Sunday, January 10, 2016


“Overwrought.” Since its first meaning is over-stimulated to the point of hysteria, we associate this word more with behavior than language. Yet “overwrought” also defines purple prose— phrasing that’s ostentatious, gaudy, pompous, self-conscious, self-indulgent, and likely to drive readers nuts.

Tip: Overblown language isn’t lively or original; it’s excessive and irritating.

To illustrate, I could choose from hundreds of classical or contemporary disasters. Instead, I tactfully offer hyperbole of my own making:

The few faint, final, fluttery wand-like wisps of the dying sun’s peach, mauve, and magenta rays whispered past the stony-faced mountains, majestic mountains unmoved by the sky’s pyrotechnics as it sank, ever more slowly, toward its well-deserved rest. The scene’s serenity reminded the still-heartbroken widow of all she had lost. Never again would she savor his tender caress, his musical laughter, his powerful arms. No! The love they’d had was lost forever. No, no, no! As the thickening twilight besieged her, no one anywhere in the world yearned with greater anguish, or wept with more acrid acerbity.

Let’s examine “overwrought,” one issue at a time.

~ Lighten up on colors, especially esoteric ones like peach, mauve, or magenta.

~Exercise caution with the familiar, including the heavy-handed symbolism of the setting sun.
There’s a reason “It was a dark and stormy night” is more hilarious than threatening.

~ Avoid personification, or attributing human characteristics to anything inhuman.
Does the sunset actually “whisper”? Are those mountains more moved by sunrise than sunset? Does the sun really need a rest? Deserve one? Can twilight “besiege”?

~ Insinuate sound echoes.
A little alliteration, or repetition of initial consonant sounds, goes a long way. Bombard
 with poetic devices, and you’ll move readers to laughter instead of tears.

~ Understate.
A widow watching the sun set already verges on melodrama. That means you can’t have clichés, exclamation points, turgid pace, vapid generalizations, or annoying repetition.

~ Eliminate arcane or abstract language.
Certain words achieve neither invisibility nor imagery. The paragraph above is full of them: “savor,” “forever,” “yearned,” and “anguish.” This language diminishes rather than intensifies the moment.

Replace oversimplified judgments like “tender caress,” “musical laughter,” and “powerful arms” with original imagery.

“A discerning eye needs only a hint, and understatement leaves the imagination free to build its own elaborations.” -- Russell Page

One concrete, apt suggestion is worth a hundred tired, redundant, overblown details.

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