Short sentences can open the door to the imagination; they can also close it

When Ernest Hemingway advocated short sentences – first on his list of four good-writing rules – he wasn’t advocating a drum roll of facts. On the contrary, his short statements omitted as much as they revealed which is exactly what gave them substance and depth. To illustrate his point, Hemingway once told a story in only six words:

For sale: baby shoes, never used.

What we know in this miniscule story is that never used baby shoes are for sale. What we guess though is that something happened to the baby before it got to wear its shoes. That the shoes are for sale suggests need, a grieving mother who cannot afford to keep even this memento of the child for whom the shoes were intended. What is left to our imaginations adds to the depth and interest of the tiny story.

The trouble with short sentences is they can just as easily slam the door on the imagination. We recently picked up a copy of TWILIGHT by Stephanie Meyer. This book opens with a short paragraph – Hemingway’s second rule is that opening graphs should be short – constructed of short sentences. Here, the sentences are entirely literal.

My mother drove me to the airport with the windows rolled down. It was seventy-five degrees in Phoenix, the sky a perfect, cloudless blue. I was wearing my favorite shirt – sleeveless, white eyelet lace; I was wearing it as a farewell gesture. My carry-on item was a parka.

All that we found to ponder here was why a favorite shirt might be a farewell gesture. The parka is explained in the next paragraph. By the time we had read several pages of this book, we felt beaten over the head by the relentless rollout of facts. Granted this is a young adult book, but young adults, as much as we don’t like to think about what they imagine, have imaginations too. The writing in TWILIGHT – we say nothing about the hugely successful plot – doesn’t seem to call on them much.

By contrast, here is the opening graph from another young adult novel, ALLIGATOR BAYOU by Donna Jo Napoli:

The night is so dark, I can barely see my hands. It’s eerie. As if Cirone and I are made of nothing but air.

One can only wonder who the narrator is or why he/she is out in the dark with somebody named Cirone, not a common American name. And aren’t you curious why the two of them seem to be made of nothing but air?

Hemingway’s other two rules for good writing are: Use vigorous English and Be positive, not negative. He doesn’t say anything about holding back a little information here and there – but maybe he should have.