How to Write like Ernest Hemingway

1. Use simple language and simple sentences.

 Consider the opening lines of A Farewell to Arms:

“In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels.”

2. Use mostly short sentences, but if not, tie your long sentences together with repetitive conjunctions. Use these long sentences to describe moments of pleasure, fantasy or wonder.

Notice how Jake, the narrator, becomes briefly lost in the moment:

“The driver helped us down with the bags. There was a crowd of kids watching the car, and the square was hot, and the trees were green, and the flags hung on their staffs, and it was good to get out of the sun and under the shade of the arcade that runs all the way round the square.”

For those of you wondering, the repetition of conjunctions such as ‘and’ is known as “polysyndeton”.

3. Write with a particular detachment from the environment you’re describing.

This short passage from A Farewell to Arms is one of many that “restricts” the reader’s gaze:

“In the morning it was raining. A fog had come over the mountains from the sea. You could not see the tops of the mountains.”

By being selective, your reader will pay more attention to what you are specifically showing, and if they are really attentive, to what you are not.

4. When portraying the pessimism of a time or a character, use sharp juxtapositions and match every elevation with an equalizing deflation.

This passage from The Sun Also Rises is a good example of  these juxtapositions. In one sentence, a symbol of artistic martyrdom (reminiscent of Vincent Van Gogh’s lost ear) becomes a forgotten relic:

“The bull who killed Vicente Girones was named Bocanegra, was Number 118 of the bull-breeding establishment of Sanchez Taberno, and was killed by Pedro Romero as the third bull of that same afternoon. His ear was cut by popular acclamation and given to Pedro Romero, who, in turn, gave it to Brett, who wrapped it in a handkerchief belonging to myself, and left both ear and handkerchief, along with a number of Muratti cigarette-stubs, shoved far back in the drawer of the bed-table that stood beside her in the Hotel Montoya, in Pamplona.”

5. Direct the gaze of the observer by inserting the rhythm of the subject’s movements within the prose.

Consider this passage describing dancers in the streets of Pamplona:

“In front of us on a clear part of the street a company of boys were dancing. The steps were very intricate and their faces were intent and concentrated. They all looked down while they danced. Their rope-soled shoes tapped and spatted on the pavement. The toes touched. The balls of the feet touched. Then the music broke wildly and the step was finished and they were all dancing up the street.”

By forcing the mind’s eye to “follow” what the characters see, you help your readers invest more of their imagination into the prose.

6. Avoid describing how someone is feeling or what something feels like. As he puts it in Death in the Afternoon, you must extract “the real thing, the sequence of motion and fact which made the emotion” from the moment.

This passage from A Farewell to Arms sums up how a detachment from concrete emotion forces the reader to “create” the emotion themselves, so to speak:

“I sat up straight and as I did so something inside my head moved like the weights on a doll’s eyes and it hit me inside in back of my eyeballs. My legs felt warm and wet and my shoes were wet and warm inside. I knew that I was hit and leaned over and put my hand on my knee. My knee wasn’t there.”

7. Hemingway will often describe tragedy with a sense of detachment. Never describe the “face value”of sadness and loss–be indirect and somewhat restricted. 

Consider this passage from For Whom The Bell Tolls:

“You only heard the statement of the loss. You did not see the father fall as Pilar made him see the fascists die in that story she had told by the stream. You knew the father died in some courtyard, or against some wall, or in some field or orchard, or at night, in the lights of a truck, beside some road. You had seen the lights of the car from down the hills and heard the shooting and afterwards you had come down to the road and found the bodies. You did not see the mother shot, nor the sister, nor the brother. You heard about it; you heard the shots; and you saw the bodies.”

Only by imagining the execution in incremental steps does it materialize. Hemingway avoids preaching about the emotions felt, instead going directly to the source.

8. Use sport and physical action as analogies for the writing process. The fisherman may need to wait a while for the right catch, and the bullfighter may become disgraced by the slightest mistake:

Consider one of the bullfighting scenes from The Sun Also Rises:

“Also Belmonte imposed conditions and insisted that his bulls should not be too large, nor too dangerously armed with horns, and so the element that was necessary to give the sensation of tragedy was not there, and the public, who wanted three times as much from Belmonte…felt defrauded and cheated.”

Notice how the bullfighter (as an artist) attempts to create the illusion of danger. Unfortunately, the audience is aware of this and cannot suspend disbelief. This reflect the great paradox of writing fiction–that it must, in a sense, be both “untrue” and a realistic reflection of the world.

9. Nature and the outdoors are not just aesthetics backdrops in Hemingway’s work. Use natural landscape as a way for characters to come to terms with their own identity. 

Consider this passage from his short story, “Big Two-Hearted River”:

“Nick looked down into the pool from the bridge. It was a hot day. A kingfisher flew up the stream. It was a long time since Nick had looked into a stream and seen trout. They were very satisfactory. As the shadow of the kingfisher moved up the stream, a big trout shot upstream in a long angle, only his shadow marking the angle, then lost his shadow as he came through the surface of the water, caught the sun, and then, as he went back into the stream under the surface, his shadow seemed to float down the stream with the current unresisting, to his post under the bridge where he tightened facing up into the current.”

Nature helps him slow down the thought process that had been sped up by being in the city. Going back to point #6, the sequence helps detail Nick’s emotional state while also calming the reader. It brings the two of them together.

10. In his own words: “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”

5 thoughts on “How to Write like Ernest Hemingway

  1. Pingback: How to Write like Ernest Hemingway | On wishes and horses

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