“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, 1932
Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory, also called the “theory of omission,” is a concept that has fascinated me. What exactly is he talking about when he compares writing to an iceberg? Many have asserted that he is discussing theme. Hemingway had a minimalistic style and believed the deeper meaning of a story should shine through without being apparent on the surface. In other words, what lurks in the iceberg beneath the superficial plot? What unspoken nightmares and desires drive the characters onward? In some ways, this is an extreme iteration of the “show, don’t tell” rule writers are encouraged to follow, a rule we should all be familiar with. In this case, what is not said is just as important as what is. Negative space is important in art; it is equally important in writing.
I don’t disagree with this analysis of the Iceberg Theory, but I prefer to apply it on a deeper level past the overarching theme and into the cellular realm — details. The paints in an author’s pallet.
“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
I couldn’t agree more with Jenna. As a fantasy author, I would assert that the beauty and believability of world-building is based on an entire network of details the reader often never notices. The reader doesn’t need to know most of these rules as long as the writer consistently follows them. You are allowed to bend and break the laws of our universe, but your new universe must have its own laws to abide by. I could deviate on a lengthy tangent here, but I’d like to do a future post about Tolkien’s primary and secondary world-building, so I’ll digress for now with Hemingway’s assertion that omitting things because the writer does not know them creates hollow places in the writing.
Details are something I obsess over. If you ever catch me staring off into space (which happens rather frequently), I’m probably churning an idea around and around in my head until I’ve untangled the logic behind it and found a place to tuck it neatly into the files of my universe. I have a journal filled with notes that have no place in the novel itself but allow me to better understand my characters and keep my details stable.
Mastering the Iceberg Theory is like crossing a chasm on a tightrope. As a novice writer, I had a tendency to justify every detail, cluttering the story with extraneous words while leaving almost nothing to the imagination of the reader. My edits involved a lot of surgery followed by a meticulous approach to subtlety, which entailed implications and foreshadowing in place of outright explanations. I came to think of it as a game; I was hiding clues for the attentive readers while skimmers could still grasp the story as a whole without confusion. If you read Book I, you’ll reach the end without thinking twice about the small things like a date on a penny. If you finish the series and re-read Book I again, you’ll have “ah-ha!” moments when you realize those miniscule details that seemed so irrelevant at the time actually alluded to a future character, a backstory, or information about another world. Every detail should be carefully placed. One of the masters to study is J.K. Rowling, who supported a fantasy world on the iceberg “bulk” of history, characters, laws, and details that have kept Harry Potter fans invested years after the last book and movie were released. Her history is so rich that we’ve entered the Fantastic Beasts era and can recognize character names and places despite the time gap.
A frustrating problem with the iceberg method is that subtlety is easily bypassed if a reader isn’t paying close attention. An example: I was receiving a critique of a short story vignette told in first person point-of-view. The narrator’s name was Sam, which could be masculine or feminine. I alluded to Sam’s femininity with subtle lines such as this one: “My whole body is cold, even though creeping beads of sweat tickle my cleavage and cause my shirt to stick to my back.” Despite the fact that Sam has breasts, half of my beta readers wasted time debating her gender instead of focusing on the conflict because they skipped over that detail without drawing a conclusion about the character. I leaned back in my chair feeling like I’d failed as a writer.
This happened again when I wrote about a pair of children encountering a silent man in the woods:
“There’s a quiet creaking. At first, we thought it was the old boughs bending inward so the trees could watch us. He sways gently from side to side. His suit is worn at the elbows, shoes scuffed, attire wrong for the outdoors. One of his crow friends glides down and returns to his shoulder to keep him company. It blinks at us with beady eyes as black as wet ink. The rope continues to creak.”
— Sara A. Noë in “In the Clearing,” 2016
I consciously rejected being blunt and saying, “He hung himself.” I didn’t mention the word death once. But the majority of my audience listening to the reading completely missed that critical piece. I pondered the majesty of the Iceberg Theory and my apparent failure to correctly implement it. For my style to be effective, I needed focused readers who could reread, who could analyze the words, and who weren’t bound by time constraints. In today’s fast-paced society, those necessary conditions complicate the practicality of the theory.
Another issue with omission is speculation. Writers form clear images in their minds. The magic is using words to transmit those images to the mind of a reader. Omitting too much will leave gaps the reader must fill in, and those ideas may drastically differ from what the author intended. Of course, each person interprets a story differently, so there will always be discrepancy and debate no matter how clearly the writer believes he has conveyed his scenes.
There is a fine line between spelling out every aspect and being so discreet that information is completely overlooked. I’ll admit that I have not yet found that balance, but I’m getting closer and closer the more I write.
I invite my fellow writers to stop and really think about an iceberg. How much depth have you invested in your story, in your characters? Your details are your scaffolding. You’re the one who decides which are critical enough to be presented on the surface and which are part of the supporting framework. Omissions should be intentional, not negligent. Not “I don’t know; I didn’t take the time to flesh out the idea.” Take your iceberg in its entirety and submerge what does not need to be directly said until you have the proper proportion. Every crevice and ice crystal should still be accounted for whether it is above water or below.
You are a guide, but you also need to trust your reader, something I’m still struggling to do. I want to hold my reader’s hand and walk them through every intricacy I’ve fashioned in my world, but at the same time, I want to step back and let them find my hidden clues, play my game of hide-and-seek.
It’s a fine line, to be sure.