There exist two commonly contrasted prose styles: purple and beige.
Authors who verse in purple prose gush extravagant diction, saturated with figurative language that attempts to magnetize readers’ glazed eyes to the style—and thus it is often criticized for obnoxiously distracting attention away from the important part of a story: the actual story. One could liken it to ketchup half-assedly splattered over a moldy potato to cover the sour, furry taste—or just ketchup on a plate itself, which some crazed little kid might like, but discerning tastes might find undesirable.
Then there’s beige prose, which rejects all unnecessary words, including figurative language. This is like a regular potato: It certainly doesn’t taste bad, but there’s nothing much interesting, either. And while one may argue that story is the utmost in importance, it’s hard to argue that works by Shakespeare, Tolkien, and Terry Pratchett didn’t derive value from style. For instance…
Come, bitter conduct; come, unsavory guide!
Thou desperate pilot, now at once run on
The dashing rocks thy seasick weary bark!
Here’s to my love! (Drinks.) O true apothecary!
Thy drugs are quick. Thus with a kiss I die.
…is just a little more memorable than “Romeo drank the poison and died.”
I propose that the best is a new version I call “thistle prose”—a hybrid between the sensory qualities of purple prose and the brevity of beige prose. Rather than saying as much as possible with as many words as possible, as in purple prose (or as little as possible with as many words for failed purple prose), or saying as little with as few words, as in beige prose, thistle prose attempts to say as much as possible with as few words as possible.
Take diction. The key mistake surrounding the contrast between purple prose’s extravagant diction and beige prose’s plain diction is the conflation of “plain” with “simple” and “extravagant” with “sensory.” The latter is particularly false when one considers words such as “utilization,” which is certainly long, but does not call any images to mind—other than perhaps business meetings and despair. Such a word may be compatible with (bad) purple prose, but it certainly doesn’t fit in with thistle prose, where “use” would work just as well.
The former cannot be shown well with single words, so let’s compare two sentences that use only simple words:
It was a cold, cloudy, and rainy late afternoon.
Al shook as rain struck him from sunset-burnt clouds.
Count the words: both have the same number—nine. The latter even has one less syllable than the former, even though it also uses more “extravagant” diction. This is because “simple” and “evocative” are not incompatible, nor does figurative language need to be longwinded.
Moreover, by replacing simple identifying constructions such as the former sentence with actions one can tell more with fewer words: one can say not only what’s happening, but hint as to the tone one wants to give. In the first sentence, “cold” is vague. Cold to whom? Is this positive or negative? “Al shook as rain struck him” leaves no such uncertainty; it’s obviously not an environment Al finds comfortable. (This sentence also already introduces the character Al. For the first sentence, we still don’t even know if any sentience exists in this story.)
Now, compare the thistle prose sentence to this purple prose sentence:
The atmosphere was bespattered with a brilliant fusion of pinks, blues, oranges, and grays—akin to a sodden newspaper dropped into a crystalline bowl of tangy fruit punch—from the reflection of the descending sun gleaming its luminescent light against the begrimed billows smothering the celestial heavens. Precipitation rained all over Al like a volley of arrows show by a million archers, each gelid projectile striking his marrow with chilly quivers.
Techniques for Thistle Prose:
Use (active) verbs: Verbs are the easiest way to add action without adding fluff. Even simple phrases like “the ground growled” and “storms brewed” are massive improvements over “there was an earthquake” and “it was stormy.” Of course, as any good technique, one should not use this any more than one should put ketchup on every meal. For one, unless you’re writing a fanfic of PeeWee’s world, readers may wonder why every part of nature seems sapient.
Go easy on adjectives and (especially) adverbs: These are why purple prose is so reviled. For instance, one can’t just “rip out someone’s eyes”; one must “mercilessly and violently rip out one’s round, terror-stricken visual organs.” First, why use a vague noun with an adjective when one can just use the specific noun in the first place? Two, this eye is round as opposed to what? Al’s cubic eyes? And is there a nonviolent way to rip out one’s “visual organs”? I suppose if one were undergoing surgery, maybe. As for “mercilessly,” that information should come from the context of the story. Do we know why this person’s ripping this other person’s eyes out? Will we eventually? Then why not just let that tell the story? For example, if we know she’s only pulling this poor fellow’s eyes out as a form of torture, then “mercilessly” is probably redundant. Torture is inherently merciless—causing agony is its whole purpose.
Of course, there are cases in which one of the other two styles may be preferable. For instance, beige prose is probably still better for strictly informational writing; there’s not much need for growling grounds or striking rain in an article discussing the labor and subjective theories of value. Even purple prose may be tolerable for more poetic works or for exaggerative humor. There is also, admittedly, a fine line between thistle prose and purple and beige, as there can be trade-offs between sensory description and brevity. Sadly, no literary device can completely overrun an author’s personal judgment successfully.