I came across the Iceberg Principle a while back, and found many references to it in connection with Ernest Hemingway. But there isn’t much about how to specifically apply it to your writing. So here goes:
First: the Iceberg Principle, as explained by Hemingway
If you’re read Hemingway, you know he writes in a very concise, even terse, style. See this NYTimes article (or below in this article) for a sample, and note the dialogue – short, almost brusque sentences, and an occasional short paragraph of narrative, with very little description.
As I understand what Hemingway said about the Iceberg Principle, you have to know what you are writing about, but you don’t need to write every word of what you know. “If the writer does his job,” Hemingway says, “the reader almost innately gets a sense of the underlying story, even without all the details.”
Here’s a scene from The Sun Also Rises, from the NY Times article I mentioned above:
“Want to walk back?”
“Through the park.”
We climbed down. It was clouding over again. In the park it was dark under the trees.
“Do you still love me, Jake?”
“Yes,” I said
“Because I’m a goner,” Brett said.
“I’m a goner. I’m mad about the Romero boy. I’m in love with him, I think.”
“I wouldn’t be if I were you.”
“I can’t help it. I’m a goner. It’s tearing me all up inside.”
“Don’t do it.”
“I can’t help it. I’ve never been able to help anything.”
“You ought to stop it.”
“How can I stop it? I can’t stop things. Feel that?”
Her hand was trembling.
“I’m like that all through.”
“You oughtn’t to do it.”
“I can’t help it. I’m a goner now, anyway. Don’t you see the difference?”
“I’ve got to do something. I’ve got to do something I really want to do. I’ve lost my self-respect.”
From this short scene, you can get a sense of:
- the setting
- how the characters feel about each other
- their moods
- the mood of the scene
- the conflict between the two characters
- a sense of foreboding
- and an anticipation of what will happen next.
All in 156 words!
Hemingway had to know a lot about what was going on, he had to know the characters inside/out, and he had to have a strong sense of the setting and background. And, most important, he needed to know what was going to happen next in the story.
BUT, he didn’t need to tell you everything. He could show you in a subtle way, the tip of the fictional iceberg.
If you want another example of Hemingway’s style, to see the iceberg principle played out, read his short story Hills Like White Elephants.
Then, the Iceberg Principle Applied
This principle works in all kinds of writing and business situations. For example, Chip Scanlon, writing for the Poynter Institute, discusses how reporters must interview many sources and do lots of research, before writing that article, which might contain only a small part of what the writer knows.
When I was writing business reports, I also gathered a great deal of information and had to distill it down to its essence, but I also had to be able to answer esoteric questions. Without a broad understanding of the issue, I wouldn’t have much credibility.
Finally, the Iceberg Principle Applied to Your Writing
How well you prepare to write your novel can make it sellable – or not. Using the Iceberg Principle when you are preparing to write and then writing, can make a difference. Some ways you can use the Iceberg Principle:
- Build complex characters with lots of back story, not just the protagonist and antagonist.
- Take time to create your setting completely, whether it’s a fictional world or a piece of the real world. Draw diagrams, maps, blueprints, whatever it takes to give you a sense of the setting. Write detailed descriptions of key places in the story.
- If you want to create a fictional world, ask yourself all the questions that need to be answered about that world. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers have an article with a detailed list of questions you can work through to build your world.
- Writing historical fiction? Be sure you know the details about the world in which your characters lived. Yes, this takes lots of time, but it will pay huge dividends in improving your writing.
- Think about what is happening in the outside world while your story is going on. What events – local to global – might affect the characters and the story?
- Create a specific timeline for your story – what happens when and what events happen in what order?
Following the iceberg principle in your fiction writing helps enrich your writing. It makes you an “expert” in the story you are writing, and helps your readers feel more involved with your story.
While your readers may not acknowledge your efforts in spending the time to gather the whole iceberg, they will be able to more quickly become immersed in your story and your characters.
As Hemingway said,
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.
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