Ernest Hemingway. The author of great books such as A Farewell to Arms is known to many as a classic writer distinct in his simple and minimal style. While many authors of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries wrote in elaborate and flowery styles, spicing their stories with commentary and observations on their own worlds, Ernest Hemingway stuck to a style like a movie. He never gave away his own thoughts or feelings on the story but focused on the story itself. If you loved one of his characters, it was because you watched that character in action and saw the smile he passed you in the end—not because of his inner self-talk or because of any subjective feelings Hemingway passed along to you.
Hemingway was great at what he did. I’m not going to deny that, or the fact that he demonstrated that sometimes the best stories are told without any subjectivity at all. He earned his popularity and his place in the classics. Unfortunately, there was a dark side to all of this which is still heavily in play today.
In all my training as a writer, I grew up understanding that Hemingway’s style was the right style, that departing and giving my own thoughts in a text—or jumping into a character’s head with an emotional outburst—was improper. I felt I had to be a reporter in my stories, an impartial observer who watched the characters with the eyes of a hawk and wrote everything I saw. That’s a popular philosophy among fiction writers.
Popular—but dead wrong.
Years ago, when I published my novella Automaton and skimmed through the reviews, I saw that all of my criticisms had the same thing in common. For some reason, readers were not connecting with my characters on an emotional level. I didn’t understand why. The protagonist fit a popular demographic. I certainly connected. But somewhere along the line, I had lost something. Something was left out.
I wondered at first if I had over-edited the emotion out of the story. But no, most of my edits were solid improvements, and I could stand to make more. I wondered if I hadn’t thought about it enough or if I needed to work out an emotional through-line that would match the plot better. I felt drawn to a dead end.
I started experimenting. I tried to write with no filter. I did some free-writing and left in every impulse I had to blurt. And then I read over my free-writing and found the good parts. I tried to work out why those parts were so interesting and engaging, at times better than my more polished projects. Then I read. I revisited some of my favorite books. I typed pages of classic scenes with the open books by my side. By the time I realized the truth, I couldn’t believe it had taken me so much time (years!) to notice it.
Hemingway was a great writer—but he wasn’t the great writer. His style worked for him, but that didn’t make it perfect or necessarily right for me. My stories came to life when I included emotion. I could jump inside of Suzy Jane’s head and describe the scene she was hoping—begging, praying!—to play out before letting Jimmy burst her mental bubble in the next paragraph.
My stories largely play out in the mind. I needed my style to reflect that. Since I’ve worked on destroying my earlier inhibition from letting my voice interfere with my narratives and opening up on how my characters are feeling and what they’re going through, my scenes have grown much stronger.
The moral of the story, if I’m going to have one, is that emotion is a good thing in fiction. You’re not Ernest Hemingway. You can write in your own style and use your own voice, and you’ll gain authenticity in addition to strengthening the bond between reader and character.
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