The term purple prose has been around as long as I've been writing, and chances are you've heard it to. You'll also hear folks say "the prose is too flowery" or it feels "overwritten." People know it when they see it, but how do you spot it in your own work?
First, let's define them.
Flowery prose and purple prose are basically the same thing. It's text that's so filled with adjectives and adverbs and similes and metaphors that it screams "hey look! I'm fancy writing" and distracts you from the actual story. Often you also need a thesaurus to read it, especially with purple prose.
Overwritten is trying too hard. The idea of the passage is stated, but the writer keeps expanding on it with unnecessary words. If you ever thought to yourself, "Yeah, I get it, he was angry, move on" then you probably read an overwritten passage. It can also be one sentence that takes nine words to say what three can do.
Let's take a basic sentence and do cruel things to it to illustrate this.
Bob swung the shotgun toward the zombie and blew its head off.This does what a sentence should do. It's not fancy, but it shows the reader what's going on. But let's overwrite it.
Bob lifted the shotgun, the heavy stock smooth against his hand. He took aim, staring down the steel barrel at the zombie lumbering toward him.The sights aligned with the zombie's head -- two dots and a target. He tensed and braced the butt of the shotgun against his shoulder. Holding his breath, he slowly pulled back against the trigger and fired. The shell whizzed through the air and into the zombie's forehead. It's skull exploded, gray brains bursting through the air and splattering on the wall.Were you ready to shoot Bob yourself by the end of that? The trouble with overwritten prose is that it can feel exciting because stuff is going on. On its own, you may have even liked this paragraph and are wondering why it's a problem. But now think about pages of pages of this type of treatment. As a major climax to a scene, this may not be so bad (I still think it's overwritten), but if everything is described with such minute precision, the story drags.
But don't think overwritten is only for long passages. You can overwrite a single sentence.
Holding his breath, he slowly pulled back against the trigger and fired.There are a lot of unnecessary words here, and this is the type of overwriting that will trip most folks up, because it doesn't feel overwritten.But we don't need slowly, or back against. We can even cut trigger.
Holding his breath, he pulled the trigger and fired.Now lets take that same paragraph, and color it purple.
Holding his breath, he fired.
He held his breath and fired.
Bob elevated the shotgun, the ample stock smooth against his calloused hand. He took aim, gazing down the cobalt-gray steel barrel at the zombie lumbering toward him. The sights aligned with the zombie's cranium--two spheres and pair of red-rimmed eyes, shinning in the incandescent light of the room. He tensed and planted the butt of the shotgun soundly against his shoulder. Breath ceased, a brief moment of calm before the inevitable cacophony the shotgun would surely emit. Slowly, like a leaf drifting on a summer breeze, he drew back against the hair-trigger and released the shell. The shell sailed through the air and submerged deep the zombie's forehead. It's skull ruptured, mushrooming into a firework display of silvery brains bursting through the air.Egads. This is an exaggerated passage of course, but at some point, every new writer has written something equally bad. (I know I have) But just like the overwritten example, purple prose doesn't have to be a full paragraph.
Breath ceased, a brief moment of calm before the inevitable cacophony the shotgun would surely emit.This is still purple, even if the rest of the paragraph was fine. Purple is most often associated with prose that's trying to sound "literary." Stuff that's trying to sound "written" or use too much imagery.
At this point I'm looking at my example and wondering how to show flowery prose with some guy blowing a zombie's head off, but I'm going to do it anyway, because you don't need sweetness and light to be flowery.
Bob lifted the shotgun, the heavy stock smooth against his hand like a powerful, wooden cannon. He took aim, staring down the glistening steel barrel at the zombie. Death lumbered, step by step, closing the distance as easily as it would steal his life. Bob aligned the sights with the zombie's rotting head, it's weepy red eyes as dead as the still air around them. He tensed and snuggled the butt of the shotgun against his shoulder, holding it tight. He exhaled, his life's breath hissing out of his lungs. Would it be his last breath? he wondered. Fingers slowly pulled back against the sharp trigger and he fired, the blast reverberating off the mildewed walls and deafening him. The shell whizzed through the air fast as lightning and sank deep into the zombie's decayed forehead. It's skull exploded like bloody fireworks, gray brains dancing through the air and splattering on the wall in their own sad Rorschach patten.Wouldn't you rather face the zombie than read that paragraph again? Even though this is a gruesome scene, it's trying hard to sound pretty. Imagery is overused, the focus in on what's being said, not what's happening.
And even though I personally love the head exploding like bloody fireworks, that's a flowery line for sure.
Hopefully this clears up what flowery, purple, and overwritten prose means.