Hemingway, A Master of Less Is More, More or Less

Ernest Hemingway was the master of saying a lot with less.  Everything I read suggests novice writers—and some published writers—use too many words to get their point across. They use  too many explanations; they do too much telling rather than showing. Not for Hemingway, the use of unnecessary adjectives and adverbs.  Nor did his writing suffer from too long descriptions of settings and characters. In other words, he determined that less is more.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’ve been reading the master, Stephen King. His book 11/22/63 has kept me up the last few nights. It’s not so much that I need to keep turning the page, but rather it’s because I can’t wait to get to the end so I can read some other book.  Much as I admire his ability to weave compelling stories, I wish he had told this one with less words. His novel could easily be used as a doorstop. It’s humungous at 842 pages. Too big for me to carry on a trip. This would’ve been a good one for an e-reader.

As for keeping things simple, it’s the same advice teachers of other art forms give. In acting, less is often more. I still remember reading about Meryl Streep’s bravura performance in Sophie’s Choice. She was in a concentration camp scene and someone asked her what she’d been thinking at the time the scene was shot and she said she was thinking what she was going to have for dinner that night. Her answer was reasonable. No matter what pain the character may have been feeling, she also could’ve been thinking about dinner, and in those circumstances, even more so. The point is, she didn’t overact and scrunch her face up in agony. She was in the moment.  She allowed the music and her stillness to convey her despair. We, the audience, filled in the blanks. Much as we do when we read a book. Whatever is missing, we fill in, as long as there’s a coherent story and the tension is enough to keep us delving further.

How often I’ve stood in front of one of my paintings not knowing if there is something more I could add, something that would make it appealing to the viewer. But again, if the composition isn’t there in the first place or the colors are all wrong, or the technique faulty, it wouldn’t matter what I’d add, it would still be a lousy piece of art. But here too, less is more. Picasso once said—more or less—not only do you need to know how to begin, you also need to know when to stop.

I think Hemingway had it right. Less is more. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

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4 thoughts on “Hemingway, A Master of Less Is More, More or Less

  1. Bill Martin

    Less is more when reading too, which proves the value of this post! Trying to find a writer’s voice has been a problem for me. As the son of sons of journalists with an overreaching appetite for literature, well, the problems just begin there. Hemingway, whose approach you painted in relief with skillful simplicity, is a great example. (I don’t think he’d like that sentence.) Thank you for the encouragement. I hope to read more of your posts.

  2. Bryan

    Hi Diana –
    I’m a little late (a few years) for the party on this one – I found this post via the current one on Hemingway.
    It occurs to me that less is more in listening to books on CDs with regard to the reader’s speed. I seem to remember hearing that the brain processes spoken words better if they are spoken rapidly, at least relatively so, and for me that’s certainly true of spoken books.
    And old movie partisan that I am, it’s also striking how much story they could get into less time and with far fewer technical and financial resources back then, in contrast to today’s homogenized, bloated offerings. Another case of less-is-more.

    1. Diana Stevan Post author

      Never too late, Bryan. It is amazing isn’t it? I find when I read, I like to cut to the chase. If there is too much description of anything or some deviation from the main plot, I tend to drift. I want to get on with it. This is something I’ve taken away from Hemingway’s books. Though at times, I could use more detail, he at least provided an excellent framework for storytelling. And yes, old movies packed in a lot in a very short time, compared to some of today’s stories on film.

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