The New York Times wrote in 1926 of Hemingway's first novel, "No amount of analysis can convey the quality of The Sun Also Rises. It is a truly gripping story, told in a lean, hard, athletic narrative prose that puts more literary English to shame." The Sun Also Rises is written in the spare, tight prose that made Hemingway famous, and, according to James Nagel, "changed the nature of American writing." In 1954, when Hemingway was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, it was for "his mastery of the art of narrative, most recently demonstrated in The Old Man and the Sea, and for the influence that he has exerted on contemporary style." Paul Smith writes that Hemingway's first stories, collected as In Our Time, showed he was still experimenting with his writing style. He avoided complicated syntax. About 70 percent of the sentences are simple sentences—a childlike syntax without subordination.
|If a writer of prose knows enough of 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 ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.|
|—Ernest Hemingway in Death in the Afternoon|
Henry Louis Gates believes Hemingway's style was fundamentally shaped "in reaction to [his] experience of world war". After World War I, he and other modernists "lost faith in the central institutions of Western civilization" by reacting against the elaborate style of 19th century writers and by creating a style "in which meaning is established through dialogue, through action, and silences—a fiction in which nothing crucial—or at least very little—is stated explicitly."
Developing this connection between Hemingway and other modernist writers, Irene Gammel believes his style was carefully cultivated and honed with an eye toward the avant-garde of the era. Hungry for "vanguard experimentation" and rebelling against Ford Madox Ford's "staid modernism", Hemingway published the work of Gertrude Stein and Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven in The Transatlantic Review. As Gammel notes, Hemingway was "introduced to the Baroness's experimental style during a time when he was actively trimming the verbal 'fat' off his own style, as well as flexing his writer's muscles in assaulting conventional taste."
Because he began as a writer of short stories, Baker believes Hemingway learned to "get the most from the least, how to prune language, how to multiply intensities and how to tell nothing but the truth in a way that allowed for telling more than the truth." Hemingway called his style the iceberg theory: the facts float above water; the supporting structure and symbolism operate out of sight. The concept of the iceberg theory is sometimes referred to as the "theory of omission". Hemingway believed the writer could describe one thing (such as Nick Adams fishing in "The Big Two-Hearted River") though an entirely different thing occurs below the surface (Nick Adams concentrating on fishing to the extent that he does not have to think about anything else).
Jackson Benson believes Hemingway used autobiographical details as framing devices about life in general—not only about his life. For example, Benson postulates that Hemingway used his experiences and drew them out with "what if" scenarios: "what if I were wounded in such a way that I could not sleep at night? What if I were wounded and made crazy, what would happen if I were sent back to the front?" Writing in "The Art of the Short Story", Hemingway explains: "A few things I have found to be true. If you leave out important things or events that you know about, the story is strengthened. If you leave or skip something because you do not know it, the story will be worthless. The test of any story is how very good the stuff that you, not your editors, omit."
|I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard them ... and had read them ... now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity .... Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.|
|—A Farewell to Arms|
The simplicity of the prose is deceptive. Zoe Trodd believes Hemingway crafted skeletal sentences in response to Henry James's observation that World War I had "used up words". Hemingway offers a "multi-focal" photographic reality. His iceberg theory of omission is the foundation on which he builds. The syntax, which lacks subordinating conjunctions, creates static sentences. The photographic "snapshot" style creates a collage of images. Many types of internal punctuation (colons, semicolons, dashes, parentheses) are omitted in favor of short declarative sentences. The sentences build on each other, as events build to create a sense of the whole. Multiple strands exist in one story; an "embedded text" bridges to a different angle. He also uses other cinematic techniques of "cutting" quickly from one scene to the next; or of "splicing" a scene into another. Intentional omissions allow the reader to fill the gap, as though responding to instructions from the author, and create three-dimensional prose.
In his literature, and in his personal writing, Hemingway habitually used the word "and" in place of commas. This use of polysyndeton may serve to convey immediacy. Hemingway's polysyndetonic sentence—or in later works his use of subordinate clauses—uses conjunctions to juxtapose startling visions and images; Jackson Benson compares them to haikus. Many of Hemingway's followers misinterpreted his lead and frowned upon all expression of emotion; Saul Bellow satirized this style as "Do you have emotions? Strangle them." However, Hemingway's intent was not to eliminate emotion, but to portray it more scientifically. Hemingway thought it would be easy, and pointless, to describe emotions; he sculpted collages of images in order to grasp "the real thing, the sequence of motion and fact which made the emotion and which would be as valid in a year or in ten years or, with luck and if you stated it purely enough, always". This use of an image as an objective correlative is characteristic of Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, and Proust. Hemingway's letters refer to Proust's Remembrance of Things Past several times over the years, and indicate he read the book at least twice.