A giant among novelists, Ernest Hemingway can teach all writers many excellent lessons on how to write fiction. Here are 7 tried and true Hemingway techniques and strategies that you can apply to your own writing. I’m not suggesting that you try to write just like Hemingway. That would be impossible, derivative, and get you nowhere since he’s already written in his own style better than anyone else can. But you can consider his methods and see how they might help you become a better writer in your own style, your own voice.
1) Make your writing the embodiment of your life Few writers have ever made better use of their own life experiences than Hemingway. He drank, he fought, he hunted, he fished, he partied, he worked hard, he was wounded, and he wounded others. And it’s all in his books and stories in one way or another. He took his life and turned it into art. As Hemingway advised: “Write the truest sentence that you know.”
2) Be as honest and accurate as you can with your pain and wounds “You have to hurt like hell before you can write seriously,” he said. “But when you get the damned hurt, use it…don’t cheat with it. Be as faithful to it as a scientist.” Truth truly is stranger and more powerful than fiction. As the great critic Malcolm Cowley noted, Hemingway was like Poe, Hawthorne and Melville before him—writers who were “haunted and nocturnal.” Interestingly enough, you’d be hard pressed to come up with a better foursome of American authors than this one.
3) Utilize the Iceberg Principle Just as an iceberg is 7/8ths hidden, beneath the surface, Hemingway’s stories all have rich and complex backstories—just like our own lives. So much is left unsaid or assumed because it happened and they don’t talk about it. “Whatever you know, leave out,” he said. To affect this sense of an iceberg, of real lives having been led by your characters before your story begins, try these two methods:
– Begin “in medias res”, in the middle of things. Start your story in the middle, get immediately into the action, the conflict. Don’t have a long windup. Pitch the ball fast.
– Write detailed character bios for yourself. Even if none of what you write makes it into the actual story, write pages and pages of biographical information about each main character. Get to really know who your characters are. Give them lives and experiences before the story starts.
4) Use understatement and irony Nothing’s more boring than a person or writer who tells you everything and does so with no subtlety or indirection whatsoever. Personality in characters, as in real people, resides to a large degree in what they say and how they say it. In your own narration and dialogue, don’t tell us everything. Hold back. Tone down. Be understated. Be ironic. Leave things out. Embrace the silences. Hemingway learned from the Impressionist painters of the late 19th and early 20th centuries the paradoxical lesson that what’s left out of the picture makes it stronger and more vivid.
5) Don’t talk about it Whatever it is—death, war, violence, sex—don’t talk about it, show it. Don’t fall into your own voice going on and on about how tragic, painful, awful or wonderful something is. Describe it in such a way that readers actually feel and understand the emotion you want to evoke. T.S. Eliot called this the “objective correlative: A set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.”
6) Shape your plots in a 3 stage quest: from innocence, to alienation, then aspiration; or from departure, to initiation, to return; or from rejection, to avoidance, to the quest for something new. This 3 stage plot structure is mythically appealing to a reader. It’s the stuff of epics, bestsellers, and blockbuster movies.
7) Violently edit your writing Take an axe and chop off all sentimentality, discussion, explanation, extraneous words, hello’s, goodbye’s (unless they’re a profound part of the plot), he said’s, she said’s, adjectives, clichés, and definitely any metaphors that aren’t as fresh as tomorrow’s Tweet. Aim for a direct cinematic contact between the eye and the object. As Chekov pointed out, the colder and harder a writer writes, the more deeply and movingly emotional the result is likely to be.