Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory and Other Craft Musings

Kate Flora: I was driving around yesterday, doing errands, and listening to Friendship Point by Alice Eliot Dark, the book my book group has chosen for September. At one point, one of characters refers to Hemingway’s “Iceberg Theory.” As an English major and long-time writer and consumer of writing books, I was surprised that I had never heard of the theory, at least not attributed to Hemingway.

For years, I’ve known about the iceberg theory of research, where writers, and especially crime writers, do a ton of research for our books, and then choose the best, most pertinent bits to include in our scenes or our descriptions, letting all the research we’ve done underpin what we finally choose to use in the book. Often, we find ourselves distilling pages and pages of notes about any particular topic into a few pertinent sentences. It seems that this is pretty much what Hemingway is advocating, but with a difference.

The paragraphs below are taken from the Wikipedia entry about Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory. Something that I found very telling—and important—reading them is what he had to say about what you choose to leave out. You leave out the things you know, not the things you do not, making a deliberate choice about why the details omitted are chosen.

In 1923, Hemingway conceived of the idea of a new theory of writing after finishing his short story “Out of Season“. In A Moveable Feast (1964), his posthumously published memoirs about his years as a young writer in Paris, he explains: “I omitted the real end [of “Out of Season”] which was that the old man hanged himself. This was omitted on my new theory that you could omit anything… and the omitted part would strengthen the story.” In chapter sixteen of Death in the Afternoon he compares his theory about writing to an iceberg.

Hemingway’s biographer Carlos Baker believed that as a writer of short stories Hemingway learned “how to get the most from the least, how to prune language and avoid waste motion, how to multiply intensities, and how to tell nothing but the truth in a way that allowed for telling more than the truth.”[6] Baker also notes that the writing style of the “iceberg theory” suggests that a story’s narrative and nuanced complexities, complete with symbolism, operate under the surface of the story itself.

For example, Hemingway believed a writer could describe an action, such as Nick Adams fishing in “Big Two-Hearted River,” while conveying a different message about the action itself—Nick Adams concentrating on fishing to the extent that he does not have to think about the unpleasantness of his war experience. In his essay “The Art of the Short Story”, Hemingway is clear about his method: “A few things I have found to be true. If you leave out important things or events that you know about, the story is strengthened. If you leave or skip something because you do not know it, the story will be worthless. The test of any story is how very good the stuff that you, not your editors, omit.” A writer explained how it brings a story gravitas:

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[9]

https://www.theparisreview.org/letters-essays/3267/the-art-of-the-short-story-ernest-hemingway

Reading the statement that you omit the things you know, making that choice about them, immediate shot me back to a seminar at Vermont College, where I was working on an MFA before I dropped out because I had too much writing to do. We were discussing a student’s short story about a careless father who had left his young child somewhere during a night of drinking. The story felt unsatisfying, and when asked whether the child was okay, the writer admitted he had no idea. Not a deliberate omission, and not a carefully created void to be filled by the reader’s imagination and what could be read between the lines. Maybe my reader’s feeling dissatisfaction came from the writer’s not knowing?

I admit, I’ve never been very fond of Hemingway, but I do now want to go back to reread more of his short stories. And stirred by that, and by pulling John Gardner’s book off my shelves, I can see spending part of September rereading some of my many books about craft including two books I’ve always found inspiring, Save the Catwhich is about screenwriting but has valuable information for writers as well, and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, which uses the technique of what soldiers in Vietnam carried to tell his readers about then.

Reading about the iceberg theory also brought to mind two exercises I love that I have often used with my writing students. Both exercises challenge the student to use language to show what is happening without explicitly describing it. Both come from John Gardner’s book, The Art of Fiction.

 Exercise One: Write a paragraph describing a building from the point of view of an old man whose son has been killed in the war, without mentioning the son, death, the old man, or the war.

Exercise Two: Write a paragraph describing that same building, some time of day and time of year, from the point of view of a happy lover.

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2 Responses to Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory and Other Craft Musings

  1. jselbo says:

    Not an English major – but a Hemingway fan – so glad to know of the iceberg theory. And the story of the person who didn’t know (as the writer) if the child was okay – that really hit home. Thought-provoking piece. Thanks!

  2. Deborah says:

    Fantastic essay and very helpful. Thanks.

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