I first read For Whom the Bell Tolls when I was eighteen. My father had pushed me to read it, and I did out of duty – until I came to the scene near the end of the book when Sordo and his men were trapped on the hill by the Fascist soldiers. Up until then I had read the book breezily and had not been particularly impressed, but as I read that scene I was blown away by the power and depth of feelings it evoked. It then occurred to me that maybe the book was a whole lot better than I thought. So I did something I had never done before or since – I stopped reading at that point and began the book again, and discovered that the greatness of the book had been there all along – but I had missed it.
I recently checked out the reviews on Amazon of Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. Now, please keep in mind that, besides being one of my all-time favorite books, that book is also almost universally considered to be one of the top ten novels of the 20th century. Nevertheless, on Amazon there were a dozen reviewers who gave it only one star – with some even mocking Hemingway’s style of writing in their comments.
Now, hold that thought while I tell you a little story about Hemingway. He once wrote a short story in which, at one point, a duck hunter was sitting in a duck blind waiting for a flock of ducks to fly over. Hemingway described the scene in a single paragraph. The sentences started out fairly long as the flock was far away, and then got shorter and shorter as the ducks drew nearer, until finally the sentences in the middle of the paragraph were a single word: Bang. Bang. Then as the surviving members of the flock kept on flying to eventually recede in the distance, the sentences became gradually longer and longer as well. What Hemingway did was use sentence structure to heighten the sensation of the flock drawing nearer then flying away into the distance. Amazing, right? Still, some people will mock his style.
Hemingway had his own unique writing style: easily recognizable but very hard to copy. His style reflected his view of reality. One story is, that if he had to describe a room in one of his books, he would begin in his draft by describing everything about the room, and then, one by one, start removing details until only a few were left – but in the end, those remaining details would be the few that he felt best conveyed the essence of the other details without having to explicitly write them all. Heavy stuff!
Writers manipulate symbols on a page with the intent of triggering thoughts and feelings in a reader’s brain. When you think of it that way, it seems almost magical. But here’s the important point: The success of a writer’s style is based on two people. The writer and the reader.
My next post will be on some writing styles I’ve recently observed in thrillers.