Hemingway’s legacy to us was his bold use of simple declarative sentences.
His style shows a genuine respect for the power of language.
It reveals a faith in words, even as it revels in a scarcity of them.
Perhaps frugality would be the most fitting term for his type of artistic virtue.
Because heaping too much verbiage onto a point one hopes to make only tends to reveal a writer’s terror about getting said point across to a reader.
By contrast, a clean line demonstrates confidence. It bolsters a reader’s trust in your attempt to communicate. So, a bond is more easily forged between the pair of you. That’s significant, because the reader is allowing the writer into his or her own mind for the duration of your story.
What relationship could be more intimate?
I’ve learned a lot from Hemingway. Probably, not enough! However, the good news is, I’m still at it. That’s the great thing about a headlong pursuit of any of the arts, isn’t it? One never runs out of discoveries to make or new lessons to discern.
The Triumph of Zema
I confess, I was readied for Hemingway by another, earlier master. That would be one Zema Addis Sharp.
Never heard of her? Oh, come on! She was one of America’s great, unsung mega-stars of education in the 20th Century. Zema worked with William Grey and William Elson to craft the “Dick and Jane” series of grammar school reading-instruction books. And what hardcore masters of simple declarative sentences those distinguished folks were!
“See Spot run.”
Has anyone ever crafted a sentence of greater purity?
Though simplicity itself, this resonant trio of words doesn’t lack for nuance. Consider the enticing ambiguity of that first verb, which may be taken either as an imperative, or as an invitational exhortation. Next, the proper noun, in which a canny character is introduced, named and described via one hard-working syllable. Finally, that short, punchy, action verb, as a crowning touch. (Use of such vigorous verbs is a secret of a great writing.)
Okay, I’m making a joke here, but only kinda-sorta.
Combing for the Honey
This joke encapsulates a sweet kernel of truth. Robert Bly wrote a lovely poem in which he compares each word of language to a cell in a rich honeycomb that is packed with meaning over eons by a succession of devout human worker-bees. If you revere words enough, and deploy them with care, even simplicity may be perceived as laden with meaning.
Blake’s “Songs of Innocence” could be cited as a case in point.
My cited Dick & Jane sentence is another. It’s bold and forthright, and so can stand ably on its own three feet. Yet simple as it is, one can still connect it to the great canon of English literature. Simply imagine Lady MacBeth standing at the sally port of her castle, shaking an imperious finger while she shouts, “Out, damned Spot!” And so then, off o’er the drawbridge the cur doth frantically scamper…
Okay, yeah, another joke.
A Belief in Earnest
The so-called “Iceberg Theory” of Hemingway is a notion that writers should always bear in mind. The nub of it is Hemingway realized that readers only need to see the revealed, floating tip of your story, while the great mass of it sails on majestically under the surface. He believed a story can be strengthened by removing elements from view, not piling them on. In this way a writer may impel use of intuition and imagination – and thus a reader be induced to participate in helping your story succeed as art.
This relates to a three-part rule that I often deploy in fiction. It runs something like this: all characters (just like real people) have their secrets; your readers don’t need to know your characters’ secrets; yet you as the writer must! If you handle your story well, then every particle of action and interaction, each word of dialog, can help your readers triangulate the location and nature of each person’s hidden core.
Even if readers are unable to state clearly what they are beginning to perceive, they should still able to sense or feel it to a useful degree.
And the good news here is that simple language can get all of that across.
You simply need to stay out of the way of your story and its participants. Don’t obfuscate, don’t elaborate. After determining first that you truly have a story in hand, of course. If not, one needs to work hard on that part.
Since even great big lots of lusty language can never make up for the lack of a story.
I Am Not a Crook
In art, no rule should be considered de rigeur, inevitable or inescapable.
As a Nobel Laureate in Literature, Bob Dylan, once scribbled… But alas, at this point I must digress to admit that I feel a wee pang as I type those words. No “dis” to ol’ Bob, but that pop poetaster is no goddam William Faulkner or Ernest Hemingway, or Kazuo Ishiguro, for that matter. Bobby’s 2016 prize was a unicorn, a black swan. Or so I hope. But. Anyhow! as Mister Dylan once scribbled, “To live outside the law you must be honest.”
Meaning that an artist can and should smash rules at whim, whenever and wherever it seems needful. If you manage to get through all the fine print, you can find that principle right down there at the bottom on the back side of your poetic license.
For instance, in my 2010 journalism murder mystery, “Deadlines,” I created a combo of hero/antihero in an alcoholic veteran newspaper columnist (mayhap a skosh of redundancy there, y’think?) named Colm MacCay. Now, Colm was a blowhard of the first water, the kind of verbose raconteur who seems forever impressed by the sounds of his own voice.
And to complicate things still more, this blabbermouth Colm was even selected by me to be narrator of that novel!
In such a scenario, would a stream of simple language ever suffice to tell this man’s tale? No, it would not.
Oddly enough though, that venerated “Iceberg Theory” could still be applied. Because the dude was more than a bit like a squid or octopus, squirting out billows of ink to conceal his vulnerabilities, a matrix of doubts and fears, as well as a pair of debilitating tragedies he considered buried in his past. And so, the vast bulk of Colm’s ‘berg still lies below the surface of his story almost through the entire book.
Emergency into Clarity
However, in “Deadlines,” I did aim to give troubled ol’ Colm a redemption arc. As his façade of contrivances and dependencies grew shattered over my novel’s course, a leaner, fitter, wiser, simpler, more honest man began to emerge from all that whirling debris.
By the tale’s close, Colm MacCay has begun to speak actual truth, both to himself and others. Not invariably, but often. And whenever he does, Colm tends to use simple declarative sentences. Sometimes, so clipped, they’re elliptical. Like this one.