A wordy writer myself, I've been familiar with the phrase “purple prose” for a while now. I’m often guilty of purpling my writing. But what is beige prose? And blue language? I had no idea that writing could be so… well… colorful. Follow along as we break down the color wheel when it comes to writing.
Let's start with purple prose, the color that all-too-often, and sometimes incorrectly, gets a bad rep.
In a negative sense, purple (or violet) prose is writing in such an over-the-top, ornate, flowery style, the description can either detract from the story or make it so it becomes almost impossible to read through. It can hinder the ability to get to the heart of the meaning. If you're reading purple, you may find yourself wading through excessively long sentences, disjointed syntax, and the abundance of adverbs and adjectives. It can make the reader feel as if they’re not up to the challenge of the story (stupid, even), in which case the reader may find the writing offensive.
William Shakespeare has been accused of purpling his writing. So has Stephanie Myers. It’s pretty easy to spot once you know what you’re looking for. Even Hemingway, famous for his straightforward style, has been known to write in the violet hour. Check out this purple passage from The Old Man and the Sea:
“But the bird was almost out of sight now and nothing showed on the surface of the water but some patches of yellow, sun-bleached Sargasso weed, and the purple, formalized, iridescent, gelatinous bladder of the Portuguese man-of-war floating close beside the boat.”
Is purple prose always bad? Certainly not.
There’s a wonderful New York Times article from 1985 that says this:
“The impulse here [with purple prose] is to make everything larger than life, almost to over-respond, maybe because, habituated to life written down, in both senses, we become inured and have to be awakened with something almost intolerably vivid. When the deep purple blooms, you are looking at a dimension, not a posy… It takes a certain amount of sass to speak up for prose that's rich, succulent and full of novelty. Purple is immoral, undemocratic and insincere; at best artsy, at worst the exterminating angel of depravity.”
Purple can create a distinct voice. It has its time and place. So does blue language and beige prose.
Why So Blue?
Near purple in the color wheel is blue language, although blue has very little relation to purple in its intent or design. Blue is the language of the over-profane; it's gratuitous swearing. It references the phrase, “to curse a blue streak.” However, where the color was originally associated with hard and fast language is tough to pin down.
When it comes to writing, is blue more realistic than purple? Perhaps. It depends on the situation. If you’re writing an angry character, blue can serve to enhance the situational realism, but it can also detract from the story. If the writing is intentionally trying to move a scene forward, then blue may be your best bet. But, writing blue simply for shock value can have the unintended effect of pulling the reader right out of the story.
Beige the Page
That all being said, can you guess what beige prose is?
It’s the lack of everything noted above. Beige is the color of the simple, the plain, the unadorned when it comes to writing. This form of prose has no room for metaphor, simile, or ornate description. It’s clear and direct, which can be both good and bad. Overloading a written piece with beige can leave the reader bored, especially if there’s no wit to liven the passage. Because wit and brevity often go hand-in-hand, beige can be appropriate if funny is the goal. Beige also works well in action-packed scenes, where the goal is to quickly move the reader through while escalating tensions.
Hemingway was known to beige a page much more commonly than he fell into purple patches. Consider this line, also from The Old Man and the Sea:
“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.”
The sentence shows no emotion, although it emotes quite a bit.
It all begs the question: which color is most appropriate when it comes to writing? And the answer, as I see it, is to write in a rainbow. Mixing prose styles, using them when they enhance a narrative, and allowing each to serve a specific purpose is what is going to lend itself to a unique voice. If you’re looking to inspire emotion, beige may not be the best. If you’re finding yourself writing an incredibly frustrated and upset character, purple may not serve you. And if you need to escalate tension quickly without dragging the writing, veer from the blue/violet/purple spectrum.
Or, simply write, and write as you wish. For, what better way to make a style unique than to do it without regard to the “rules?”
Do you gravitate towards a specific writing shade? Color me purple.
Leave your preference in the comments below.
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