We learn by doing, not from just hearing advice. Ernest Hemingway, that heavyweight of American literature, would agree with that more than anyone. Blog posts detailing writing tips from Ernest Hemingway are practically their own gene at this point. And they are so popular for a reason: Hemingway was full of writing tips that benefit beginner writers and established novelists alike.
But advice without practice will only get you so far. Today I’m sharing three Hemingway-inspired prompts that I often use with my students. Let’s start putting ideas into action!
One True Sentence
Sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written.― Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast
It’s certainly comforting to know that even Nobel Prize-winning writers like Ernest Hemingway experienced writer’s block and insecurity during their careers. And here he’s giving us his trick for getting the pen flowing again: writing just one true sentence. But what does he mean by “one true sentence?”
Let’s look at the first lines from some of his stories and see what similarities we can see in them.
- It was late and everyone had left the café except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light. — “A Clean, Well-lighted Place”
- It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened. — “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”
- He came into the room to shut the windows while we were still in bed and I saw he looked ill. — “A Day’s Wait”
What commonalities did you notice in these sentences? They all introduce both the setting and the character. The sentences are all simply written, but also full of concrete details that you can see: the shadow of a tree, the green fly of the dining tent, the open windows.
We also get a picture of where the character or characters are in this space and what they are doing, even if we don’t learn anything else about them yet. This makes the reader feel like they are entering a scene that is already in progress. As Hemingway said, he never started a story as if he was presenting or introducing something. He threw the reader right into the action.
Spend a few minutes coming up with your own “true sentences.” Remember that each should have a character and a setting. Try to include one concrete visual detail in each sentence.
Write How You Really Feel
I was trying to write then and I found the greatest difficulty, aside from knowing truly what you really felt, rather than what you were supposed to feel, and had been taught to feel, was to put down what really happened in action; what the actual things were which produced the emotion that you experienced. In writing for a newspaper you told what happened and, with one trick and another, you communicated the emotion aided by the element of timeliness which gives a certain emotion to any account of something that has happened on that day; but the real thing, the sequence of motion and fact which made the emotion and which would be as valid in a year or in ten years or, with luck and if you stated it purely enough, always, was beyond me and I was working very hard to get it.― Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon
Here Hemingway makes a distinction between what you feel and what society expects you to feel. We’ve all experienced this at some point or another. Maybe you got your dream job, but instead of feeling happy you felt sad because it meant moving across the country away from friends and family. Or a loved one died after a long illness and rather than feeling sad, you felt relieved that they were finally out of pain.
Complicated emotions make good fiction. And Hemingway advises that we don’t simplify our emotions just because it makes the story easier to write.
He also discusses how writers make readers experience emotions. He says that we do that by following the sequence of actions that led to the emotion as closely as possible.
Let’s look at an example:
“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”― A Moveable Feast
In this passage from Hemingway’s memoir, he describes the vivid, sensual tastes of oysters and wine. Hemingway was feeling depressed and empty earlier in the chapter, but because the reader followed him through this experience, we can understand the change in his mood.
Write about a time in your life when your emotions felt different from what you were “supposed” to feel. Follow the sequence of actions that led up to that feeling so that the reader experiences the emotion with you.
“If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”― Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon
Hemingway is famous for his strong but simple prose. Let’s look at another example:
“She was crying. I comforted her and she stopped crying. But outside it kept on raining.”― A Farewell to Arms
We know, without Hemingway telling us directly, that the woman is still sad, even though she stopped crying. This is what he means when he refers to the iceberg. Give the reader enough information that they can imagine the rest.
A poorly written setting can feel like a New Yorker cartoon. It’s a simple line drawing outlining a room, but it’s not a real place. It’s a caricature.
When you write a scene, you should know every detail. If your scene is in a restaurant kitchen, you should know what kind of food they serve, whether they are at peak hours or between meals, what languages the staff uses to speak to each other, how many cooks are old veterans and how many are students trying to make it through college. How many flies are buzzing around the garbage? What brand of rat poison is under the sink?
Inevitably, not all these details will fit into your scene. But if you provide just enough details, the reader will feel like this scene takes place in a real kitchen, not a caricature.
The same is true for your characters. You should know every detail about their lives, but most of it won’t end up in the final draft. Let’s see one final example:
“Going to another country doesn’t make any difference. I’ve tried all that. You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another. There’s nothing to that.”― The Sun Also Rises
In this tidbit of dialogue from Jake Barnes, the narrator of The Sun Also Rises, we learn a lot about his personality and his attitude toward life. We can envision a lot about his past from this brief passage, and there’s a hint of tragedy that made him this way.
Choose your favorite “true sentence” that you wrote in the first exercise. Write the story that follows. Follow Hemingway’s advice about brevity and follow the sequence of actions that produce powerful emotions.
The only kind of writing is rewriting.― Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast
One last piece of advice: your first draft is just one step. No matter how “truly” you write (to paraphrase Hemingway), you still have to revise your work. If you want more writing advice, follow this blog on Facebook or Twitter! I look forward to writing with you again.