How to write better sentences, part 3—Parataxis. Or, how to write like Hemingway.

In your writing, do you relate one thing to another, explaining what is cause and what is effect, when one experience ends and another begins, which of two facts is primary and which secondary, or do you place each element on the page alone—each image, sentence, paragraph—and let the reader guess the connection? The first option is formally called hypotaxis, where one element is placed under another (“hypo” meaning beneath, and “taxis” arrangement), and the second, parataxis. I do not think I can offer a better introduction to parataxis than Richard A. Lanham’s, in Analyzing Prose, where he writes,

Whatever units a writer chooses to work with—phrases, clauses, or complete sentences—he or she must relate them equally or unequally. He or she can tell us how they are related—A caused B, B came after A—and thus subordinate one to the other, by cause, time, or whatever, or can simply juxtapose them and leave the relationship up to us.

When Caesar wrote, “I came; I saw; I conquered” (Veni, vidi, vici), he leaving a great deal up to us. We were to infer that, for Caesar, diagnosing the situation (“I saw”) and defeating the enemy (“I conquered”) were no more difficult than simply appearing on the scene (“I came”). He boasts without seeming to by putting three different kinds of action on the same syntactic level. This syntactic democracy is called parataxis.

All writing relies on parataxis to some degree, because often there is no need to spell out a connection—putting one sentence after another is enough. Much narrative action, for instance, inevitably relies on parataxis—unconscious for the writer, unnoticed by the reader—using the forward motion of events to offer the necessary linkage between images and ideas. Here is John Grisham, in The Firm, describing a rogue FBI agent leaving a mobster’s hotel room, his briefcase filled with bribe money, wearing sunglasses to hide his face:

Tarry Ross walked in panic down the hall. He could see little from behind the glasses. Seven doors down, almost to the elevator, a huge hand reached from the darkness and pulled him into the room. The hand slapped him hard, and another fist landed in his stomach. Another fist to the nose. He was on the floor, dazed and bleeding. The briefcase was emptied on the bed.

The action has to move quickly, and we need no placement or explanation other than where exactly the huge hand grabs him (“almost to the elevator”). If we also had commentary and explanation, this would indicate either a distinct narrator commenting from a safe distance, or that Tarry is a very unusual person, with the mental capacity to reflect on what is happening to him while he is getting beaten:

The hand slapped him hard, and another fist landed in his stomach. Another fist to the nose, which brought back in rush Tarry’s school days, and the cafeteria bullies, and their leader, that ogre Kensington, who ended up graduating from Harvard a year ahead of him, and now had two sons and a yacht. He was on the floor, dazed and bleeding. The briefcase was emptied on the bed.

This type of narration is either meant to be ridiculous (although I find it strangely appealing), or we are supposed to sense, very powerfully, an omniscient narrator hovering over events, to whom a fist to her character’s nose is merely another opportunity to reminisce.

Parataxis, therefore, can be a natural, unobtrusive way to tell a story. But its lack of connecting links can also be emphasised, to help a more artistic para-tactician portray confusion and unease, or to describe a scene which itself lacks order. In The Great Gatsby, Nick finds Gatsby’s parties disorientating, and so Fitzgerald has him narrate his impressions in a rambling, disjunctive parataxis.

“You don’t know who we are,” said one of the girls in yellow, “but we met you here about a month ago.”

“You’ve dyed your hair since then,” remarked Jordan and I started but the girls had moved casually on and her remark was addressed to the premature moon, produced like the supper, no doubt, out of a caterer’s basket. With Jordan’s slender golden arm resting in mine we descended the steps and sauntered about the garden. A tray of cocktails floated at us through the twilight and we sat down at a table with the two girls in yellow and three men, each one introduced to us as Mr. Mumble.

It is possible, although more tricky, to write an essay or argument paratactically. Such an essay does not explain—it merely states one maxim or belief after another, and its self-certainty is its proof. Here is D.H. Lawrence, in his unforgettably strange Studies in Classic American Literature.

Liberty is all very well, but men cannot live without masters. There is always a master. And men can either live in glad obedience to the master they believe in, or they live in a frictional opposition to the master they wish to undermine. In American this frictional opposition has been the vital factor. It has given the Yankee his kick. Only the continual influx of more servile Europeans has provided America with an obedient labouring class. The true obedience never outlasting the first generation.

