It Was a Dark and Stormy Night: A Study in Purple Prose (Bad Writing Style)

Bad writing style, sometimes called 'purple prose' is a style of writing that is excessively showing the story (passive voice) to the reader instead of just telling the story (active voice.)

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night: A Study in Purple Prose

When the aspiring author writes passages or entire novels whose description not only tells the story but paints the picture, it is said to be "purple prose." This pretentiousness of storytelling is bad but it has its followers. Sometimes if something is bad enough it still attracts its own audience but for different reasons.

Overly extravagant or obsequious passages in literature that call too much attention to itself is generally considered to be a bad thing. Tell the story or event, don't narrate the scene. Use the "active voice" ("Everyone had a fun time") and not the 'passive voice' ("A fun time was had by all.")

When the writer tries to lead the reader with clever lines of flowing text, the reader is drawn more towards how the tale is being viewed by the storyteller and less about what is being told to the reader. The reader focuses upon the messenger, not the message.

How different The Holy Bible would be if instead of "In the beginning..." it began with "Before the time of the coming of the plaque that is mankind that with his wicked and corrupt ways ever yearns to err and fail to learn..." would it be! The storyteller in purple prose expresses an opinion either overly or implied that tries express the correct opinion (in the mind of the author) to the reader.

Good writing should merely tell the story and let the reader's imagination fill-in the unimportant aspects surrounding the matter. Short, accurate sentences are better.

Failing that, overly expressive material is labeled "Purple Prose" or if intermittent, of having "purple passages."

The term “purple prose” is used by writers and critics to describe text or other content that is exaggerated in sentiment or importance. A Roman poet Quintus Horatius first wrote of this, stating:


  • "Your opening shows great promise, and yet flashy purple patches; as when describing a sacred grove, or the altar of Diana or a stream meandering through fields, or the river Rhine, or a rainbow; but this was not the place for them. If you can realistically render a cypress tree, would you include one when commissioned to paint a sailor in the midst of a shipwreck?"

Maintaining stylistic consistency of writing about a subject is important. It is better to not get swept up in describing the surroundings of the narrative.

In the Latin as used by Horatius, "purpureus" ("purple") meant lustrous or dazzling. It is probably the root of the expression “colorful” when used as an adjective to a verbal or literary tale as in “it was a colorful story.”

Frequently cited examples (from Wikipedia) are the following;

From "The Garden of Cyrus" by Sir. Thomas Browne (1605-1682), first published in 1658:

  • "But the Quincunx of Heaven runs low, and 'tis time to close the five ports of knowledge. We are unwilling to spin out our awaking thoughts into the phantasms of sleep, which often continueth precognitions; making Cables of Cobwebs and Wildernesses of handsome Groves. Besides Hippocrates hath spoke so little and the Oneirocriticall Masters, have left such frigid Interpretations from plants that there is little encouragement to dream of Paradise it self. Nor will the sweetest delight of Gardens afford much comfort in sleep; wherein the dullness of that sense shakes hands with delectable odours; and though in the Bed of Cleopatra, can hardly with any delight raise up the Ghost of a Rose."

A often-quoted example of purple prose is from the writing of author Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803–1873), who began his novel “Paul Clifford” with the highly colorful and pointless sentence:

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

This leaves the reader to wonder what does the dark and storm of the night, the wind and the struggling flame of the street lamp have to do with the protagonist of the story? -Absolutely nothing. The text only calls attention to itself, striving to be more clever than it needs to be.

The novel continues later with references to “As soon as the Promethean spark had been fully communicated to the lady’s tube...” (translation: ‘the lady lit her pipe’...,) “a nectarian beverage” (an alcoholic drink e.g. wine) and the arcane “somnambular accommodation” (a bedroom/place to sleep) and so on. The novel is probably so bad in its style of writing that it became a cult favorite just for its awkward ugliness.

Romance Novels, etc.

a b-grade romance novel book-cover

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This type of writing was quite common in the ubiquitous romance ‘Harlequin-esque’ novels of the 1970s when puritanical attitudes towards love, desire and sexual tension were necessarily masked behind flowery literary substitutions. The author could not expect to sell even a trashy novel that depicted explicit or clinical descriptions of physical lust, fantasies and coitus for instance. They instead used flowery interpretations that were unwieldy even then but socially acceptable.

Descriptive prose that could not possibly be misinterpreted by the reader. Expressions like “throbbing manhood” would be used instead of the clinical term “erection” for example.

An annual event called the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest takes place in San Jose, California whose sole purpose is for aspiring and professional writers to intentionally come up with the worst opening lines for a novel. The first year this contest was held there were only three entrants. Recent years have attracted as many as 10,000 applicants. The prize is a cash award of $250.00 and of course, the notoriety of intentionally having written the worst fiction.

A prior winner (yr. 2000) of the event was Gary Dahl, known for being the inventor of the “Pet Rock” that was a nationwide craze back in the 1970s.

The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest link above cites the opening lines of the winners from 1983 to the present and is worth a look at.

Bad Writing, Not the Worst But Merely Bad

One of my favorite entrants from several years ago (which apparently did not win) was a parody of The Running of the Bulls, which takes place at Pomplona, Spain.

a Pomeranian dog, running toward the camera

Image Source

I don’t recall the bulk of the opening paragraph this aspiring contestant wrote but it had to do with ‘…the gates being opened and the running of people ahead of the angry mob of frenzied, charging animals. Legs running and sprinting just ahead of the churning pack of advancing beasts…, the human runners being herded by agitated yapping, barking and nipping at their heels,' and so on.

An observation by the protagonist-apparent goes on to realize...

...that the running of the Pomeranians was really a very stupid idea!"


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Michele Cameron Drew
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Posted on Nov 15, 2010
Ileen Zovluck
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Posted on Jul 1, 2010