Ever listened to a creative writer talk about the Iceberg Theory and wondered what the heck they were referring to?
Me too, at first! Turns out that it is a storytelling technique that was developed by Ernest Hemingway.
It recommends that writers focus more on showing than telling their stories. In other words, the writer should imply what’s going on rather than giving every detail away.
In this article, we’ll look further into Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory and give some great examples of it in action!
What is the Iceberg Theory?
The Iceberg Theory, also known as the “theory of omission”, is a writing technique coined by American author Ernest Hemingway. As the name suggests, it is based on the concept of an iceberg, where only a small part (only one-eighth) is visible to the naked eye, and the rest is hidden beneath the surface.
In terms of creative writing, Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory suggests that the writer should include in the story only a small portion of what he or she knows, leaving about seven-eighths of the content “underwater” or out of sight. The elements that are left out, although not directly written about, should be known to the writer and subtly affect the story’s events, characters, and flow.
The idea is to strengthen the narrative by providing enough information to engage the readers without spelling everything out. This allows readers to read between the lines and interpret the underlying themes, emotions, and meanings. It’s a way to add depth of feeling and subtlety to your writing, making it more thought-provoking.
How Does The Iceberg Theory Work?
The Visible and the Invisible: In the world of storytelling, the Iceberg Theory operates much like a literal iceberg. What’s immediately visible to us is only the tip (about 10%) and represents the overt details of the story – the explicit actions, dialogues, and events.
But here’s the magic: beneath that part is a whopping 90% we don’t see. This hidden treasure is brimming with emotions, backstories, and all the juicy bits that give a story depth, life, and zest, even if they’re just hinted at.
The Power of Omission: The Iceberg Theory thrives on strategic omissions. Hemingway wrote that rather than spelling out every detail, writers who embrace this approach deliberately omit things and leave out specific elements. But these aren’t random exclusions.
Each omission is a calculated move designed to kindle curiosity and deepen engagement. It encourages readers to participate actively, inferring details and filling in gaps with their imaginations, feelings, and interpretations.
Subtext is King: Between the clear-cut dialogues and events, there’s a wonderful layer called subtext. Imagine it as the heartbeat of a story, pulsing quietly beneath everything. Those unsaid feelings and secret motives can make even a simple “hello” charged with meaning. It’s a silent dance between the writer of prose and you, the reader.
Trust and Respect for the Reader: Here’s a beautiful part of the Iceberg Theory: it’s all about trust. Writers trust that readers have got the smarts and the heart to “read between the lines”. It’s like a pact of mutual respect. Instead of just receiving a story, readers join in the storytelling, adding their own splash of creativity.
Emotional Resonance: When a story allows readers to pour a bit of themselves into it, magic happens. The tale becomes more personal and more touching. It’s like mixing the writer’s vision with the reader’s own world, creating a story that resonates in a deeply special way.
Unleashing the Magic of Suggestion: When writers use the Iceberg Theory, they become wizards of suggestion. Even the simplest actions, thoughtful pauses, and choosing to leave out certain words can work wonders in sharing deeper messages. Each word and action becomes super important, turning the story into an exciting treasure hunt.
The Man Behind the Theory: Ernest Hemingway
Born on July 21, 1899, in Oak Park, Illinois, Ernest Hemingway was a man of many talents. He began his writing career in a newspaper office in Kansas City when he was just seventeen.
Hemingway’s writing journey took him through journalism, short stories, and novels, offering him a wealth of experiences that would later shape and create his unique writing style. He served in World War I, and this experience also profoundly influenced his work.
But what truly set Hemingway apart was his revolutionary approach to storytelling. He developed a distinct writing style that would later be known as the Iceberg Theory. This theory, also known as the theory of omission, emphasizes the power of implication over explicit detail. It suggests that the deeper meaning of a story should remain beneath the surface, much like an iceberg, with only one eighth or so visible to the reader.
His unique style earned him significant recognition, including the Pulitzer Prize in 1953 and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954, for his novel, The Old Man and the Sea, which is often celebrated as a masterpiece of this understated style.
How To Use The Iceberg Theory In Creative Writing
Step 1: Understand the Concept
The first step in using Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory in your writing is to understand the concept fully. This theory suggests that the deeper meaning of a story should not be evident on the surface. Instead, like an iceberg, the bulk of what you want to convey lies underneath the surface, hinted at but never explicitly stated.
