The Purple Prose-Eater

Written by Deb Stover

This article was written by Deb Stover for another publication. It has been reprinted with permission.

What is purple prose? You don’t know? Why, I thought all romance writers knew everything anyone could possibly want to know about purple prose.

You mean, that isn’t what you’re writing? Tsk, tsk. Well, guess what? Neither am I – at least, I hope not. None of the writers in my critique group make a practice of using this technique in their writing either.

So who does? Where did this term originate, and how did romance authors become the lucky professionals to be slapped with this label? So what is purple prose? Mr. Webster failed to provide me with a definition, so I felt duty-bound to compose one myself.

Purple prose consists of words and phrases which sound stilted, overly-descriptive, or cliche. Now that doesn’t mean we should never use beautiful, descriptive language. Not at all. What it means is the overuse of it irritates your reader and can mutate into the dreaded purple prose.

I’m not sure there are any real answers to these questions, but a recent survey I conducted has revealed some rather interesting tidbits of the inadvertent use of purple prose. A few brave authors have given their consent for us to study their examples – an incredibly magnanimous gesture.

One area where romance writers in particular are accused of inflicting the reader with purple prose is in love scenes. Why? In the seventies, when authors first threw open the bedroom doors on love scenes in romance novels, writers had to devise creative ways to describe human anatomy. Apparently, the powers-that-be felt the reading public could only handle one shock at a time, so we formulated all sorts of interesting words and phrases to substitute more clinical terms for body parts.

Today we still use some euphemisms in love scenes, though I find them much more realistic than they once were. However, beginning writers will often depend on the euphemisms of the seventies and eighties, rather than simply calling a breast a breast. Examples?

Let’s start with cliches.

  • “Every fiber of her being.”
  • “Slow burn of anger.”
  • “Orbs” for eyes.

One book I read used the phrase “sapphire orbs” repeatedly to describe her heroine. We don’t need to be reminded too often what color a character’s eyes are. In my early days, I once wrote a hero with emerald eyes. I’ve learned since then.

Award-winning author, Jo Beverley had some comments on this topic:

“The fact is that physical description only needs to be done once or twice. Any further reference should be indirect. Having told us that the hero has long ebony hair, I don’t want it mentioned again, thanks. For me it definitely comes into the purple prose category to not only be constantly repeating physical characteristics, but to be using the same flowery phrases that we probably shouldn’t have used in the first place!”

A romance reader who wishes to remain anonymous said, “I can’t stand breasts being referred to as mounds. Makes me think of a candy bar. And can’t stand anyone bucking. I think of a rodeo.”

That’s pretty self-explanatory.

Author Patricia Ryan gets right into the euphemism subject with her answer:

“Arousal as a euphemism for erection. What’s wrong with erection? Ditto on mounds for breasts. And don’t mention stallion in reference to your hero. Ick. And now that I’m warmed to my subject, I have to ‘fess up to a somewhat lavender little phrase of my own. I did, I confess, make reference in a kissing scene to the hero and heroine’s tongues being engaged in, well. . .in a primitive mating dance. I actually wrote it and printed it out and sent it to my agent, who called me up and said, ‘Primitive mating dance?’ And I said, ‘Uh. . .’ Thank God for agents with good taste, is all I can say.

“I view that incident as a slip in my otherwise rather ruthless quest to use real words and normal language as much as possible, especially in my historical stuff. Looking back, I think I was probably just being lazy when I used that phrase instead of putting the old gray matter to work squeezing out something better.”

Another anonymous reader also admits to hating the term mounds in reference to breasts. She goes on to say, “Also, globes. Can’t stand globes. I picture the school type, swirling madly on their stands. Why can’t we call ’em what they are?”

Historical author Sonia Simone believes the phrase “his sex” is a good substitute for penis. She calls this term “raunch literary,” whatever that means. It sounds good – works for me.

And here’s an opinion on using graphic slang from one of the masters of the romance genre, Anne Stuart:

“Words like ‘cock’ should be used judiciously. Sometimes the shock value can be very erotic. Sometimes it can be jarring.”

Anne Stuart commented later that she considers the word penis a “whiny, nasal little word.” Then she confesses, and I quote:

“I once, God help me, called it ‘the raging beast of his desire’ but I saved my reputation when I saw the galleys and almost barfed.”

She also admitted that in her novel Night of the Phantom, she used the phrase “filled her with the hot wet tumult of his love.” When she saw it in print, she wanted to scream.

