When Ernest Hemingway was a young reporter, he filed stories from Europe for the Toronto Star. Many of them chronicled the struggles of various European countries to recover their stability following the catastrophe of WWI. Here, he observes the movement of refugees from Eastern Thrace to Macedonia. Later he turned it into fiction.
Take a look at the two versions:
In the Star dispatches, the purely informational terms and phrases are there because he was writing journalism; his primary responsibility was to convey objective information clearly and directly. And though his reporting had an aesthetic edge to it, to create emotion was not his job.
By contrast, look what happened when he “repurposed” the passage in his first volume of fiction, In Our Time. What differences to you see? Which version do you find more moving? More purely informative?
If you are a fiction writer, seeing these passages displayed side by side should confirm what you’ve learned and are still learning: fiction is about feeling, sensation, and meaning, as well as finding ways to “inform” readers emotionally, through subtext, nuance, indirection, misdirection, and all the other “secrets” of the trade.
The dual display should also contain a powerful message for experienced nonfiction writers hoping to cross over into fiction. To you folks––reporters, academics, columnists––who are already confident, experienced writers, I can only say: don’t let your experience work against you. Fiction is truly another country. Take some time and care to learn its ways.
Want some more?
Here’s an interesting example of what Hemingway did with some news reports not his own. Oronte, blogging on Inside Higher Ed, zeros in on the reporting behind one of the most startling passages Hemingway wrote for in our time, the execution of the Greek ministers.
Michael Reynolds (the greatest of the Hemingway biographers), who was an intrepid researcher, produced two news reports of the event. The first is quaint, almost silly in its determination to flaunt the ministers’ elegant bravado in the face of death. Hemingway was an experienced enough war correspondent by then to know it could not happen that way. He fixed on the second report (from the New York Times), which is pretty grim reading.
I won’t put them side by side, but you can check it out by going here, where Oronte, the blogger, quotes liberally from all sources. He also quotes the finished Hemingway passage in its entirety, and I’ll include that here (it’s short). Notice how it wouldn’t work as journalism: there’s hardly any factual information, names, times, places, etc. The story seems to be all about sensations, obsessed with puddles of water, the rain, the shutters. This is not reporting. What it is is great fiction writing:
They shot the six cabinet ministers at half-past six in the morning against the wall of a hospital. There were pools of water in the courtyard. There were wet dead leaves on the paving of the courtyard. It rained hard. All the shutters of the hospital were nailed shut. One of the ministers was sick with typhoid. Two soldiers carried him downstairs and out into the rain. They tried to hold him up against the wall but he sat down in a puddle of water. The other five stood very quietly against the wall. Finally the officer told the soldiers it was no good trying to make him stand up. When they fired the first volley he was sitting down in the water with his head on his knees.