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Hemingway’s “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

Before I wrap up The Sun Also Rises (review coming tomorrow), I thought I’d take one more look at Hemingway’s writing style.

He called it the “Iceberg Theory,” and  it’s a great descriptor of his style.

Essentially, he gives you the facts—those hard facts are the tip of the iceberg floating above water. Everything else—the supporting structure—floats beneath the water, out of sight from the reader.

The way Hemingway describes it, there’s almost a sense of ESP between writer and reader. If the writer does his job, the reader almost innately gets a sense of the underlying story, even without all the details.

Biographer Carlos Baker said that since Hemingway began his career writing short stories, he learned how 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.”

So if you think Hemingway’s short and simple style was out of laziness or ignorance, you couldn’t be more wrong. He was very purposeful and intentional about why he wrote the way he wrote. It might look simple, but it’s not simple.

Thoughts on the Iceberg Theory?

(Image: natalielucier/Flickr)

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34 Comments Post a comment
  1. I think Hemingway was on to something. It’s very important for me as a reader to have an intellectual relationship with a book, if everything is laid clearly out in front of me, there is no motivation to keep reading. I like for there to be things left out because it allows me to have a more fulfilled and imaginative experience.

    April 16, 2013
  2. If humans disliked the process of thinking, North Korea would seem a perfect place to live.

    April 16, 2013
    • Stephanie Austin #

      well put!

      April 16, 2013
  3. I find writing that is overly descriptive or includes every inch of the backstory to be impossible to read. I would rather have the tip of the iceberg and have the writing be more spare where each word has a purpose. I strive for that in my essays – it’s a good challenge not to say all you know. Thanks for this – I am really liking your blog popping up on my reader.

    April 16, 2013
    • Thanks for adding it to your reader!

      April 16, 2013
  4. I enjoy both simple writing and descriptive writing within their own contexts. There are certain stories that lend themselves to one or the other, and I appreciate authors who can recognize when a particular idea or story will fit well with their writing style. All the greats have perfected this, including Hemingway.

    April 16, 2013
    • Yes, a good writing style will perfectly match a writer’s voice.

      April 16, 2013
  5. Reblogged this on no step too loose and commented:
    Interesting post and I didn’t know this about Hemingway :)

    April 16, 2013
  6. Stephanie Austin #

    Reblogged this on Living Between the Lines and commented:
    I have trouble with this while writing all the time! I wish I was better at it!

    April 16, 2013
  7. I totally get this, and struggle with it. I sent a text to my friend once, when he sent me something of his to read that was particularly good. It said, “You know how you take sugar and water and you’ve got sugar-water? Well, If you boil it and get rid of the excess, it becomes syrup. You’ve written syrup and I’m now jealous of you and hate your face. Please stop being my friend.;-) “

    April 16, 2013
  8. Reblogged this on Justin Kassab.

    April 16, 2013
  9. I think of all the interviews I’ve done over the years, the number of hours of information transcribed only to write 250-1250 word stories. I take all that “data” and reduce it on high heat, making it into something that resembles an essence of the thing itself. Note that I said “an,” not “the,” because I choose the particular essence I want you to see.

    I find it more difficult to do this with fiction, because I’ve “invented” the details, always ready to supply more. So I become an editor, not an author, when I’m reducing the mixture. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I fail, sometimes I look to my writers group for advice.

    April 16, 2013
  10. When a writer puts a lot of effort into building a world and creating characters to populate it, there is often the temptation to hang these features out on display for the reader. “See what I did? Isn’t it marvelous?” I come across this a lot when reading for review–endless paragraphs of narrative summary and thought bubbling giving detail that should be apparent in what is revealed through dialogue and action if the story and characters are structured.

    It’s a matter of confidence on the part of the writer.

    Depending on the pace and style of the story, sometimes a little extra insight is welcome. But, if you’ve built a believable world and are communicating your ideas well, the tip of the iceberg should be all that is necessary.

    Having never read Hemingway (I can hear the collective gasp from here), I can’t comment on how he does it. After reading this post, I’m tempted to give him a try.

    (As an aside, I’m sure something of his was assigned reading in AP English. But that was a long, long time ago.)

    April 16, 2013
  11. I think this concept is very apparent to the reader on his story “Hills Like White Elephants.” It’s so short and basic, but it has so much depth.

    April 16, 2013
  12. Reblogged this on Socially Accepted Madness.

    April 16, 2013
  13. Reblogged this on Alright Daddy-O! and commented:
    Well put. Well put.

    April 16, 2013
  14. I think it is definitely true that sometimes less can be more – the trick is knowing when it is true! It is also true that spelling things out does not respect the reader. However I don’t think Hemingway was particularly good at either! The Sun Also Rises could have used more to give the characters potency. And the iceberg starts melting when he gets repetitive – more of the same is not the same as less and does not respect the reader either!

    April 16, 2013
  15. Reblogged this on Ramblings of a lunatic.

    April 17, 2013
  16. Less is more, no? In writing, that less must be mastered and I agree with Hemingway that the elegance of a book lies is given by the right balance between what is said and what is not said.
    I would add, too many details are boring (like books where everything seems to be said and nothing left for the imagination and introspection)…

    April 17, 2013
  17. Picasso said the same, ‘Art is the elimination of the unnecessary.’ -Pablo Picasso, painter, and sculptor (1881-1973)

    April 17, 2013
  18. I think it’s a great approach. I, however, don’t seem to be much on the same page let alone thought as Hemingway most of the time.

    April 17, 2013
  19. jessicahhh007 #

    I think it is really important to know, both as a reader and writer, that Hemingway started in short stories for the reasons you mentioned. “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” has been a major influence on my writing, and I love the concept of the Iceberg Theory. Thanks for sharing!

    April 18, 2013
  20. cira0 #

    it’s like show don’t tell. show should be enough to tell if done with sincerity.
    I get the concept of this writing – and i wish I could be able to write this way at times.
    like, I wish I could write simply without being simplistic.

    however i do love descriptive writing just as much.
    just as much meaning/underlying feelings can be conveyed through either style I think.
    it just depends on how well the writer uses it to get that connection with his readers, I guess..

    April 19, 2013
  21. Reblogged this on book of ninja.

    May 20, 2013
  22. Reblogged this on perpustakana museum sejarah jakarta.

    June 2, 2013
  23. bookmarked!!, I really like yoiur blog!

    October 18, 2013
  24. I despise overly descriptive writing, even if the writer is attempting to describe another world different from our own. When a writer leaves a bit to the reader’s imagination, but leaves just enough for them to get the picture, that’s when I feel that my time is not being weighted down by miniscule description, but valued with the writer guiding me to what he/she wants me to see. It’s as if writer (or Hemingway in this case) points me in the direction of the image he wants me to see rather than flatout describe every little detail of the image. I feel a deeper connection with the work and my brain works at a higher gear trying to convey in my head what I am reading.

    December 26, 2013
  25. Hi! I just did a piece about Raymond Carver’s Why Don’t You Dance and how it was written using the iceberg approach to fiction. Can I link back to this post? Thanks!

    February 13, 2014
    • Of course! No need to ask, but thanks.

      February 13, 2014
  26. I’d like to get anyone’s take on the real meaning of his title, “For Whom The Bell Tolls.” I have an interesting theory. And on how it ended, why it ended that way. But yeah, hemingway opened my eye to how much can be said without saying it. There’s more involvement with the reader or listener, when the imagination is invited to play

    July 28, 2014

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