There’s no doubt Ernest Hemingway was a brilliant writer. And although he has inspired countless imitators, no one has ever explained exactly how he created his magic with words. But there are some clues we can examine and draw a few conclusions from. But first, let’s dispel one myth right away: Hemingway did not personally invent the style he made so popular.
In a 1929 New York Times review of A Farewell to Arms, critic Percy Hutchison wrote about the new narrative method that was then becoming popular:
There is in “A Farewell to Arms” no change from the narrative method of “The Sun Also Rises” and “Men Without Women.” Ernest Hemingway did not invent the method, which is chiefly to be characterized by the staccato nature of sentences (an effort at reproducing universal conversational habit), and its rigid exclusion of all but the most necessary description. Yet if Hemingway was not the inventor of the method, tentative gropings toward such a manner having been made by many of his immediate predecessors, the author of “A Farewell to Arms” has, in his several books, made it so strikingly his own that it may bear his name, and is likely to henceforward.
Mr. Hutchison’s observation was astonishingly prescient. Hemingway ran with the new narrative style and indeed made it “so strikingly his own” that Mr. Hutchison’s prediction came true. Twenty-five years later, Hemingway’s 1954 Nobel Prize in literature made special note of his “mastery of the art of narrative.”
A look at Hemingway’s first novel, The Sun Also Rises, gives several clues to Hemingway’s style secrets. Text analysis software shows that the average sentence length in that novel is 8.63 words. That certainly squares with most descriptions of Hemingway’s style as ‘terse,” “choppy,” or “staccato.” By comparison, Hemingway’s contemporary, F. Scott Fitzgerald, averaged 13.42 words per sentence in his novel, The Great Gatsby.
Yet, when reading The Sun Also Rises, it doesn’t feel as choppy as one might expect from a work that features such short sentences on average. Perhaps Hemingway’s narrative style is a little more complex than we are usually led to believe. To learn more, the text can be broken down a bit further. As an experiment, for example, when the dialogue is stripped away and the novel re-analyzed, the average sentence length jumps up to 11.8 words per sentence. That’s quite a difference from the 8.63 words per sentence average for the whole text, and not so far from Fitzgerald’s 13.42 words per sentence average in The Great Gatsby.
And so, we discover one of the secrets to Hemingway’s style: the dialogue is much shorter and terser than the narrative. As the dialogue in The Sun Also Rises accounts for nearly 40% of the entire text, we can see why the overall text averages such a low number of words per sentence. The narrative, without the dialogue, is not near as choppy as some might think.
Interestingly, when the same experiment is performed on The Great Gatsby, there is little effect on the average sentence length. With dialogue, the average sentence length in The Great Gatsby is 13.42 words per sentence; without dialogue it is 13.56 words per sentence. Fitzgerald’s dialogue and narrative are fairly similar, in terms of average sentence length.
But surely there is more to Hemingway’s style than just the average number of words per sentence. And maybe this can be found in his choice of words, specifically words of different syllables.
Some text analysis programs will break down a text into percentages of 1, 2, 3, and 4 syllable words. When The Sun Also Rises is analyzed this way, something interesting appears: 1 syllable words account for 68.3% of the total text; 2 syllable words 25.8%; 3 syllable words just 4.85%; and 4 syllable words a mere 1.0%.
Clearly, Hemingway preferred the simplest words he could use. Compare the percentages of 1,2,3, and 4 syllable words found in The Great Gatsby, and one finds that Fitzgerald used double the amount of 3 and 4 syllable words, percentage wise, that Hemingway did in The Sun Also Rises.
That’s quite a difference. The result is that the average syllable count per word for Hemingway is 1.39; for Fitzgerald it is 1.52. In fact, after running many texts from many authors through the same analysis, one finds none come close to Hemingway in terms of average syllables per word. Hemingway’s 1.38 syllable per word average is just about impossible to attain, actually, unless great care is taken to eliminate all but the simplest words.
So, by the numbers, we have a few clues to Hemingway’s much copied style: a medium average sentence length in the narrative, a very short average sentence length in the dialogue, and a strict reliance on 1 and 2 syllable words (over 95% of all words used).
Of course, the beauty and power of Hemingway’s writing cannot be explained by mere text statistics. They are only useful as a tool for comparison and study. Hemingway used many techniques in his writing, including the use of repetition, a spare but striking use of similes and metaphors, and a brilliant sense of conveying emotion through powerful and concise description.
And naturally, Hemingway’s style evolved over the years. His later work is not exactly the same as his early work, but that’s to be expected of all writers as they develop and grow. It might be an interesting study to run his later work through text analysis software and compare the results to his early work.
-David Grant Urban