But there sits the old master, over in Europe. Like a parent. Somewhere deep in every American heart lies a rebellion against the old parenthood of Europe. Yet no American feels he has completely escaped its mastery. Hence the slow, smouldering patience of American opposition. The slow, smouldering, corrosive obedience to the old master Europe, the unwilling subject, the unremitting opposition.

Whatever else you are, be masterless.

Lawrence is not interested in explaining his terms, or detailing the process of how one thing leads to another. Although he uses the occasional hypotactic conjunction like “hence,” or “only __ has provided __” (and “It has given the Yankee his kick” contains an implied hypotactic connection between it and the previous sentence), mostly these points are delivered like self-evident facts, and a reader is obliged to accept each of Lawrence’s grim seerings, or close the book. There is no half-reading here; there is no wavering or questioning. And this seried paratactic presentation of things, interpretable but not negotiable, is found in many parts of the Bible, in epic sagas, in much poetry, and in the prose of Ernest Hemingway.

Everyone likes to say that Hemingway’s style gets its power from the “iceberg theory.” This is Hemingway’s claim, in Death in the Afternoon, that “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.” Yet, as Robert Paul Lamb points out, in his excellent study, Art Matters: Hemingway, Craft, and the Creation of the Modern Short Story, as a total explanation of Hemingway’s distinctiveness, the iceberg theory is rather disappointing. All writers omit needless information, even big talkers like Virginia Woolf and William Shakespeare, and all good writers hint at more than they state. And some of Hemingway’s most famous icebergs are probably bogus, such as the short story “Out of Season” in which Hemingway claimed the reader could sense that the Italian guide, Peduzzi, would later hang himself—but, as Lamb points out, Peduzzi was based on a real person, and while that real person did indeed later hang himself, he had not yet done so while Hemingway was fictionalising him. Hem, describing the story decades later, was most likely projecting back accumulated significance into his earlier words. Time was the story’s iceberg, not Ernest’s craft.

No, what in fact gives Hemingway’s prose its signature ring is what Richard Lanham calls his “consistent, philosophically reasoned” and “allegorical” hypotactic style. This style omits explanations (frequently), and emotional reactions (almost always), and it is so consistently used in Hemingway’s early work that Robert Paul Lamb can point out moments in a story like “Indian Camp” where Hemingway breaks his own “rules.” Two of the rules seem to be: if characters ever reflect, they tend to rely on a small set of judging adjectives, such as “good,” or “fine,” or “clean,” (words which obviously conceal actual thoughts and emotions); the narrator almost never explains a character’s actions, “telling” instead through the description of subtle gestures, exterior weather and setting, and juxtapositions. In the story “Cat in the Rain,” every detail, no matter how casual, is like a trapdoor, swinging open to reveal an apparently simple story’s depths. But the reader must push down on each trapdoor him or herself.

Here is the opening of “Cat in the Rain.”

There were only two Americans stopping at the hotel. They did not know any of the people they passed on the stairs on their way to and from their room. Their room was on the second floor facing the sea. It also faced the public garden and the war monument. There were big palms and green benches in the public garden. In the good weather there was always an artist with his easel. Artists liked the way the palms grew and the bright colours of the hotels facing the gardens and the sea. Italians came from a long way off to look up at the war monument. It was made of bronze and glistened in the rain. It was raining. The rain dripped from the palm trees. Water stood in pools on the gravel paths. The sea broke in a long line in the rain and slipped back down the beach to come up and break again in a long line in the rain. The motor cars were gone from the square by the war monument. Across the square in the doorway of the cafe a waiter stood looking out at the empty square.

The American wife stood at the window looking out. Outside right under their window a cat was crouching under one of the dripping green tables.

