Home » Writing Advice » The “Iceberg Theory” of Writing

The “Iceberg Theory” of Writing

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

Ernest Hemingway coined this theory when he determined that by omitting parts of a story, details that the writer and reader both inherently know, the story’s prose will the shortened and strengthened. He believed that writing in this fashion forms a stronger bond with the reader because the author has confidence that the reader is knowledgeable and intuitive enough to pick up on the pieces that were omitted. This led Hemingway to feel that the true meaning of the story should not glisten on the surface, but rather be found inherently embedded within the structure of the story.

The “iceberg theory” describes that only 10-20% of the story is directly revealed through prose. In comparison to an actual iceberg, that is usually the portion of the floating ice mountain that is visible above water. The other 80-90% of the story lies behind the scenes and is integrated in the structure of the story.  This is akin to the remainder of the iceberg that is located underwater: the part that is not visible on the surface of the sea.

(c) AlexandreHenryAlves

(c) AlexandreHenryAlves

While this is a brilliant theory, it must be used with caution. As a writer, you must instinctively understand where to draw the line in the story of what your readers inherently know and what does not warrant to be repeated or drafted into detail. A writer cannot cut apart his or her story with a sharp knife, omitting all details. The story will lose its structure, its value, its poetry. A writer needs to balance how much detail to give the reader and how much to withhold, ingraining the omitted details within the story’s structure itself. A bond must be forged with the readers and then, and only then, can the writer determine how much to give to the reader superficially and how much to bury deep within the text.

Hemingway said that only the tip of the iceberg showed in fiction—your reader will see only what is above the water—but the knowledge that you have about your character that never makes it into the story acts as the bulk of the iceberg. And that is what gives your story weight and gravitas.  —Jenna Blum in The Author at Work, 2013

In The Art of the Short Story, Hemingway was quoted, “You could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.” In other words, the reader will feel a deeper connection to the story because they had to use their knowledge to understand the items that were omitted. This, in turn, allows the reader to trust the author because the author knows their readers are smart enough to comprehend the work and not have every little concept spelled out in detail.

As an author, play around with your stories and understand the balance to your prose. Too much omission will leave a story weak and difficult to understand or to see the whole picture. Too much detail will bore or irritate the reader. The author must find the balance of the perfect level of omission to keep the “iceberg” from inverting.

What are your thoughts on Hemingway’s “Iceberg Theory” of writing?




25 thoughts on “The “Iceberg Theory” of Writing

  1. I can’t talk about fiction, but business writers could learn a lot from this theory. So many bog us down in endless detail that serves little purpose beyond evidence that the writer understands his/her subject.

    • Great point, Dan! I spent many years as a technical writer, and with business writing it is crucial to pair down to only the most necessary details. Everything else is just “fluff”.

  2. I believe that less is more, but you have to know when to do that…when to omit and when to leave in, or even add to.

  3. This all makes perfect sense to me – as with everything, balance is critical. I actually really liked the idea proposed by Hemingway in the Art of the Short Story section. By giving your reader “credit” for figuring out what’s going on without actually saying it – to require them to use their own knowledge to put the pieces together – I think that is an ingenious way of establishing a very positive and trusting relationship with your reader.

    And I agree with both Dan and Marcy – I know many people in the business world that would do well to adopt this advice, and less is definitely more. Well done, Amanda 🙂

  4. Aloha Amanda,

    Good thought provoking piece.

    I have long thought that selecting what to include and what to omit is at the heart of good storytelling. Of course the art is in the deciding.

    My stories are not so much on the pages as in the fictional dream of the reader. It is in that dream that the story happens. Ideally my words should guide the dream but never disturb it.

    Some words are needed to gently guide the dream, these words are pushing things into the reader’s mind and should be few. Other words have the task of pulling memories and emotions up in the reader’s mind, from these the fictional dream is woven. Both are required, but pulling is where I think the dream value is.

    Done well the reader will dream my story and fill in so much more than I could ever have written. Will the readers dream the same story I wrote? I would be shocked if they did. That is okay, as long as they read and dream.

    Do I have any idea what I’m talking about? Of course not. But occasionally it does work.

    A Hui Hou (until next time),

    • Aloha Wayne!
      What a beautiful and intriguing comment. Yes, the art of writing this balance is all in deciding what should stay and what should go.

      I completely understand what you are talking about in regards to writing influencing a reader’s’ dreams. As a dark fiction writer, I heavily rely on my readers dreams (or nightmares) to influence *their* interpretation of my story. Their minds are going to conjure up something more horrific than what I could ever put down on paper. However, I see my writing as the catalyst for their dream realm inspiration.

      I don’t believe that readers dream the same story that you or I write. Our writing influences their imaginations and from that point their dreams take flight off to a land that we authors didn’t even visualize. Each reader’s journey is going to be unique and spellbinding.

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  8. I agree every reader has a different experience or “dream” as their own interpretation of a story, but really it is an economy of scale. If the writer uses as few words as possible explaining exactly how He/she feels in the story, the description boils a distilled message, easily interpretated for each reader, giving them the opportunity to relate these true forms into their own story or dream. The writer gains trust by not wasting the readers time and helping them think. I could go on but I won’t.

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  14. Sure, I get it…I really do…the iceberg method. However, sometimes I find it helps to go into detail (as long as you don’t go overboard except for comedic purposes). When a character has a unique way of looking at something most readers should be familiar with then I go into detail. Other times…like, for example, if a character is showering and nothing of interest happens except that he is, then why detail it? Don’t. But if he’s showering after driving 400 miles home to be with his mother after she’s been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and the air conditioner died half way there on a super hot summer day in a post global warming world. Then maybe detail the shower. Especially if it’s the most refreshing thing in the world at that point in the character’s life. The thing is…you have to know what the reader will find interesting and either A) say the least amount necessary to be 1) interesting and 2) relevant or B) go off on a comedic tangent detailing everything (if comedy is what you’re going for).

    The iceberg method is relative. If you’re only telling 10% and you could tell 500,000 words then only tell 50,000. And so on. It doesn’t mean shorter. It means shorter by comparison to what could have been. Some things really do require detail on the page…some do not. What should be on the page should be interesting to the reader and relevant to the plot. If not…that’s why there’s a delete key (or a “sup” key on my French keyboard).

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