Hemingway’s stories and novels are uncompromising. The language is short, direct, and to the point. He does not, like his contemporaries, adorn his prose with extra words and poetic-sounding language.
Hemingway’s style was semi-revolutionary. He stripped away everything he didn’t need from a sentence or paragraph and brought it down to the bare bones. There, he was able to create a new way of writing dialogue and descriptions that got to the heart of the story much quicker. While it might seem like this would simplify someone’s writing, that was certainly not the case.
Hemingway’s characters and storylines are complex and multilayered. He was able to hide, within the dialogue of his characters, their personalities, quirks, and secrets. It takes dedicated readers to get to the heart of one of Hemingway’s dramas. (‘Hills Like White Elephants‘ is a prime example.)
Elements of Hemingway’s Writing Style
One of the main features of Hemingway’s style is his use of short, one, or two-syllable words. In passages from his novels, such as ‘The Old Man and the Sea‘, readers can find numerous examples of these techniques. The words are easy to understand but when strung together, they can create skillful images and lines of dialogue.
Take a look at this line from ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls‘ as an example:
The world is a fine place and worth fighting for and I hate very much to leave it.
This simple sentence is eighteen words long and sixteen of those eighteen words are one syllable in length. The remaining two are only two syllables themselves.
In addition to short words, Ernest Hemingway also used short sentences. While this was not always the case, it is true throughout most of his work. When a very short sentence is included alongside longer sentences, it is emphasized. Readers might be met with a bit of surprise at the brevity of a phrase and know intuitively that it’s more important.
He also chose to do away with extraneous adverbs and always chose the simpler word over the harder word. The latter is part of the reason why readers often feel as though Hemingway’s characters speak like real people.
When Hemingway was awarded his Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954 the committee’s reasoning went as follows:
for his mastery of the art of narrative, most recently demonstrated in The Old Man and the Sea, and for the influence that he has exerted on contemporary style.
Hemingway and The Iceberg Theory
“The Iceberg Theory” is a method of writing that suggests writers should focus on a simple, minimalistic style. This means they do not explicitly state what someone is feeling or what the consequences of an action are. The most important parts of the story, those which Hemingway did not spell out, are beneath the surface. This is compared to the way that the bulk of an iceberg is also hidden from view.
Readers can look to this example from ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ as an example of Hemingway’s minimalistic style, and use of short, simple words:
He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.
This example also provides a wonderful instance of the iceberg theory in action. The words spell out clearly what’s going on but readers can easily add more on top of this before even getting to the next paragraphs of the novel. The “old man” is very likely suffering, he doesn’t have much money because he fishes in a “skiff” and he lives near the Gulf Stream.
How Did Hemingway Develop His Writing Style?
Scholars have often cited Hemingway’s training and career as a journalist as the source of his writing style. In this format, poetic language has no place. It is the facts only in easy-to-understand and digest sentences. When characters speak in his novels, it often feels strikingly real. There is a great deal of emotion beneath the surface that has to be interpreted by the reader, just as they would be in good journalism. The facts first, emotions later.
In one instance when Hemingway was speaking about his writing style, he explained that he often makes numerous, sometimes obsessive revisions. He once described how he revised/rewrote the entirety of ‘The Old Man and the Sea‘ many times before he was happy with it. This no doubt included cuts, removing bits of description, and unneeded dialogue.