Notice, in the first sentence, how Hemingway chooses the word “stopping,” and not “staying,” and what the word suggests about his couple. See how he uses propositions to place his images, and how those prepositions add detail to what seems such bare prose. The use of “up” in “Italians came from a long way off to look up at the war monument” almost shows us a real Italian family, their necks craning. And the sentence, “Across the square in the doorway of the cafe a waiter stood looking out at the empty square” gives us the uncanny sequence of getting the American wife’s viewpoint of the cafe’s doorway, and the waiter, in that doorway, and what he sees (“the empty square”). We get a lot for such plain words. And notice how Hemingway zooms his focus in once the rain begins. Before the rain, the scene is described from a distance—“There were big palms and green benches in the public garden.” After it, the wife’s eyes give us a closer view: “The rain dripped from the palm trees. Water stood in pools on the gravel paths.” Hemingway, therefore, is not using parataxis to describe a scene in the same way Fitzgerald uses it. Hemingway is not trying to be eccentric or confusing. Instead, presumably through enormously laboured re-writing, he here creates a paragraph where the reader’s mental eye is directed and guided at every step, where the sea and the rain and the public gardens hint at the main character’s emotions, but without using words like “because” or “therefore,” and without ever stepping into his imaginary world to explain it.

If you are not yet convinced of the difficulty involved in such writing, or you are, and want to try it, I offer the following three-part exercise:

1. Write out the first paragraph of “Cat in the Rain” by hand.

2. Try, from memory, to write it out again, with the goal of getting as much detail and visual information as Hemingway gets into his own paragraph, but without breaking any of the Hemingway rules, i.e. without use of hypotactic explanations or subordination, without recourse to complex “ten dollar” words that would ruin the style’s effect. Don’t worry, if, like me, you find this impossible to achieve. Pause, bow to the master, and then—

3. With the original paragraph in front of you, write a similarly structured opening paragraph for a story of your own, but placed in a very different setting, such as a couple visiting a desert town in Mexico (where, say, there is no rain, only blazing heat). Follow Hemingway’s style as closely as you see fit.

You may now be wondering, if Hemingway’s signature style is not really meant to be disjunctive, and is not meant to ramble like Fitzgerald’s party scene, nor leap from confused claim to claim like Tristram Shandy or Holden Caulfield, nor even to weave a collage of consciousnesses in the mode of Virginia Woolf—where dialogue, action, character’s reflections and metaphysical speculation blend without boundary—why then did he do it? What is the purpose of such a self-consciously paratactic style? On the most simple level, the style directs a reader to the very thing that has been missed out. “Cat in the Rain” prompts us to see what its words do not state—the loneliness of the wife, and the boorish deadness of her husband. Many of Hemingway’s manly imitators confuse the style’s surface with its aim; a story like “Cat in the Rain” is about the emotions it chooses not to describe. And, on a deeper level, Hemingway’s style also implies a deep wound in his characters and narrators. Something is very wrong in the worlds of Hemingway’s fiction: not only that explanation and reflection are no longer possible for the characters, but also that the narrator is no longer able to explain and mediate this state of catastrophe. Then, on a deeper level still, the parataxis of Hemingway gives his fiction a gravity that a more conversational, explaining style cannot offer. When Fitzgerald begins The Great Gatsby with

In my younger and more vulnerable days my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

this is clearly a human voice addressing us. This is a comment on a comment,  a narrator used to weighing and considering, who has no unique handle on Truth and Reality. Someone prepared to tell us a story, but hinting that he is fallible, that he finds himself amusing. Such a narrator does not sound, at least in the sentence I just quoted, spiritual. We feel too easily the speaker’s scampering, flickering ego, his social self chattering and doubtful. In next week’s post, we shall see how Fitzgerald is able to surmount the problems attached to having the fallible Nick narrate, but Hemingway, at least in his early writings, was not interested in such difficulties nor their solutions. Hemingway writes as though operating from some non-mental place, one simultaneously less than fully human (the wounded ego no longer able to make connections or see causes) and yet much more than it (a self that has broken free of ego, free of subjectivity, placing one calm, unjudged fact after another). This is what readers feel is “religious” about Hemingway’s prose. If his perception is “wounded,” then it is a wound that has cleared away some unneeded distractions, that allows for clearer sight. The atheism stated in his characters’ dialogue seems secondary compared the overall Hemingway sensibility, one that simply sees, and knows, and speaks. Parataxis suits the speech of oracles.

