Examples of Writing Styles: Howard and Hemingway
As a quick example, to show certain differences between writing styles, let’s take a look at an excerpt from Robert E. Howard’s tale of Conan the Barbarian, called 'The Thing in the Crypt', and part of The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway.
Howard’s stories of Conan belonged to the genre known as ‘Sword and Sorcery’, which pretty much describes its nature completely. These were straightforward action stories featuring simple-minded warriors battling hideous creatures, with an emphasis on direct, vicarious sensation. This isn’t a criticism: readers lapped them up, and Howard was partly responsible for the creation of the whole wider genre of fantasy fiction which is still thriving today - indeed, the current popularity of writers like George R. R. Martin’s material owes much to these 1930s pulp fiction tales as far as a fiction heritage goes. What we’re interested in here is the style of the language on that page - what was it attempting to do and how did it do it?
Here’s a passage from the story in question: Conan, a young fighter from the mythical land of Cimmeria, has escaped slavery and been pursued by wolves through a wintery forest. Exahusted, he finds shelter in a narrow opening among rocks which opens out to reveal a hidden chamber, full of bones and treasures, one of which is a mighty sword lying across the skeletal remains of a giant figure sitting dead on a throne. Conan is grateful for the sword, which he takes from the skeleton’s bony grasp - and that’s where our extract begins:
Slowly, jerkily, the cadaver rose from its great stone chair and glared at him from its black pits, whence now living eyes seemed to blaze forth with a coldly malignant stare. Somehow - by what primeval necromancy the boy Conan could not guess - life still animated the withered mummy of the long-dead chief. Grinning jaws moved open and shut in a fearful pantomime of speech. But the only sound was the creaking that Conan had heard, as if the shrivelled remains of muscles and tendons rubbed dryly together. To Conan, this silent imitation of speech was more terrible than the fact that the dead man lived and moved.
The thing of interest to us here is Howard’s emphasis on colourful and descriptive adjectives and adverbs. The author is telling the reader what to think; his brush-strokes are heavy and meant to be obvious. To make this clear, look at the same extract with all descriptive adjectives and adverbs removed:
The cadaver rose from its chair and glared at him from its pits, whence now eyes seemed to blaze forth with a stare. Somehow - by what necromancy the boy Conan could not guess - life still animated the mummy of the chief. Jaws moved open and shut in a pantomime of speech. But the only sound was the creaking that Conan had heard, as if the remains of muscles and tendons rubbed together. To Conan, this imitation of speech was more terrible than the fact that the man lived and moved.
Immediately, the colour and passion of the language drops - but astute readers will note also how the lack of adjectives and adverbs compels the reader to imagine the scene more for themselves. In other words, instead of the authorial presence of Howard telling us that the creature’s stare was ‘coldly malignant’, for example, we just get ’a stare’. Of course, readers of this kind of story want the author to tell them that the stare was coldly malignant, just as they revel in the descriptive words ‘primeval’, ‘withered’ ‘long-dead’ ‘fearful’ ‘shrivelled’ and ‘silent’. Removing them changes the whole flavour of the extract.
By way of a reverse example, here’s the piece from Hemingway, whose style was noted for its clipped and colourless nature:
In the morning I walked down the Boulevard to the rue Soufflot for coffee and brioche. It was a fine morning. The horse-chestnut trees in the Luxembourg gardens were in bloom. There was the pleasant early-morning feeling of a hot day. I read the papers with the coffee and then smoked a cigarette. The flower-women were coming up from the market and arranging their daily stock. Students went by going up to the law school, or down to the Sorbonne. The Boulevard was busy with trams and people going to work.
What descriptive adjectives or adverbs are present here? ‘Fine’ and ‘pleasant’ are about it. Nothing particularly passionate there. Could we add some? Let’s see:
In the bright morning I walked swiftly down the busy Boulevard to the rue Soufflot for fresh coffee and crispy brioche. It was a fine, sunny morning. The tall and colourful horse-chestnut trees in the Luxembourg gardens were in bloom. There was the pleasant early-morning feeling of a hot day. I read the papers with the sweet coffee and then smoked a welcome cigarette. The young, talkative flower-women were coming slowly up from the market and adroitly arranging their daily stock. Students went by going up to the pale law school, or down to the golden Sorbonne. The Boulevard was busy with many trams and pre-occupied people going to work.
The extra ‘bounce’ in this altered extract is noticeable, but what we have to pay attention to is that the bounce comes from the (new) author, just as it did in the Howard passage: the author is using adjectives and adverbs to tell the reader more precisely what to think. It’s as though the author is acting as a playwright and the descriptive words are like stage directions, making sure that the reader’s attention is directed very exactly from point to point.
In Hemingway’s original, untampered-with piece, though the morning is ‘fine’ and the feeling ‘pleasant’, there is more reader-freedom: Hemingway is sketching an impressionist picture of the scene, with minimal stage directions for the audience’s attention.
There is no intention here to say that one author is ‘better’ than another, simply to point out their differing styles and what that means. Just as some viewers prefer paintings from the Romantic period, where emotions are conveyed through the colourful images portrayed, while some like Impressionist pictures, which give only the outline of a scene with little detail, so there are readers who relish passionate description as compared to those who prefer to fill in the gaps themselves.
There’s much more to be said about all of this, and no doubt it will be said in due course. But as an exercise now, try to find a passage in a work of fiction in which the author is telling you what to see and how to think and feel about it; then try to find one where the author is more minimalistic and where the language gives you as a reader more freedom to imagine, or not, what is occurring.