The novel is well known for its style, which is variously described as modern, hard-boiled, or understated. As a novice writer and journalist in Paris, Hemingway turned to Ezra Pound—who had a reputation as "an unofficial minister of culture who acted as mid-wife for new literary talent"—to mark and blue-ink his short stories. From Pound, Hemingway learned to write in the modernist style: he used understatement, pared away sentimentalism, and presented images and scenes without explanations of meaning, most notably at the book's conclusion, in which multiple future possibilities are left for Brett and Jake.[note 3] The scholar Anders Hallengren writes that because Hemingway learned from Pound to "distrust adjectives," he created a style "in accordance with the esthetics and ethics of raising the emotional temperature towards the level of universal truth by shutting the door on sentiment, on the subjective."
F. Scott Fitzgerald told Hemingway to "let the book's action play itself out among its characters." Hemingway scholar Linda Wagner-Martin writes that, in taking Fitzgerald's advice, Hemingway produced a novel without a central narrator: "Hemingway's book was a step ahead; it was the modernist novel." When Fitzgerald advised Hemingway to trim at least 2500 words from the opening sequence, which was 30 pages long, Hemingway wired the publishers telling them to cut the opening 30 pages altogether. The result was a novel without a focused starting point, which was seen as a modern perspective and critically well received.
|Each time he let the bull pass so close that the man and the bull and the cape that filled and pivoted ahead of the bull were all one sharply etched mass. It was all so slow and so controlled. It was as though he were rocking the bull to sleep. He made four veronicas like that ... and came away toward the applause, his hand on his hip, his cape on his arm, and the bull watching his back going away.|
|—bullfighting scene from The Sun Also Rises |
Wagner-Martin speculates that Hemingway may have wanted to have a weak or negative hero as defined by Edith Wharton, but he had no experience creating a hero or protagonist. At that point his fiction consisted of extremely short stories, not one of which featured a hero. The hero changed during the writing of The Sun Also Rises: first the matador was the hero, then Cohn was the hero, then Brett, and finally Hemingway realized "maybe there is not any hero at all. Maybe a story is better without any hero." Balassi believes that in eliminating other characters as the protagonist, Hemingway brought Jake indirectly into the role of the novel's hero.
As a roman à clef, the novel bases its characters on living people, causing scandal in the expatriate community. Hemingway biographer Carlos Baker writes that "word-of-mouth of the book" helped sales. Parisian expatriates gleefully tried to match the fictional characters to real identities. Moreover, he writes that Hemingway used prototypes easily found in the Latin Quarter on which to base his characters. The early draft identified the characters by their living counterparts; Jake's character was called Hem, and Brett's was called Duff.
Although the novel is written in a journalistic style, Frederic Svoboda writes that the striking thing about the work is "how quickly it moves away from a simple recounting of events." Jackson Benson believes that Hemingway used autobiographical details as framing devices for life in general. For example, Benson says that Hemingway drew out his experiences 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?" Hemingway believed that the writer could describe one thing while an entirely different thing occurs below the surface—an approach he called the iceberg theory, or the theory of omission.
|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.|
|—Hemingway explained the iceberg theory in Death in the Afternoon (1932).|
Balassi says Hemingway applied the iceberg theory better in The Sun Also Rises than in any of his other works, by editing extraneous material or purposely leaving gaps in the story. He made editorial remarks in the manuscript that show he wanted to break from the stricture of Gertrude Stein's advice to use "clear restrained writing." In the earliest draft, the novel begins in Pamplona, but Hemingway moved the opening setting to Paris because he thought the Montparnasse life was necessary as a counterpoint to the later action in Spain. He wrote of Paris extensively, intending "not to be limited by the literary theories of others, [but] to write in his own way, and possibly, to fail." He added metaphors for each character: Mike's money problems, Brett's association with the Circe myth, Robert's association with the segregated steer. It wasn't until the revision process that he pared down the story, taking out unnecessary explanations, minimizing descriptive passages, and stripping the dialogue, all of which created a "complex but tightly compressed story."
Hemingway said that he learned what he needed as a foundation for his writing from the style sheet for The Kansas City Star, where he worked as cub reporter.[note 4] The critic John Aldridge says that the minimalist style resulted from Hemingway's belief that to write authentically, each word had to be carefully chosen for its simplicity and authenticity and carry a great deal of weight. Aldridge writes that Hemingway's style "of a minimum of simple words that seemed to be squeezed onto the page against a great compulsion to be silent, creates the impression that those words—if only because there are so few of them—are sacramental." In Paris Hemingway had been experimenting with the prosody of the King James Bible, reading aloud with his friend John Dos Passos. From the style of the biblical text, he learned to build his prose incrementally; the action in the novel builds sentence by sentence, scene by scene and chapter by chapter.
The simplicity of his style is deceptive. Bloom writes that it is the effective use of parataxis that elevates Hemingway's prose. Drawing on the Bible, Walt Whitman and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Hemingway wrote in deliberate understatement and he heavily incorporated parataxis, which in some cases almost becomes cinematic. His skeletal sentences were crafted in response to Henry James's observation that World War I had "used up words," explains Hemingway scholar Zoe Trodd, who writes that his style is similar to a "multi-focal" photographic reality. The syntax, which lacks subordinating conjunctions, creates static sentences. The photographic "snapshot" style creates a collage of images. Hemingway omits internal punctuation (colons, semicolons, dashes, parentheses) in favor of short declarative sentences, which are meant to build, as events build, to create a sense of the whole. He also uses techniques analogous to cinema, such as cutting quickly from one scene to the next, or splicing one 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. Biographer James Mellow writes that the bullfighting scenes are presented with a crispness and clarity that evoke the sense of a newsreel.
Hemingway also uses color and visual art techniques to convey emotional range in his descriptions of the Irati River. In Translating Modernism: Fitzgerald and Hemingway, Ronald Berman compares Hemingway's treatment of landscape with that of the post-Impressionist painter Paul Cézanne. During a 1949 interview, Hemingway told Lillian Ross that he learned from Cézanne how to "make a landscape." In comparing writing to painting he told her, "This is what we try to do in writing, this and this, and woods, and the rocks we have to climb over." The landscape is seen subjectively—the viewpoint of the observer is paramount. To Jake, landscape "meant a search for a solid form .... not existentially present in [his] life in Paris."