Step 2: Identify Your Iceberg
Once you understand the theory, identify your iceberg – the core idea or theme of your short story or novel. It could be a character’s inner conflict, a societal issue, or a universal human experience. This will serve as the submerged part of your iceberg, invisible to the reader but driving the narrative.
Step 3: Establish the Surface Story
The next step is establishing the surface story. This is the part of the iceberg visible above the water (the “tip of the iceberg”) and includes the plot, characters, and setting of your story’s world. It should be engaging enough to capture the reader’s attention and subtly hint at the deeper themes underneath.
Step 4: Develop the Underlying Themes
Now, develop the underlying themes of your story, the vast unseen portion of your iceberg. These themes should indirectly influence the plot and characters, adding depth and complexity to your story without being directly stated.
Step 5: Use Subtext Strategically
Subtext is a powerful tool in the Iceberg Theory. It’s a literary composition’s unspoken or less obvious message or theme. Use it strategically to hint at the deeper layers of your story, allowing readers to engage more actively with your writing.
Step 6: Practice Minimalism
Hemingway was known for his minimalistic approach. To apply the Iceberg Theory, practice minimalism in your fiction writing. Be concise and omit things, like character backstories, thoughts, feelings, motives, and other “unnecessary” details, allowing the audience to fill in the gaps with their understanding and interpretation.
Step 7: Show, Don’t Tell
A key aspect of the Iceberg Theory is showing rather than telling. Use descriptive language to show character emotions and plot developments, letting the reader infer what’s happening beneath the surface.
Step 8: Master the Art of Omission
Hemingway believed that a writer could omit significant elements of a story, and the audience, if engaged, would feel those elements. Mastering this art of omission lets you leave out explicit information about your iceberg, making your writing more engaging and thought-provoking.
Step 9: Review and Refine Your Work
Finally, review and refine your work. Ensure that your surface story is compelling, your underlying themes are subtly present, and you’ve effectively used subtext and omission. Remember, like any other theory, the Iceberg Theory requires practice to master. Keep refining your technique with each piece you write.
Real-World Examples: Iceberg Theory in Action
- Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway: This short story is a masterclass in the Iceberg Theory. On the surface, it’s a casual conversation between a couple waiting for a train. However, their seemingly trivial talk about drinks and scenery hides a profound struggle over an unspoken issue – presumed to be an unplanned pregnancy. Hemingway leaves it up to the audience to infer this from their coded dialogue. This approach engages readers on a deeper level as they become active participants in understanding the story.
- Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx: This poignant tale of two cowboys who fall in love is a brilliant example of the Iceberg Theory. The story doesn’t overtly discuss societal pressures or homophobia, yet these themes underpin every word, adding a layer of complexity. It’s a powerful reminder that what’s left unsaid can sometimes resonate more deeply than anything spoken aloud.
- The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway: This novel is another testament to Hemingway’s mastery of fiction writing. The visible part of the narrative tells a tale of an old fisherman’s epic struggle with a giant marlin. However, beneath the surface, Hemingway explores profound themes of endurance, pride, and man’s struggle against the natural world.
Final Thoughts on Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory
As we wrap up our journey into the Iceberg Theory, I hope you’ve experienced the excitement of uncovering what’s hidden beneath a story.
Like Hemingway wrote: “Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg. It is the part that doesn’t show.”
Always remember, stories are like icebergs: while the parts we see might grab our attention, the immense hidden sections truly touch our souls. So the next time you open a book or start writing your own story, let Hemingway’s art of omission inspire you.
Here’s to richer reading experiences, profound writing, and the continuous magic of tales that always leave us wanting more.
Common Questions on the Iceberg Theory
What is the meaning of Iceberg Theory?
The Iceberg Theory, coined by Ernest Hemingway, is a writing style that emphasizes simplicity and succinctness. It suggests that the deeper meaning of a story should not be evident on the surface, but hinted at through subtlety, symbolism, and implication, much like an iceberg where only a small part is visible above water, but there’s much more that remains hidden.
What is an example of the iceberg principle?
A prime example of the Iceberg Theory in prose is in Hemingway’s work, Hills Like White Elephants, where the bulk of the story’s meaning – a couple’s discussion about abortion – is submerged under the surface. The readers are left to infer the depth and weight of the situation from this seemingly casual conversation.