Balancing Functional and Flowery Writing
Sentences are functional items: they are collections of words strung together to deliver a message. Flowery sentences (or purple prose) are embellished beyond the basic to impart intense emotional impact, relaying the very soul of the annotated phrase in a deliberately transfigured way that infects the mind of the reader—that glorious audience who, despite their detachment, are inevitably part of the narrative, even if only as a voyeur—with the tone of that fragment. Fairly obviously, there is a distinct difference, yet the difference between functional and flowery is analogue: instead of either/or, they should be viewed as either end of a scale.
Writing is about balance. On the one hand, a writer must put across the basics of the story: who, what, where, when, why, and how. On the other, writing is art and should be treated as such. Art is more than instructional; it is emotive and offers transcendence from the regular plane of language data. The balance between functional and flowery is one that needs to be carefully maintained, as per the voice of the writer and the feel of the particular project.
He looked outside. It was dark.
These two short sentences tell us what we need to know, to some degree, but are missing a lot of what we need to—or could potentially—learn from them. They are purely functional, yet lacking anything to make them stand out. For example, why does he look outside?
He looked outside; a routine habit. It was dark.
Now we have some context. This is someone who regularly checks the time of day by the light outside, instead of by a watch. But is ‘looked’ clear enough? By changing the word to ‘glanced,’ for example, we get the sense that this is more an unconscious habit. That makes his noticing of the dark more of a surprise, and allows a slight reaction that—as readers—we can empathise with.
He glanced outside without thinking, not expecting it to be dark already.
This is now a bit clunky. By refining the sentence with a little embellishment, it can become more that just functional, and set a tone.
He glanced at the window; a reflex. It was cloaked in unexpected darkness.
This is better, but far from perfect, especially as darkness is not something that can be seen through a window. Instead, the inside is reflected back, and that is more noticeable—and shocking—than a black sheet of glass.
He glanced at the window; a reflex. The pane reflected his silhouette against a bare bulb. It was later than he thought.
Suddenly, what was formulaic is now expressive. Writers are always told to “show, don’t tell,” and we are now being mostly shown rather than told.
At this point, I would stop. The sentence, other than needing a little refining, is descriptive enough. We are about halfway along the scale between functional and flowery. Even so, for the purposes of this essay, I will continue expanding until I reach the limit of what I can stand.
To elaborate further, words can take on further description. This sets a clearer scene and adds more depth; although if that is necessary is arguable.
He glanced at the mock-Georgian window; a natural reflex. The pane reflected his silhouette against the bare filament bulb hanging from the ceiling. It was considerably later than he had previously thought.
Some of this information could be useful, but not all of it at once. We are moving back to telling and away from showing, yet we can go further. Enter the adjectives and adverbs.
He quickly glanced at the recently-painted mock-Georgian window; an unshakable natural reflex. The thin pane visibly reflected his pensive silhouette against the stark, bare filament bulb hanging sullenly from the peeling ceiling. It was considerably and surprisingly later than he had previously—and, as it turned out, mistakenly—thought.
We are now bordering on purple prose, so the final step would be to push what started out as six words over the edge into the ridiculous.
Suddenly, and without realising, he quickly glanced ambiguously at the extravagant, recently-painted, mock-Georgian sash window; an unshakable natural reflex embedded through arduous years of working within the oppressive confines of enclosed, viewless claustrophobia. The thin glass pane visibly reflected his pensive silhouette, a man frozen in time; the pausing figure dramatically illuminated against the harsh ambient glow of the stark, bare filament bulb hanging sullenly from the gradually peeling ceiling that mirrored the state of his numbed mindset. He realised, with adequate astonishment, that such time had passed that it was considerably and surprisingly later than he had previously—and, as it transpired, mistakenly—thought.
There is no doubt that this extract can become even more flowery, but we are already beyond what any writer would consider over-the-top. At this point we have passed sense.
By balancing functional and flowery, writing can put across enough emotional heft and depth whilst still saying what needs to be said. A little embellishment is no bad thing; even Hemingway said more than just the bare basics. The skill is to use what you need and not what you don’t. Not everything needs to be spelled out. By hiding some details and hinting at others, writing can show what is happening without boring the reader. Use just enough flowering to ensure your writing steps up from functional to something that shows off your voice and truly tells your story.
© 2017 Seb Reilly
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.