Devil in the details

Behind the Curve – A Farewell to Arms (Ernest Hemingway, 1929)

Ernest Hemingway is best known for his sparse and understated style of writing. His stories are written in a very matter-of-fact way without needless frills or flowery flourish. It’s a style that has had an unparalleled influence on the many generations of writers who have followed him.

A Farewell to Arms, 1932
A Farewell to Arms, 1932

However, one thing I never hear brought up regarding Hemingway, and which I noticed while reading A Farewell to Arms, is is his superb skill at writing a scene with sharp, specific details. In fact, Hemingway includes so many details that it can sometimes be difficult to follow as he describes the way the road turns or the dust being kicked up into the air.

On the surface, the idea of sparse writing being richly detailed seems like a contradiction. But  these two facets of Hemingway’s style actually complement one another. Hemingway’s style is sparse in that it sticks to the actual facts of the story. Everything is told on the surface level. There are very few unnecessary reflections or extrapolations in the text itself.

But while remaining on the surface level, we’re given an abundance of information. Which is good. Without the inclusion of extreme detail, a minimalist style would look like one of those over-simplistic baby’s first books, like See Spot Run or something like that.

The details in A Farewell to Arms are strategically placed in order to lead the reader into deducing the information Hemingway wanted to convey. Rather than lengthily explaining the loneliness and frustration a character feels in a particular scene, Hemingway records the things that are happening around him. Hemingway describes the train he’s on and the actions of the people there in a matter of fact, albeit telling, style. We readers take all of this description and form our own conclusions about the events and what the character is feeling and thinking. And because we arrived there ourselves, the revelation becomes much more personal to the reader.

A Farewell to Arms, 1932
A Farewell to Arms, 1932

I’ve been struggling to include these kinds of details in my own writing. I have a bad habit of leading my readers by the nose. I’m glad that I had the opportunity to read this book and I hope I can internalize some of the strategies it uses.


Coming up:

  • Wild Card! – Monday, October 31
  • Movie: No Country for Old Men (2007) – Monday, November 7
  • Game: Silent Hill 2 (Konami, 2001) – Monday, November 14
  • Documentary: Best of Enemies (2015) – Monday, November 21
  • Book: 1984 (George Orwell, 1949) – Monday, November 28

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