I open Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises at random (chapter 9).

'I haven't seen you since I've been back,' Brett said.
'How are you, Jake?'
Brett looked at me. 'I say,' she said, 'is Robert Cohn going on this trip?'
'Yes. Why?'
'Don't you think it will be a bit rough on him?'
'Why should it?'
'Who did you think I went down to San Sebastian with?'
'Congratulations,' I said.
We walked along.
'What did you say that for?'
'I don't know. What would you like me to say?'
We walked along and turned a corner.
'He behaved rather well, too. He gets a little dull.'
'Does he?'
'I rather thought it would be good for him.'
'You might take up social service.'
'Don't be nasty.'
'I won't.'

It goes on. You see the seeming problem: in theory, there should be some indication of tone, or what they're doing, maybe some gesture, something. But there's nothing. Bare lines of terse dialogue. According to all the rules, it shouldn't work. Only it does, and it's brilliant. We don't need to be told the tone of each phrase - it feels natural, alive. I can hear it, better than I can hear the dialogue in many other novels that "follow the rules".

Why does it work? How does it work? (How does one write like that?)

  • 14
    to be fair, Your Mileage May Vary on how brilliant/natural/readable this is. Personally I hate it. I find it hard to follow, I think it's monotonous, and if I were editing it I would tell the writer "ADD TEXTURE." Gestures, facial expressions, wind, traffic, a dog, scenery, sounds, scents, something. To my ear, this is two robots walking in a gray fog. Commented Jul 7, 2019 at 12:49
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    IMHO it does not work well. Hemingway or not, it feels like talking-heads with random responses that are there to increase word count. The Twilight books have similar dialogues as far as I can recall.
    – NofP
    Commented Jul 7, 2019 at 13:31
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    While I won't reduce it to Twilight..., it's just a script-style page of dialog, and most of the POV character's dialog is just repeating the last thing as a question, or saying "why?"…. I remember watching Eyes Wide Shut and internally screaming "Tom Cruise is dead weight in every scene, All his lines are just repeating the last character's line with a questionmark. This is crap! Omg, DO SOMETHING YOU PASSIVE BORING MC…!!!"
    – wetcircuit
    Commented Jul 7, 2019 at 14:10
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    I can't say this works for me. Perhaps with some earlier context, it might. As it stands, I don't get what they are sparring about. Brett is interested in Robert, Jake doesn't really care or wants to appear not to care, I don't care. I might care if I knew Jake and Brett had some deeper relationship, as lovers, siblings, exes, etc. Brett is given upper-class British sounding phrases. I would make it about three times longer with more context so it could stand alone. This is a typical wall of dialogue. You must have a great imagination, Galastel, because this doesn't assist mine much at all.
    – Amadeus
    Commented Jul 8, 2019 at 20:23
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    @Stefan Yeh, it's chapter 9, so there's stuff before. But all his dialogues are like that: "walls of dialogue" as Amadeus puts it, and it's half-sentences, nothing appears to be being said. It's like it's not even an iceberg, but an underwater reef. Only somehow it all comes together. Commented Jul 9, 2019 at 12:12

4 Answers 4


Hemingway is a great believer in minimalism. Heck, there's a software program named after him which is all about minimising word usage. His style of dialogue is all about inferring tone and whatnot from the words being said and the context. He leaves the hard work, the imagination, up to the reader and in turn focuses more on delivering the bare bones that bring out the theme.

All of the deeper stuff and specifics he leaves under the surface in a technique he calls 'iceberg theory', that is, the biggest weight of the story should never be above the surface and outright exposed, it should lie underneath, between the lines. It's not that he hasn't thought about it as a writer, he just doesn't consider it appropriate to openly expose to the reader.

However, I'm waffling considerably. If I were to channel Hemingway, I'd say this.

Hemingway eschews surplusage.

  • I think this could be improved by explaining the context that's implied, for the passage in the question?
    – Malady
    Commented Jul 7, 2019 at 13:38

To me, here's what's implied by the passage:

  • Brett, a woman, went on a trip hoping for some nookie with Robert Cohn. Robert did not come onto Brett, at least not to the extent she was hoping, and she was disappointed.

    Now Brett is trying to pump Jake for information about Robert. Because she still wants to get Robert in bed. She's also annoyed because Robert is, evidently, going on another trip with someone else.

    And, she's offended that Jake said 'Congratulations,' regarding the trip she went on with Robert, because that implies that Robert is out of her league. Which fits with her paranoia re: Why didn't Robert come onto her? (She gave him every chance, after all, even took him to San Sebastian. How much more obvious could she have been??? San Sebastian!

    Then Jake insults her by implying that if she really wants guys to come onto ladies more easily, she should become a prostitute.

    And she smacks him verbally for that.

^^ that's the subtext I see.

Galastel, you asked why is it brilliant?

Maybe it is, maybe it isn't, everyone will have their own response, but my Answer is this:

It's brilliant because it engages a different part of the brain. It requires active reading and putting pieces together.

Additional answer: Stories that excite different parts of the brain at different times and with different intensities in an orchestrated way are generally more fully realized. To me this means better.

It's also fairly obvious that Hemingway users every word intentionally. Ex: Brett could be a man's name, so he gives the tag, 'she said.' That's an example of intention to word usage.

EDIT: I've seen some of this boom-boom-boom done (with the leapfrog-type, subtext-type dialog) done in smaller chunks by modern writers. Example: First third of page 13 in How to Stop Time (look inside on Amazon.). You aren't really sure what they're talking about, but the feel of it is immediate, they know what they're talking about, and you want to be in on the secret, whatever it is. I think it can work well and is a useful way to inject a little almost-intrigue.


This style of dialog works for Hemingway specifically because he's a master of minimalism. As he detailed in his Iceberg Theory, he was always very aware of everything he left out. For that reason the things in his work have a three dimensionality that less fully realized minimalist work can lack. If you really want to try to write in this style, I would first write out the full story with all the tone and gestures and descriptions included, and only then, when finished, go back and edit them all out.

Once you get on a great artist's wavelength, they can break all kinds of rules. I recently read a classic Ursula LeGuin novel (The Disposessed) and was struck by how abstract and intellectual it was --how little sensual detail, or even dialogue it included. That doesn't mean it will work for you. That's not to say you can't become a great artist, it means you can't be one while imitating someone else. The rules your soul tells you to break won't be the same ones Hemingway breaks.

  • "you can't become a great artist by imitating someone else": I know. It's just that I'm going over the fourth draft of a short story about a bullfighter. It's such a Hemingway theme, it's begging to be a Hemingway tribute. If I can make that work. Commented Jul 10, 2019 at 18:18
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    I tried to get that across myself by mentioning that it's not as if he hasn't thought about the missing things, just didn't think it was appropriate to say. But you said it better than I. Commented Jul 10, 2019 at 19:19
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    @MatthewDave I voted yours up --I realized after I completed mine that you had covered a lot of the same territory. But I wanted to include some specific actionable advice. Commented Jul 10, 2019 at 20:59
  • @Galastel - And actually, imitation can be great learning. I actually decided to edit my statement a little. Commented Jul 10, 2019 at 21:08

Fragments are acceptable in dialogue. I believe the first-person POV, terse statements, and intermittent context clues keep the conversation from becoming ambiguous. This approach would collapse upon itself if more than two people were engaged in the conversation.

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