Errors of Style: Purple Prose. (Fiction Skills Series)

March 22nd, 2015 | Errors of Style, Fiction, How to Write Fiction That Doesn't Suck, Tutorial, Writing

This post is excerpted from my book How to Write Fiction That Doesn’t Suck. To learn even more useful fiction-writing skills, get your copy today!


It was late and the city had become deathly quiet, tomblike almost. The streets glistened as if varnished from the fallen rain, which now rose in misty vapors into the cool night air. The gossamer haze drifted through the gauzy beams of the streetlights, whose rich amber glow bathed the broken sidewalks with an eerie radiance.

On nights like this it’s easy to feel very alone, Mary thought. Her muscles ached, dull pain caressing her nerves with its bitter electricity. She needed something to eat, something to take the edge off the cavernous hunger of her stomach, unfed since noon. Ahead she saw the greenish luminescence of fluorescent light, and a strawberry-red neon sign: a dilapidated hole-in-the-wall diner was open. Already her mouth was watering in anticipation, and she didn’t even like the greasy heaviness of diner food.

Let’s be honest with ourselves: it’s fun to put words on the page. As long as the words keep flowing, it’s easy to feel like you’re really getting somewhere. This, you think, is a brilliant piece of fiction. It must be, because it contains so much beautiful writing, so many excellent words!

The truth, of course, is that you just blew it. All that superb verbiage that sounded so nice as you were writing it is, in fact, what we call purple prose.

Almost all novice writers fall into this trap at some point. It’s an easy mistake to make; once you realize you can write anything you want, you soon begin to write down every phrase that pops into your head. This is especially true when writing toward a wordcount goal, as in National Novel Writing Month, as every word counts toward that magic number whether or not it’s well-placed.

Purple prose is a problem because it actively interferes with storytelling. Look at my example passage from the beginning of the chapter: our fearless protagonist decides to go to a diner while out walking in the middle of the night. That’s all that happens, but it took over a hundred words to express that idea. When an entire story is written this way, it becomes difficult to tell what’s even going on, because maybe only one word out of a dozen is actually pushing the plot forward. Your reader will lose track of what’s going on, and if her attention strays, she may gloss over the only important part of a sentence. She will get bored and confused. She will stop reading your story.

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Myst in Retrospect: The Book of Ti’ana

October 7th, 2012 | Myst in Retrospect, Review, Writing

Warning: Spoilers abound. If you haven’t read The Book of Ti’ana, I suggest you do so before proceeding. You can buy all three novels here.

Harbor in D'ni

We’ve reached the end of the Atrus-centric installments, which leaves only one direction to go: the backstory. Backstory is an important part of any fictional universe, as the additional details we learn from it add to the believability of the world overall. The Myst series, having created this vast edifice of D’ni to support Atrus’s story, has an almost infinite amount of space for additional backstory. We want to know more about D’ni, its inhabitants, and its history. Myst: The Book of Ti’ana, and our final two games, Uru and Myst V, give us a glimpse of the days before Atrus and the span of the D’ni society of old. As we move through the D’ni-centric arc, we’ll consider the following questions: can backstory itself be a story? If not, what does it take to make a backstory into a frontstory? Let’s begin.

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Myst in Retrospect: Riven

April 11th, 2012 | Myst in Retrospect, Review, Writing

Warning: Spoilers abound. If you haven’t played Riven, I suggest you do so before proceeding. You can buy it at

Gehn's effigy

Sequels are a notoriously difficult thing to pull off, and Riven is an example of an unequivocal success. It took Myst‘s design and built upon it rather than simply aping it, creating a completely fresh take on the existing concept. Beyond the continued storyline and identical control scheme, there is practically no resemblance between the two. It isn’t so much Myst II as it is Myst 2.0– a second release which corrects the shortcomings of an earlier version. Riven is a masterpiece, an example of what can happen when creators consider their past mistakes, aim high, and ignore the risks.

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Myst in Retrospect: The Book of Atrus

March 4th, 2012 | Myst in Retrospect, Review, Writing

Warning: Spoilers abound. If you haven’t read The Book of Atrus, I suggest you do so before proceeding. You can buy all three novels here.

"Just sit tight and shut up until I have more problems for you to solve for me."

Myst: The Book of Atrus was published in 1995, well into the heyday of the original Myst but still two years before the release of Riven. It appears to set two basic goals for itself: to expand the backstory of the original game and set the stage for the new one. The book is credited to Rand and Robyn Miller, Myst’s foremost creators, with coauthor credit to David Wingrove, an SF writer previously known for Chung Kuo, a sprawling epic about a future in which Imperial China rules the world. (In true diehard-fan fashion, I attempted to read the first of these volumes, with no success.) As a work of literature, the novel is probably slightly better than your average science fiction novel, at least stylistically. As a part of the Myst canon, this novel (and the other two) form a sort of backstory-bible, one which became so integral to the series that the games eventually came to depend on it.

