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Hemingway’s “Iceberg Theory” of Writing

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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)

51 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.

    Like

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

    Liked by 2 people

    April 16, 2013
    • Stephanie Austin #

      well put!

      Like

      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.

    Liked by 1 person

    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.

    Liked by 1 person

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

      Like

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

    Liked by 1 person

    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!

    Like

    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.;-) “

    Liked by 2 people

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

    Like

    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.

    Liked by 1 person

    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.)

    Liked by 1 person

    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.

    Like

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

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

    Like

    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!

    Like

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

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    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)…

    Like

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

    Liked by 1 person

    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.

    Like

    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!

    Like

    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..

    Like

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

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

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

    Like

    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.

    Like

    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!

    Like

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

      Like

      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

    Like

    July 28, 2014
  27. zhye reen #

    I’m doing an undergraduate thesis about writing styles of Grade 1 pupils.. i want to use this theory for my theoretical framework but i don’t have enough background about this. anyone can help me? :)

    Like

    August 21, 2014
  28. I would definitely agrre here, that Hemingways writing style is anything but simple. He plays around mostly with dialogues and conversations, but not forgetting the sharp eyed details, it is further on the reader’s imagination power to sink in and understand the design of his book.

    Please find the book review of A Farewell to Arms by Ernst Hemingway on my blog.

    Like

    September 3, 2014
  29. Reblogged this on mira prabhu and commented:
    Hemingway’s “Iceberg Theory” of Writing…profoundly interesting to me, and I’m sure, to all those of us who read and write with passion…I personally write what I know…whether through direct experience or via intuition…

    Like

    September 11, 2014
  30. Reminds me of the “always know more about your subjects than you tell” and “always write too much and edit down rather than the other way around” advice one reads from good and great writers. Knowing one’s subject in depth may not always refer to literal experience — Tolstoy, for example, wrote so well about giving birth from empathy. (I don’t care much for Hemingway but he knew his craft for sure.)

    Like

    September 11, 2014
  31. nabil #

    it’s great to know how the writer try to do something for readers thanks for this amazing work

    Like

    November 18, 2014
  32. Abidhussain #

    Gud

    Like

    May 18, 2015
  33. Dee #

    Hemingway got his start not writing short stories as stated above; he got his start as a correspondent and while he got paid by the word, his penchant for brevity was a matter of necessity as his articles were wired to his publisher and he had to pay by the word to send his reports.

    Like

    August 24, 2015
    • It’s almost as if his writing uses an inflection of real thought as we can change the meaning of a verbal statement just by the inflection in our voice,

      Like

      August 25, 2015
  34. jama #

    Hello! In 1923, Hemingway conceived of the idea of a new theory of writing after finishing his short story “Out of Season”. In By the way the best paper writing service that I saw: http://speedypaper.net/

    Like

    November 8, 2015
  35. Reblogged this on bookforces and commented:
    Very well written article, that is an excellent read for any author.

    5 Stars

    Like

    December 23, 2015
  36. Lobh #

    I must say that Hemingway’s books have not aged well, to say the least. They are filled with disappointing endings, pointless death scenes and dialogue, and various other remarkably amateurish things that writers often advise other writers to never, ever do. I honestly have to wonder if an editor ever even saw them. I know that it might seem like sacrilege to criticize the great Writing God Hemingway as being rather amateurish, but I suspect his reputation as a “Writing God” was formed in another time, under another set of values, which have long since gone away. I have seen many books far better-written than Hemingway’s from a dramatic point of view, and even just in terms of good writing.

    My reaction to Hemingway is very like that of Bradley Cooper, in the movie “Silver Linings Playbook.” Cooper reads to the end of Hemingway’s novel, A Farewell To Arms, and freaks out. The reason? (Spoilers!) The wife of the main character in A Farewell To Arms just DIES for no apparent reason, leaving her man bereft and alone, and very very sad – and after an entire book of the man attempting to find his woman, overcoming enormous obstacles, until (seemingly) finally achieving victory and happiness! Pointless, cliched, and amateurish.

    I have seen writers such as Stephen King – together with so many different writing instructors – advise other writers to never, ever have the main character fail entirely to achieve his/her goals by the end of a long novel. Readers do not to stick with a main character through a 200 or 300 page book (or longer), just to see him/her struggle, struggle, struggle, and then suddenly fail to triumph at the end. It’s the equivalent of seeing a hero struggle brilliantly against the bad guys for a long, involved epic, only to have the hero fail completely at the very last moment, and the bad guys win. Yech. What an ugly ending. Whatever Hemingway’s ultimate point in writing such an ending, dramatically, it doesn’t work. Readers tend to feel cheated by having the main character fail completely; they feel frustrated and let down, as does Cooper in the movie – he throws the book out a window – and most of Hemingway’s books seem to have similarly amateurish and unsatisfying endings in them.