Now that is purple prose! Don’t do that. When you’re as successful as Anne Stuart, you can do that. If you want. . . .

Speaking of male nether regions. . . .

While playing mom at PPRW’s open critique group last year, I ran across an interesting euphemism for erection – “Love tool?”

I’m not divulging the identity of the writer for fear of life and limb, but I think you all must realize this is not a good euphemism for erection. In fact, all I had to do was read it aloud. The perpetrator perceived my message loud and clear.

A well-known Regency author feels the word “erection” is preferable to “penis” in a love scene. I tend to agree, though I have used the term penis from the male point of view.

Lynn Kerstan, another successful Regency author, said the funniest term she ever read was in a contest entry: “his tumescent tube of fire.”

An unpublished writer asked me if “raging monster of his lust” would be acceptable, and I said, “Sure, go for it. That’ll cut down on the competition.”

Some of the participants in my research became a little. . .carried away.

Example? “The dragon of his desire writhed beneath his tight-stretched trousers.” Ahem.

Historical author, Susan Wiggs, admits that her editor once omitted her reference to the male sex organ as “the bald avenger.” Wonder why.

Manhood’s been overused, but you’ll still run across it.

It doesn’t bother me by itself, but we have to be careful about the adjectives we put with it.

The phrase “his hardness,” makes me think of royalty for some reason. I don’t think that was the author’s intention.

“Throbbing member?” Well. . . .

“Turgid shaft.” Even I’m guilty of that one. Sigh. . . .

“Her gaze traveled…down his muscular chest and lean hips to his softly swaying promise of future delight.”

It doesn’t do a thing for me.

I read a historical once – I won’t mention the author or title -where the phrase “Precious Lady Crackers” was used repeatedly to describe male anatomy. Interesting.

Robin Williams once used the phrases: “Throbbing Love Machine and Heat Seeking Moisture Missile” in reference to the male sex organ in its aroused state.

I’ve seen sword used as a euphemism for erection. There seems to be a food and warfare thing relating to gender in romance novels. Have you ever noticed it? You’ll see reference to foods with female genitalia and weaponry with male. Hmm. Freud could use this stuff.

Now, in all fairness, the responses to my survey didn’t net nearly as many colorful substitutions for female body parts. You don’t suppose that’s because the respondents were all women, do you?

  • “Hot sleeve of love?”
  • “Her moist warmth.” Think about it.
  • “Silken warmth.” Hmm.

“The heat of her femininity.” Well, maybe on occasion. At least that doesn’t push the giggle button.

  • “Nest of desire?” Give me a break.
  • “Perky, pebbled, and plentiful” are often used to describe breasts and nipples.
  • “Nether lips.” Not for me.
  • “Mound of Venus.” Yuck.

In addition to the different nouns we use to depict human anatomy, there are other words which can be overdone until they also become cliche.

Quivering and throbbing come to mind. And I always wondered why she does the quivering and he does the throbbing. That doesn’t quite seem fair, does it?

One way of identifying purple prose – by your reaction to it when you read it. Does it make you laugh out loud because it’s so ludicrous? Or does it make you shake your head in disgust?

If it does, feed it to the Purple Prose-Eater – in other words, lose it. He’ll appreciate it a lot more than your readers will.

About the Author:

As a child, Deb Stover didn’t realize she was peculiar. But when she reached adulthood and made the shocking discovery that everyone didn’t have stories playing through their minds, she was worried. Then a miracle occurred. After careers in journalism, advocacy for students with disabilities, and perpetual motherhood, writing has provided her a socially-acceptable means of breathing life into her imaginary friends.

Now writing full time, Deb lives in a pine forest in the Rocky Mountains with her husband, their three children, and a mutant dachsund. Her first four books are time-travel historical romances from Pinnacle Books Denise Little Presents:

  • Shades of Rose
  • A Willing Spirit
  • (which received a 4-heart review from The Romance Reader)

  • Some Like it Hotter (April ’97) (which received a 4-heart review from The Romance Reader
  • Almost an Angel (November ’97)

Read an AAR Review of Deb’s Another DawnDeb’s Write Byte on Time Travel RomanceThe 1998 Purple Prose Parody ContestThe 1997 Purple Prose Parody ContestIndex for Laurie’s News & Views (Check the index for “silly sex”/”purple prose”) Post your comments and/or questions