Okay, everyone! I’ve taken some time off from answering questions because I wasn’t feeling well last week, but now I’m back and ready to inflict you all with more of my terrible advice.
Hello there! I’ve just discovered this blog and I’m loving the tips! Do you have any advice for someone who has a horrible habit towards purple prose? I don’t think I’m ‘depthless cerulean orbs’ bad, but I never use two words when I can use half a page, especially when describing characters’ thoughts and feelings.
Great question! I think we’ve all had a phase in which the majority of what we produced was purple prose, and considering there have been hugely successful authors (I’m not naming any names here, but I know you all thought of one) who flourished on the stuff, it’s not the worst thing you can do.
However, since we all care about our craft here, here is my personal advice on how to improve your writing!
1. Remember that simple can be beautiful.
“Translucent water trickled cleanly over dark gray stones and flickering ribbons of underwater plants. The setting sun turned the surrounding field flaxen, dying the clouds a melancholy shade of amber. The wind whispered through the lush fall trees, making them rustle like crisp paper.”
Used very sparingly, a sentence like this is okay, especially if the point of the point of the scene is to introduce the reader to a place that will be important to the plot or represent a mood.
If there’s one every other page, you have a problem.
“But Brooksie,” you, my Hypothetical Counterargument, cry. “If I can’t use that many words to describe the scene every time, how will the audience know how to envision it!?”
Good question, Hypothetical Counterargument! And as it just so happens, your audience is smart. They don’t need the scene to be spoon-fed to them in order to envision the scene.
In fact, the scene will often be a lot richer to them if you leave a little to the imagination.
So next time you want to set a scene like the one above, try something like:
“The stream trickled crisply over gray rocks, and the setting sun dyed the surrounding forest a melancholy shade of amber.”
And you’re done.
Similarly, the same goes for describing a character’s thoughts and feelings. Lets say your protagonist is going through gut-wrenching loss/betrayal/just got dumped.
You may think using dramatic language will better convey what you’re character is feeling, right? Wrong.
When conveying grief and trauma, less is more. Don’t say, “In the days that followed Cassandra was was wracked with agony, every waking second brimming with more pain than she ever thought imaginable.”
Say, “In the days that followed, Cassandra felt hollow.”
Yes, that’s really usually all you need. Cassandra’s actions and words will take care of the rest, so move on with your story.
Which brings me to my next point:
2. When it comes to descriptions, respect your reader’s time.
When a character is going to be of importance to the plot, you probably (i.e. not always) want the reader to get a good sense of what they look.
So within your first chapter, when they’re introduced, you say, “So-And-So had wide, doe-like brown eyes and thick honey-colored curls. Their face was heart-shaped and smattered with multi-colored freckles.”
Great! I like So-And-So already, they sound adorable.
What isn’t great is if you repeat this description fifty different times throughout the novel (yes, even if you’re using different words.)
This may come as a surprise to writers, but the physical appearance of characters alone isn’t what enamors them to readers, and stressing it over and over will not help them make a better impression or make the reader like them more.
I just finished an amazing book called Ocean At the End of the Lane, for example, in which the antagonist (an abusive nanny/secret eldritch horror/long-term resident of Bitch Island named Ursula) is described in great detail: she’s beautiful, she has lovely makeup, she wears nice pleated skirts, et cetera. And in case you can’t tell already, I fucking hated Ursula.
Granted, since she goads the then seven-year-old protagonist’s (adulterous asshat) father into nearly drowning him in the bathtub, I’m pretty sure we’re intended to hate Ursula, but the fact remains that the excessive descriptions of Ursula’s physical beauty did nothing to stop me from hating her guts.
The physical appearance of the unnamed protagonist and narrator, on the other hand, was never described at all. We have no idea what he looks like – just that in his adulthood, he resembles his father (who also isn’t described in detail) and is currently wearing a suit.
Yet the narrator doesn’t fail to create a lasting impression, because his voice, his personality, his character traits were developed and memorable.
So feel free to describe your characters. Just do so sparingly, and focus on developing their personalities more than their physical attributes.
3. Don’t write to impress your audience.
Every writer I know, myself included, wants to impress their audience. There is no greater desire, and no greater feeling, than to leave them in awe, whether it be with your words, your characters, or the story itself.
That said, your primary reason for writing cannot be to impress your audience, or you will, ironically, create shitty writing that very few people can actually enjoy.
In my humble experience, your audience can’t enjoy you’re writing unless they enjoy the journey that you’re taking them on. And they can’t enjoy the journey you’re taking them on unless you’re enjoying it just as much as they are.
(I’m discounting Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, because he’s a freak of nature whose creation was an unwanted burden thrust upon him by the Gods.)
As the great Stephen King once put it, “When a good writer is having fun, the audience is almost always having fun, too.”
So allow yourself to enjoy what you’re writing. If a part of the book is dragging for you, chances are it will for the reader. So skip it. Rework the plot.
Once you’re done you can always edit, but for now, write like nobody’s watching and enjoy the ride.
4. Use your natural vocabulary.
Big words are beautiful, but the audience will be able to tell if you’re putting on heirs. Whether your writing just wreaks of self-absorption and pomposity, or arguably even worse, when you’re just plain using the words wrong.
When I was younger, for example, I used to use the word “admonished” liberally, thinking it meant “admitted.” Spoiler alert: it doesn’t. It means “to warn or reprimand.”
But I still love big words!! “Sanctimonious.” “Thrasonical.” “Bombastic.” “Quotidian.” “Apropos.” They’re fun to say, they’re fun to use, and I’m not saying you shouldn’t use them. Just let them seep into your vocabulary naturally, and they will feel natural to the readers as well.
I expand my vocabulary by reading every day. This wasn’t always the case, and I had to work through a bad case of reader’s block to get back to the point where I eat up books the way I do now. But it’s worth it. Joining sites like goodreads can also help, as it plays up the social aspects of reading and makes it just the right kind of competitive.
Similarly, newsletters like Merriam Webster’s Word of the Day are great for expanding your vocabulary in a fun and natural way.
5. Thesaurus isn’t evil (just use it selectively.)
That said, there are times when Thesaurus can come in handy.
Sometimes, for example, the word your looking for simply isn’t in your conscious mind, and you have to go digging for an alternative. That’s okay!
Just make sure the word in question actually means what you think it means, and don’t make it your go-to tool for writing.
As another example, I used Thesaurus a lot when I was writing from the point of view of a specific main character in my last novel, because he was a snobby, intellectual little shit who was a little too self-aware of how smart he was. He had a tendency to swap “friends” for “casual compatriots,” “thinking out loud” for “verbal pontification,” et cetera, and generally sounded like he was reading off words from Thesaurus because that was the whole point.
Basically, no rules are absolute; just use your best judgement, and don’t be too dependent on tools like Thesaurus to choose your words for you.
I hope this helps, and happy writing! <3
About the Author
Brooksie C. Fontaine was accepted into college at fifteen and graduate school at nineteen.