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Realm Builds Character

May 7th, 2011 | Comics, Process, Realm, Writing

It’s time for me to say a few words about Realm. Realm has been the longest and most complex project I’ve ever worked on, bar none. Even the Zark comics and games, despite the fact that I worked on them for long periods of time, don’t approach the scope and complexity of this.

Some background: The first things I produced related to Realm were two pages of color vector-graphics comics. I made these the day after I first had the idea to do a humorous fantasy comic. Already then the title was Realm (the one factor which has never varied), but nothing else was remotely similar. As you can imagine, there was no planning whatsoever. I had the idea in the evening and I was vectoring (do you have a better verb?) the comics first thing the next morning. There were no developed characters, plot, setting, or anything that you might expect in any kind of quality production. As such, it only lasted for two pages, which is pretty pathetic when you remember that some of the comics I drew as a young teenager, such as The Terrible Troubles of Unlucky Freddy and Robin Hood 2002, got several times that. And Unlucky Freddy even got to go to space! What a gyp, huh, original Realm characters?

I rushed into the original Realm for a number of reasons: 1) that was how I started all my projects at the time, and 2) I wanted to start a webcomic. Sunrise was still a year away (only a year? jeez) and the idea of a fantasy serial I could plug various storylines into appealed to me. I was also reading a lot of old Bloom County comics at the time and I thought that I might be able to make it topical somehow. In retrospect, that was a terrible idea and I’m lucky that I didn’t try that.

So once the first attempt proved to be a disaster, I decided I had better plan ahead a little bit this time. It was then that I developed the first version of these thrilling characters:

Actual unretouched panel sequence

D and Harding. Zilch too. Harding was described with phrases like “Always looks like an idiot but doesn’t realize it” and “He thinks he is heroic . . . but he is not.” Beyond that his character was not developed. D was described as “evil, scheming,” “only trusts herself,” “takes advantage of everyone.” Beyond that her character was not developed. Zilch was described as follows: “Wants to be knighted more than anything. However, his cowardice, incompetence, and occasional recklessness prevent him from doing anything noteworthy.” Huh. Is that a motivation I see there? It just may be.

So what do you think happened next? Well, you can probably guess. I vectored two pages of Realm starring D and Harding (Zilch was introduced on page 2) and then stopped. Incidentally, they were practically identical to the original pages with the exception of the revised characters, so it should be no surprise that it worked no better the second time around.

For a while I stopped working on Realm completely, partly because I was working on Sunrise. The idea stuck with me, though, and little by little it began to develop. In 2009 I finally started to go about working on it the right way, with lots of rough sketches and story outlines. I didn’t start drawing again until I was confident that I had the whole storyline established. This was in stark contrast to before, when I was just trying to “wing it” with no storyline at all.

You know what happened from there. I drew the first issue, posted it online, and then this year I posted the second issue, the one with D and Harding in it. As you probably recall, I stated then that I wasn’t going to post any more Realm until I had the entire storyline worked out.

Well, writing is really hard, you can guess what’s been happening since then. I’ve been working on developing the storyline, as promised, but it hit two snags named D and Harding. (Did any of you predict this during my long introduction?) These “characters,” carried over from the earlier DOA attempt, were so vaguely defined that I was having a really hard time writing for them. Their introduction in Issue 2/Chapter 1 was dull and uninteresting (the only highlight being the delightfully insane Captain LaRusse) and highlighted the inherent problem of these characters: namely, that they were not characters at all. They had no motivations, personality quirks, flaws, definition… pretty much devoid of anything that qualifies as “character.” This made them almost impossible to write for, especially in a context of humor. Zilch, however, was still working fine, as he was the only one who actually had definition. He, by contrast, is very easy to write for and is usually pretty funny. So, to cut it short, D and Harding are history.

New Realm characters

So yesterday I began approaching these characters the way I should have the first time. I attempted to create characters who were similar enough to D and Harding that they can replace them while minimizing the amount of revision needed. This was challenging, in part because they must also be developed enough that they will, y’know, actually work. I’ve been studying the excellent webcomic Spacetrawler very carefully, because it is doing with science fiction what I am with fantasy. (Both are humorous stories about characters from Earth tasked with solving the problems of other worlds.) Spacetrawler‘s human characters each possess specific traits which define their actions. Pierrot wants to see equal rights extended to every species in the galaxy. Dmitri sees interstellar space as an opportunity to seek out new forms of pleasure. Dustin takes every opportunity to extend his own power and influence. It works quite well, and I’m learning a lot. (I’m also laughing a lot, because, as I’ve established, Spacetrawler works quite well. Full disclosure: I got sidetracked for nearly half an hour reading past pages while writing this essay.) So, in the above image you can see my early attempts at revising these characters. None have names yet (except the one on the far right, Sheila, but she’s actually slightly older, dating back to my embarrassing Bechdel test analysis a while ago).  I won’t go into their personalities right now, but suffice to say I won’t be writing any more until I’m certain that they are ready to handle it.

