In July and August I taught classes on writing emotion for OIRW. The first class, in July, dealt with something I call base emotion, how to use empathy between your characters and how to get your reader to feel empathy for your characters. We also covered some of the bad advice we’ve received about writing emotion and some of the things that can cause emotional writing to be weaker than it could be. In August we focused on the abstract connections that we have with emotion and how our emotional experiences are colored by these abstract connections to things like color, texture, resonance, temperature, shape, whether something is heavy or light, and so on.
One of the things that came up in the class was the concern that if we used metaphors and associations with color, texture, movement, resonance, temperature, shape, smell, solidity, and sound to describe emotional experience we’d introduce purple prose into our writing. Since this seems to be a common concern which comes up in many of the classes I teach on emotion, and since just the fear of introducing purple prose might be holding some people back and keeping them from writing strong, emotional experiences for their characters, I thought I’d address that concern here.
First of all, with all things you can go too far…or not far enough. In other words, it IS possible to go too far and use too many associations in too short a space and end up with a case of purple prose. But for most authors, this shouldn’t be a huge overriding concern.
I think first you need to look at what purple prose are…. By definition purple prose are sections of text that go TOO far. They are too flowery. They are too extravagant. They are too ornate. Because they are too flowery, too ornate, too extravagant they draw attention to the PROSE THEMSELVES rather than to the emotion they are describing.
Using color (or any of the other abstract connotations we have with emotion) in a balanced and careful way is the POLAR opposite of introducing purple prose. Our goal is to nail an emotional description so well with the tools that we are using that we transport the reader right into that emotion. The goal is to provide descriptions that connect with the reader and the reader’s own emotional experiences so that the abstract description of the emotional experience connects with the reader’s own past emotional experience so that they’re conjuring up a similar emotional experience and reaction to the experience the character is having. We can help the reader draw the abstract connections by describing the heavy oppressive cloak of depression…the darkness of despair…the silent isolation of despair or the bubbly bright colors of happiness or the effervescence of joy. If we’re doing that, then by definition the prose are not purple as they are NOT drawing attention to themselves…they are drawing the reader and the reader’s focus to the emotional experience that the character is having.
Purple prose are by definition sections of text which miss the boat…maybe because they go too far or because for some reason they don’t make the reader connect with the emotional experience.
One also needs to look at the genre they’re writing and look CAREFULLY at what the POPULAR writers in the genre are doing. How are those popular writers describing emotion? How are their readers responding to it in reviews and elsewhere. It’s a good idea to go somewhere in the middle of that range of description with your own emotional description in your own work.
Writing requires THINKING. It isn’t paint by number. You have to really think about what it is you want to convey. The first step is to think about the nature of an emotional experience and to think carefully about how you can best convey the nature of that emotion…using a VARIETY of techniques. Color is one technique. It is not the only technique.
It bears remembering that agents, editors and readers are not going through manuscripts looking for purple prose and weighing each description to determine whether the description is too purple or not. They are reading the manuscript and are aware–like any other reader is–of what the experience of the story is. Purple prose are something that will leap out at a reader, agent, or editor, because they DON’T draw the reader into the emotional experience but instead draw the reader to the words themselves.
We’re not looking for overblown, over dramatic emotional reactions. I correct some of those as I expect all editors do. More often than not these fall into the category of characters having huge reactions to small things so that their reactions themselves are overblown. Even so, by far the BIGGER problem is writing that is emotionally flat.
So…could one go over the top with color–or with any other kind of abstract connection to emotion that they are using to describe an emotional experience and turn the description purple? Of course. Are they any more likely to do it with color than with metaphor or with texture or shape or movement or any of the other tools we could use to describe emotions? I don’t think so.