"The Purple Prose Eater"
by Deb Stover
Included in How to Write a Romance For The New Markets
Genesis Press, Inc ISBN: 1-885478-46-1
Copyright by Deb Stover -- All Rights Reserved
Purple Prose. What is it? Where
did this term originate, and how did romance authors become the lucky
professionals to be slapped with this label? Mr. Webster failed to provide
a definition, so I felt duty-bound to compose one myself.
Purple prose consists of words
and phrases that sound stilted, overly descriptive, or
cliché. 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
The main 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 for more clinical terms.
We still use 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 past, rather
than simply calling a breast a breast.
Examples? Let's start with
" Every fiber of her being."
" Slow burn of anger."
" Orbs" for eyes. One book I read
used the phrase " sapphire orbs" repeatedly to describe the heroine's eyes.
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
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.
Author Jo Beverley believes 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 also 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 I can't stand anyone bucking. I think
of a rodeo."
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. Don't mention stallion
in reference to your hero. Ick. 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 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?"
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, though.
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 later commented that she considers
the word penis a " whiny, nasal little word." Then she confessed, 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
Now that is purple
While participating in a romance
writers' 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 or cock from the male point of view.
Another successful Regency author,
Lynn Kerstan, said that 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. I said, " Sure, go for
it. That'll cut down on my 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.
Author Susan Wiggs admits that
her editor once omitted her reference to the male sex organ as " the bald avenger."
" Manhood" has been overused,
but you'll still run across it. Alone, it's not too bad, but we have to be
careful about the adjectives we use with it. " Manroot," on the other hand,
is about as purple as it comes.
The phrase " his hardness" makes
me think of royalty for some reason. I don't think that was the author's
" 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.
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've used this
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.
" Hot sleeve of love?"
" Her moist warmth." Think about
" Silken warmth." Hmm.
" The heat of her femininity."
Well, maybe. At least that doesn't push the giggle button.
" Nest of desire?" Give me a
" Perky, pebbled, and plentiful"
are often used to describe breasts and nipples. As one reader pointed out,
have you ever seen " upturned nipples?" Think gravity, writers. Gravity.
" 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 cliché. " Quivering" and " throbbing"
come to mind. I always wondered why she does all the quivering and he does
the throbbing. That doesn't quite seem fair, does it?
One way of identifying purple
prose is by your reaction 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 either, feed it to the Purple Prose-Eater. He'll appreciate it
a lot more than your readers will.