Christine Leonard


When I need to listen to or read plain and clear words that have a way of stealing up on you, I go back to Ernest Hemingway. Many authors do this well, not just Hemingway of course, but when I get bogged down or my mind starts cluttering up, I reach for Hemingway.

An audiobook that I listened to recently was Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, originally published in 1926. It was read by William Hurt but one section I return to is the Introduction, written and read by Colm Toibin. Early on Toibin talks about Hemingway’s style wherein:

“The emotion lived between the lines, buried within the cadences and the rhythms of the sentences. In order to write a plain sentence Hemingway had to feel the emotion and then not parade what he felt or wear it on his sleeve. Instead, he found a way of enticing feeling from the depth, as a fisherman might, or luring it towards him as a matador might, and then allowing it to evade easy capture.”

I found myself thinking about what Toibin was saying as he shared his insights into what made Ernest Hemingway’s writing unique. We are reminded often about the importance of ‘showing, not telling,’ and it’s completely right—we should avoid the trap of explaining everything, thereby denying the reader an opportunity to use his or her imagination.

But Colm Toibin takes this premise to another level, and by so doing exposes the breadth of his wisdom and experience in the craft of telling a story. I think about the rule of ‘showing not telling’ and the risk of overdoing it. Hemingway writes sparingly, leaving clues about the character’s emotions in dialogue and scene descriptions.

Attica Locke does this beautifully in her book “Bluebird, Bluebird”. Locke’s story is built around scene set-ups. The plot gradually unfolds from one scene to the next—bit by bit, without falling into the trap of explaining the breaks in between.

As we write a paragraph, a chapter, or even a story, short or long, how much do we reveal and when? I don’t think anyone can answer this until there are words on a page—to shift around or chop, to read aloud or even dream about.