Imagine, for instance, that the King James Bible opened not with:

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep.

but with:

Having decided to create the universe, which was the first real act ever, because before then there had been nothing at all, God made first the heaven, and then, later, the earth, because he had to place the earth in something, matter needing space in order to exist.

This sounds too much like a person, and not a deity or a prophet. Perhaps, were I to polish it a lot, it would sound like a rabbi or priest explicating the text of Genesis, but it would not sound like Genesis.

Examples of those spiritual moments in Hemingway are hard to excerpt, however, because, in my experience of reading him, the “religious” sense tends to come on unexpectedly, or build up through the accumulation and repetition of words. The scenes on the beach of San Sebastian in The Sun Also Rises, the climax of A Farewell to Arms, or moments in stories like “Indian Camp,” “In Another Country,” or in this briefest of mini-stories squeezed into In Our Time, eight sentences long, known as interchapter seven:

While the bombardment was knocking the trench to pieces at Fossalta, he lay very flat and sweated and prayed oh jesus christ get me out of here. Dear jesus please get me out. Christ please please please christ. I believe in you and I’ll tell every one in the world that you are the only one that matters. Please please dear jesus. The shelling moved further up the line. We went to work on the trench and in the morning the sun came up and the day was hot and muggy and cheerful and quiet. The next night back at Mestre he did not tell the girl he went upstairs with at the Villa Rossa about Jesus. And he never told anybody.

In lines like “We went to work on the trench and in the morning the sun came up and the day was hot and muggy and cheerful and quiet,” one starts to understand the extravagant praise that Derek Walcott gives Hemingway:

[Hemingway’s prose is an] achievement superior to anything in poetry—I include Pound, I include Eliot, and I include Auden. You cannot align it with anything experimental, even syllabically with Whitman. This is the work of a poet who has arrived at originality at great cost. And finally, it comes into an ease that is the ease present in Troilus and Cressida or any one of the great plays.

Next week: the other taxis—hypotaxis, the art of persuasion, and another look at Hemingway and Fitzgerald.

You can see the introduction to this series here.

4 thoughts on “How to write better sentences, part 3—Parataxis. Or, how to write like Hemingway.

  1. Great article – keep it up!

    I like the comparison of John Grisham to Ernest Hemingway. Having read neither, that doesn’t stop me from pretending to be an expert; while they both exploit the same technique, I think they are used for different purposes: Grisham uses parataxis to strip out excess information and speed up the pace of the action; while Hemingway uses it to force you to ask questions. In my own writing I frequently do it Grisham-style, but I can’t say with certitude that I’ve tried it a-la-Hemingway.

    Looking forward to the next article. I’m off to buy some Hemingway novels…


  2. Thanks, Will. I like your comparison–speed versus questionings. I also think the issue is one of scale. I enjoyed The Firm, but its effects are all big. Can Mitch prevail against the mob and the FBI? It’s exciting because the plotting is (for most of the novel) so merciless towards the protagonist. But on a paragraph by paragraph basis, it doesn’t offer that much. It is written simply because the reader is meant to glide over the words, speeding forward to the next plot twist. Whereas, especially in the short stories, Hemingway is trying to squeeze in a remarkable amount into each paragraph, each line of dialogue. I loved Lamb’s book on him because it walks you through seemingly simple Hemingway stories and vignettes, pointing out each tiny revelation of character. For instance, later in Cat in the Rain, Hemingway writes:

    ‘I’m going down and get that kitty,’ the American wife said.
    ‘I’ll do it,’ her husband offered from the bed.

    Lamb points out that Hemingway includes “from the bed” to show that the husband hasn’t got up to look. He agreeing to help his wife in order to keep ignoring her.

    Thanks for the encouragement with the series! There’s a lot still to come 🙂


  3. Is this what you were studying? Very interesting, I’ve never dissected an article this way before, not to mention implementing it in writing. Thanks for spending time for the series, look forward to the sequels.


  4. Hi Hanjie, yes, partly this is what I studied in the MFA. But it also comes from reading a lot, either books about writing, or seeing a passage in a novel or story and being so amazed that I have to write it out. Then I try to play with it, changing the setting and characters, trying to repeat the technique. I have filled a notebook upstairs with these exercises.


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