    In Hemingway’s “For Whom The Bell Tolls” (more spoilers!) the main character, Jordan, fails to escape from an ambush scene during World War Two, and, wounded, spends the last pages of the book gasping out his final breaths, waiting for the enemy to arrive and kill him. No point, no victory, no triumph – just pointless death. And after a whole book of difficult, heroic struggle, too. This is fantastically unsatisfying, and actually made me quite angry as a reader at Hemingway for wasting my time and for cheating me. Having a main character die at the end of a long novel is another huge literary no-no, and it also tends to make readers feel cheated and frustrated. Unless the death is done very, very well, as is Dumbledore’s death in Harry Potter, writers should not kill main characters at a novel’s end – and Jordan’s death is not anywhere NEAR as satisfying and well-done as Dumbledore’s.

    And in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, the main character, Jake, spends a great deal of the book pursuing a girl named Brett, who in the end just decides arbitrarily to have a relationship with Mike, another rival character – and Jake and Brett spend the final pages of the book in a taxi, discussing “what might have been.” Another disgusting, pointless ending, where the difficulties are not overcome, and it all just ends because it ends. This no doubt prompted one reviewer at the time to say of the book that it “begins nowhere and ends in nothing.” I must say I heartily agree.

    Why did Hemingway frequently write endings that other writers tend to describe as amateurish and cliched? My suspicion is that he was trying to be all “literary” and “serious.” It’s almost as though he’s saying, “Look at how most of my main characters fail in the end! I must indeed be a very Serious Writer, who takes Literature VERY Seriously, and who is trying to make a very Profound STATEMENT. Life and Death, wow! Meaning and meaninglessness, ooh!”

    I personally think it’s just plain bad writing. But hey.

    Hemingway’s books also tend to be remarkably boring and dull, no doubt arising from his amateurish grasp of drama, as demonstrated by his hackneyed bad endings. He does little to satisfy the reader in most of his books, in their middles OR at their ends, preferring to remain unspokenly Profound, and (as I said earlier) it doesn’t work. Writers can be as profound as they want, but if they don’t have a dramatically interesting story to tell, it really doesn’t matter. As Stephen King says, most readers just want a good story, something to get lost in – and I think most people today find it very, very difficult to get lost in Hemingway’s writing. I don’t see any major movies being made of his books today, as there are (for example) for J.R.R. Tolkien – whom I consider to be a vastly superior writer to Hemingway. The reason seems to be that Hemingway’s books are, for the most part, not very interesting or dramatic, and are often awkwardly written and amateurish in their endings. At least Frodo Baggins destroys the Ring in The Lord Of The Rings; most of Hemingway’s characters just seem to die or fail at life (or both). I really don’t see blockbuster material here, or even very good writing.

    As for Hemingway’s “short” sentences, I have to say that most of them are not really all that short. H. G. Wells, for example, in his masterpiece “The Time Machine,” uses much, much shorter sentences than Hemingway tends to – and “The Time Machine” was published in 1895, far earlier than Hemingway, and is a much more interesting and well-written read than anything Hemingway ever wrote.

    Sometime a writer’s work just ages badly – and I think it’s time for a major re-evaluation of Hemingway’s books in general. The best-selling author during Hemingway’s time was not Hemingway, Fitzgerald or Salinger – it was Edgar Rice Burroughs, the inventor of Tarzan, which really says something, I think – Hemingway never created any characters as deep, memorable or unique as Tarzan; every school-child has heard of Tarzan. And reading Burrough’s actual books, it is very clear that Tarzan himself is an absolutely remarkable character; he doesn’t just stay in the jungle like in the movies; he becomes an English Lord, and a soldier, and distinguished himself by fighting in World War Two. Way better than Hemingway’s war stories. Even Hemingway’s CHARACTERS aren’t all that terribly great or compelling, and I think it’s about time he shouldered some criticism for that too.

    In summary, I find Hemingway to be a rank amateur writer, about whom I cannot understand why various “literary” people frequently make so much fuss – maybe they just like dull, uninteresting stories with cliched endings. I think much of his reputation as a “Writing God” is thoroughly undeserved, and should in fact be revoked. He doesn’t challenge me intellectually or dramatically; his badly-written stories mostly just frustrate me and annoy me, as they did Bradley Cooper – and as I think they do most people with any real experience with more expertly-written stories. Now that I’ve actually READ most of Hemingway’s books – most recently The Old Man And The Sea – I really don’t see what all the fuss is about. Why is Hemingway so famous? I think it’s just an accident, really. I think he just happened to be in the right place at the right time, and for no other reason. Editors frequently say that there are absolutely no rules in the publishing business, about why one writer becomes famous, and another does not. If it happens, then it happens. I think Hemingway is just an overall bad writer who got very, very lucky – and I think he has been unfairly held up for years before the rest of us as what a writer SHOULD be, despite his rather boring stories, unmemorable characters, and amateurish endings.

    In the words of Bradley Cooper, “No, no, I’m not going to apologize to you; ERNEST HEMINGWAY needs to apologize, because THAT’S who’s at fault here. That’s who’s to blame.”

    Like

    January 16, 2016

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