

Good. Onward to the next two lines we go!

They attempted to hide the drool that was spilling from the corners of their mouths, unbidden. All this within reach, and they were forbidden to eat any of it.

The second sentence is much stronger than the first because it makes it clear the problem our characters are faced with. We can remove the first sentence entirely because it doesn’t truly enhance the scene. We can leave some things to the readers’ imaginations:

All this, and they were forbidden to eat any of it.

We’re almost done with revising our purple prose example! Here are the last three lines in the paragraph:

Their starving stomachs dropped as they steeled themselves for the conversation they must have without giving in to temptation. Their lord’s cruelty and cunning was all too obvious now. They must not waver in their resolve, or all was lost.

Stomachs as organs themselves cannot starve; people can starve. Let’s cut “starving” out of the first of the three sentences there. “Without giving in to temptation” lacks context until we realize that “their lord’s cruelty and cunning was all too obvious now,” so let’s rearrange the order of some of these words, make the point of these lines a bit clearer (what does “all was lost” mean?), and combine sentences to keep the pace even with the other revised sentences.

Their stomachs dropped as they steeled themselves for the conversation they were to have with their cruel lord. They could not give into temptation, or they would surely die.

All right, we’ve revised the whole paragraph. Here is the all the edited prose together:

They entered into a spacious dining hall where mirrors lined every wall and the infinite reflections made them feel dizzy. The feast laid out on the elongated table included numerous fragrant disheselegant delights such as they had never seen. All this, and they were forbidden to eat any of it. Their stomachs dropped as they steeled themselves for the conversation they were to have with their cruel lord. They could not give into temptation, or they would surely die.

That is certainly an improvement compared to the original text. It’s important to remember that purple prose is sometimes subjective. A passage may read like purple prose to one person while to another reader finds the writing to be beautiful and detailed. An experienced editor can certainly point out potential purple prose, but it’s helpful to get feedback from alpha and beta readers, as well as critique partners.

One way to assess whether something is purple prose or not is to ask these questions:

  • Are there lots of adverbs and adjectives in this section of prose?
  • Do I use obscure or flowery language here?
  • Do I use a lot of metaphors or similes here?
  • Do the sentences run over more than two lines in this section?
  • Does the prose in question advance the plot or narrative toward the climax or resolution in some way? If so, how?
  • Would readers be able to identify how this prose serves the story on their own?
  • Does the story still make sense without some, most, or all of those words or details?

There should be a point to every line you include in your story. If there isn’t a good reason for a line, a justification beyond “I like it,” then you should consider removing it.