Keeping It Simple But Powerful – The Use of Language in Fiction

By Prachi Percy Sharma


A lot has been written on the use of pedestrian language that makes for languid prose and therefore a badly-written book, which leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

In this post, let’s talk about the opposite of pedestrian prose – PURPLE PROSE.

In lay language, purple prose means stringing a litany of BIG words together to form convoluted sentences, thus creating flowery prose (yeah, you can say I have a language fetish. It is the aspect of writing that I’m most concerned about).

Reading a book with flowery prose is different than reading one with pedestrian language. Reading a novel crammed with purple prose is like bumping into someone who has sprayed too much perfume. The pungent aroma smothers the nostrils and makes it difficult to breathe, doesn’t it?

Big words and unnecessarily twisted sentences lessen the overall reading experience. Personally speaking, it puts me off reading the book.

The saddest part is that I’m reading a book with an AWESOME story but written in flowery prose. The presence of too many words to describe too little is hampering my reading experience, despite the fact that I really like the characters, the setting, and the plot.

New writers, in my experience, often tend to forget that it is not using big words in stories that makes a good writer. It is using simple words and lucid language to say a lot that makes a good writer. And, no, literary authors, at least the ones I’ve read, don’t use flowery prose or complicated language (except Cervantes, perhaps).

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, one of the literary giants, uses simple, lucid language in his novels, sometimes peppered with Spanish cusswords. And yet, his prose is lyrically beautiful and enchanting!

Toni Morrison, VS Naipaul, Richard Flanagan, and John Steinbeck use normal, everyday language too, but in a way that tells a touching, poignant story, both through the text and its subtext. And their prose is excellent and of high quality.

A good writer, I believe, can strike a balance between using simple BUT quality words, and incorporate a style and voice that speaks straight and is honest, but still connects and impresses. The language should not become pedestrian instead of simple, and at the same time, it should not become irritatingly complex instead of having quality.

When reading a novel, I expect to read a story — about characters, about their thoughts, actions, and feelings, and about what happens during the story. I do NOT expect to have big words thrown at me. That makes the writer seem condescending, like they think they can awe the reader by their complex word-building, and prove that they ‘know’ so many complicated words.

If a character has to use the loo, it should be ‘I have to pee / use the washroom’, and not ‘I have to evacuate my bladder / perform micturition’. The latter sounds laughable, doesn’t it?

My point is, we writers must cultivate the talent to convey complicated things in simple, lucid language, while still maintaining the quality of the prose. This fine balance can be struck only if we practice our craft properly.

Prachi Percy Sharma is an upcoming name in the world of Indian and global literature. She is known for her strong opinions on feminism, and is quite vocal about the things that blight our contemporary society. All of these shape her writing, which is mostly in the genre of crime fiction. Visit her site at Crimocopaeia and read her short stories at the links below:


Femme Fatale

The Murder of Agnel Wilson