So, in conclusion, Realm has been an interesting experience. It’s taken a long time to reach the point that it’s at now, and there’s still a lot to be done. While things like this feel like setbacks, since it takes a lot of time to replace a character with another, at the same time they’re actually just an extension of the writing process. Realm has evolved a lot, and it will continue to evolve until I can finally declare it finished.

Will there be more online soon? I can definitively answer no. I shouldn’t have put it online to the extent I already have, and what you’ve already seen will undoubtedly change significantly in my revision process. In the meantime, watch this space. There will be more about Realm as it develops.

Circuit Reader #4: Freewheel

April 12th, 2011 | Circuit Reader, Comics, Review, Writing

Freewheel is one of those extremely rare webcomics that inspires comparison to prominent creators of the print world. The artwork somewhat reminded me of Kim Deitch in its meticulous and sometimes disturbing detail. The writing is reminiscent of Hans Rickheit’s surreal underworld of The Squirrel Machine. Ultimately, though, these kinds of comparisons are a waste of time, as Liz Baillie’s webcomic stands beautifully on its own.

Freewheel 1
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Circuit Reader 3: reMIND

March 1st, 2011 | Circuit Reader, Comics, Review, Writing

Pacing is one of those things that no one notices unless it’s not working. It’s tricky to strike that delicate balance between too slow and too fast, and many webcomic writers never quite seem to get the knack of it. They particularly seem to fall prey to what is charmingly called “glacial” pacing, in which weeks’ worth of real time elapses while narrative time proceeds at a crawl. I am happy to say that reMIND by Jason Brubaker does not have this problem. Unfortunately, it has the opposite problem.

reMIND image 1
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Sunrise: Three Years!

February 12th, 2011 | Artwork, Comics, Fiction, Process, Sunrise, Writing

Well, it’s been another year. Sunrise officially began on February 12th, 2008, when this horrible-looking page was posted to the then-very-rough website I’d set up at the time. (The cover of Issue 1 appears to have been posted the day before, but was actually posted somewhat later, with the date adjusted to ensure correct position in the archive.) Now, some 230 pages later, it seems like a good time to look back and see what I’ve learned from this little experiment.

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Another word which must die

December 10th, 2010 | Et Cetera, Writing

I thought I might forget one. Here it is, better late than never:

friendlily. (adverb) to act in a friendly manner. Just all-around awkward, and one that can really only be fixed by not using it at all.

Five Legitimate Words Which Must Die, Preferably Now

November 27th, 2010 | Et Cetera, Writing

Anyone can hate the word moist, or hideous portmanteaus such as staycation or funemployment, but never to be outdone, I have here assembled a list of otherwise perfectly legitimate words which I humbly submit should be excised from the English language at the soonest opportunity.

In descending order, #1 being the worst:

5. Like – In either of its uses, be they I like this or So I, like, went to this, like, etc. etc. The former usage listed here is not really wrong in any sense, but I take issue with how commonly-used it is considering its shallowness. These feelings were, of course, grilled into me by four years of art professors, but regardless of my reasons, I now have a low tolerance for like. Now, of course, Facebook is exacerbating the problem by  sticking those stupid Like buttons all over the internet, encouraging us to think in meaningless binary terms of Like and Dislike. Don’t cooperate. Use more specific terms and say how you really feel about something whenever possible. When the word like is what works best, do at least elaborate on what you mean by it, because it doesn’t mean much by itself. (This is my disclaimer, I guess, since I’m currently working on a multi-part essay entitled “Why I Like Star Trek.”) ¶ The second usage listed there needs no explanation, I think. Stop doing that. Please. Just stop.

4. Boyfriend / girlfriend – Who introduced these horrible constructions into the English language? Vague, infantilizing, and cumbersome, this duo of outmoded terms has been used to describe any number of different kinds of relationships. I suggest we scrap both and replace them with about six different words (preferably gender-neutral) that will do the same thing in better ways.

3. Trafficking – Not a bad word really. Perfectly useful in many contexts. That said, can we please either reform how it’s spelled or restrict it to spoken language only? I know it wouldn’t read correctly without that K in the middle, but it looks wrong!

2. Gorgeous / Scrumptious (tied for 2nd place) – These are just plain ugly words, both of them used to describe things that are ostensibly good. They sound like they ought to describe vile space aliens rather than beautiful/delicious things.

1. Gubernatorial – Undoubtedly the ugliest word I have the misfortune of knowing. Egad. I can’t even begin to say what this word sounds like it should mean; it’s such an unholy combination of sounds that all I can think whenever I see it is ick. Let’s change this, please, and pretend it never existed.

Now, in an attempt to make this post slightly less negative, here are three words which I enjoy:

1. Idiom – Makes me laugh every time. “Stupid idioms!”

2. Bludgeon – Something about the sound of this word is very amusing to me.  blʌdʒən. Naturally it’s somewhat of a guilty pleasure considering its meaning. Ouch.

3. Defenestrate – Another guilty pleasure. I know defenestration is bad, but come on, we have an actual word which means “to throw out of a window!” What’s not to like? Heck, I’d jump at a chance to be defenestrated, assuming proper safety precautions, just so that I could use the word.