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Writing the Romance Novel: Purple Is (not) My Favorite Color

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

It is difficult to explain the appeal of romance novels to people who don’t read them. Outsiders tend to be unable to interpret the conventional language of the genre or to recognize in that language the symbols, images, and allusions that are the fundamental stuff of romance. Moreover, romance writers are consistently attacked for their use of this language by critics who fail to fathom its complexities. In a sense, romance writers are writing in a code clearly understood by readers but opaque to others.
Linda Barlow and Jayne Ann Krentz, “Beneath the Surface: The Hidden Codes of Romance,” Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women

When a reader picks up a romance novel, she comes to it with certain subconscious expectations in mind as to the development of the characters and their relationship, the plot, and the ultimate ending. When an author fails to follow through on meeting these expectations, the romance reader feels let down, betrayed even. It is this “code” which creates such antipathy for romance novels in the general public while keeping readers returning again and again to buy more books. Barlow and Krentz take this one step further to point out that it is not just the structure of the stories that carry expectations, but the language—the “diction”—of the genre that draws the reader in. They believe romance readers are trained through their reading to recognize turns of phrase or word constructs and respond with a deep emotional connection to the story and the characters. In fact, they posit, the reader looks for these constructs, wanting to relive these emotions with each book they read (21). Readers also expect character development and the relationship between hero and heroine to be the main focus of the story, and through the use of “descriptive code,” they expect a detailed description of the characters’ physical characteristics (24).

Knowing that, when I read a romance novel, I expect to see a certain flow of words, certain physical and emotional reactions described in symbolic language. Therefore, it is not just in story structure that I follow the conventional structure of the genre (the seven beats) when I write. I also incorporate the subconsciously sought-after turns of phrase to connect the reader with my story as well as connect my story with the genre; for example, in Stand-In Groom when Anne first meets George, she gazes “into eyes the color of light-roast cinnamon hazelnut coffee, and her heart fluttered.” George appreciates Anne’s “shapely figure” and “Wedgwood-blue eyes.” Throughout the novel, eyes sparkle, pulses race, hearts thunder, toes curl, and cheeks burn. (Because I am writing my novel for the Christian audience, however, that is as far as the physical sensuality goes.)

Because the language of romance is more lushly symbolic and metaphorical than ordinary discourse, the reader is stimulated not only to feel but also to analyze, interpret, and understand.

There are some romance authors who would say that the language of romance novels is more akin to that of poetry than it is to other fiction genres.

But much has changed since Barlow and Krentz wrote this essay, published in 1992. Yes, romance readers still look for those descriptions, the metaphors and similes, the poetic devices, but romance writers have evolved, have learned to be more subtle with them, more delicate . . . more natural, less purple.

Aha. There’s that term. Purple prose. What exactly does that mean? Well, let’s see if I can’t show you:

    Caught up in the tender savagery of love . . . she saw him, felt him, knew him in a manner that, for an instant, transcended the physical. It was as if their souls yearned toward each other, and in a flash of glory, merged and became one. (Linda Barlow, Fires of Destiny)

Savagery . . . transcended . . . souls yearned . . . yowsa. Getting pretty purple there. In recent years, the genre has started trending away from these kinds of overblown descriptions, words and language that the characters themselves wouldn’t really use in real life:

    The glow of the dying firelight highlighted his handsome features. His was the kind of face stonecutters fashioned elegies from. Clean lines, chiseled to the right proportion. Handsome. A girlish sigh built in her chest . . . (Linda Windsor, Maire)

See the difference in the two passages? Linda Windsor’s prose still taps into that “coded” language, but it’s not so overly dramatic that it becomes purple.

For Discussion:
Just for fun, take a three to four sentence paragraph from your WIP and rewrite it as purple as you can and post it here. Use lots of flowery adjectives and overblown emotions. Use clichés.

Was it hard or easy to do? Do you think you can identify purple prose in your own work? In others’?

Work Cited:

Krentz, Jayne Ann (Ed.). Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992.

  1. Tuesday, May 6, 2008 1:15 pm

    Sorry, I haven’t time to do the conversion, but I did want to stop in and say Thank You!

    I hadn’t really understood the term “purple pros” before. Now I know that it is tantamount to what I call “flowery writing”. It’s definitely poetic, but not my style, either, too over the top for me.


  2. Tuesday, May 6, 2008 1:55 pm

    Interesting post. Because just this morning as I snatched a few moments for reading a Christian romance novel, I was struck by the well-worn phrases that were incorporated in an otherwise fresh and delightful book. And I wondered whether it was done on purpose or whether the author simply had a slight tendency toward common phrases/cliches.

    Last Saturday’s craft post on The PlotMonkeys was on dialogue. One thing that stood out was how to take a well-worn phrase, like “not for all the money in the world” and turn it on its ear by inserting a different word, for effect.

    For example, “not for all the Jimmy Choos in the world” might be appropriate for a heroine who has a thing for shoes and finds herself in a comproming spot. Perhaps this is a way of using the cliche but making it new again?

    In general, I hate purple prose, which is why I find it difficult to read some sub-genres of romance, like Regencies, which tend to have more of it.


  3. Tuesday, May 6, 2008 4:29 pm

    …recognize turns of phrase or word constructs and respond with a deep emotional connection to the story and the characters. In fact, they posit, the reader looks for these constructs, wanting to relive these emotions with each book they read (21).

    Surely this isn’t referring to cliches, right? What exactly are the turns of phrase and word constructs that they’re referring to? Great post!


  4. Tuesday, March 3, 2009 8:30 am

    Good article.


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