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A Work of Fiction is Not a Fill-in-the-blank Game

Updated: Apr 1, 2022

Hemingway's Iceberg Theory

I studied journalism and advertising in college. These areas of mass communications, as my major was called, might sound unrelated, even contradictory. One is purely about the facts, and the other, well, not so much. But they do have one criterion in common—brevity.

In the study of the journalistic style, it is about the facts, ma’am, just the facts: the who, what, when, where, why, and how of a piece. Period.

In advertising, particularly print advertising, getting right to the heart of the matter is crucial too. Good print advertising is a handful of meticulously selected words meant to create an immediate need that will result in a sale.

Where am I going with this, you might ask?

I respect simplicity, but I have grown distressed by a pervasive misunderstanding and misuse of a style of writing known as the iceberg theory.

The Iceberg Theory

Attributed to Ernest Hemingway, the iceberg theory states that a writer should not write into a fictional story everything he or she knows about a character, setting, and even plot, but should say just enough so that an astute reader can discern, on his or her own, the truth of what isn’t said.

Hemingway was a journalist-turned-fiction writer and he remained all about minimalism of wording.

In Support of Minimalism

The iceberg theory has been discussed and argued ad nauseum for decades and I don’t intend to address the pros and cons. Besides, I’m torn. I was a technical writer, specializing in user-friendly computer software instruction manuals. I was a minimalist with my documentation. My rule: write just what the end-user needs to know to operate the software; nothing more, nothing less. And I did it well.

When I edit now, I strike out lengthy descriptions that go into too much detail, strings of adjectival synonyms (he was strong, muscular, well-built, and physically fit), and unnecessary words and phrases like rather (rather strong), quite (quite strong), somewhat (somewhat strong), very (very strong), so (so strong), so very (so very strong), double use of very (very, very strong), and double use of so (so, so strong). I could continue, but you get the idea. So, yes, I’m a minimalist of sorts, myself.

Hemingway's Theory, Misunderstood

But notice I did not say I grow distressed by use of the iceberg theory. No, I grow distressed by misuse of the iceberg theory. I see and hear newbie or mediocre writers justify their mediocre writing by applying this theory incorrectly. Let me clarify what Hemingway said and what he meant, for never has such a simple statement been so grossly misapplied.

This is the entire quote is the core of Hemingway's theory:

If a writer of a prose knows enough about 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 the iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. The writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.
--Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon

I have highlighted the final sentence of this quote for a reason. Many misguided writers think that Hemingway’s iceberg theory says to leave out details and descriptions and let the readers use their imaginations to fill in those details themselves.

Nonsense! This is not the iceberg theory and it is not what Hemingway meant.

Hemingway is saying that a writer must know his subject so thoroughly that he can omit details and can do so with a skill that allows an astute, attentive reader to intuit them on his or her own. That is the meaning of the iceberg theory.

Readers Should Reach Similar Conclusions

To write as Hemingway wrote in the short story A Clean, Well-Lighted Place takes artisanship that few writers can pull off. He alludes to the thoughts, emotions, and motivations behind the characters’ behaviors. In this way, the reader is able to infer much about the lives of each of the three main characters. But—and here’s the crux—readers will come to the same or similar conclusions about the characters and their behaviors. Why? Because those details are there for the attentive reader to discern.

That, my friends, takes talent. Anyone who says that the iceberg theory means that a writer should omit vital story elements (such as physical characteristics and setting descriptions) and leave those details up to the reader’s imagination either misunderstands the iceberg theory or is too lazy or untalented to write substantive prose.

As Hemingway said, “The writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.”

The iceberg theory does not mean you should write prose like it’s a game of Mad Libs.

In addition to working as a nonfiction and creative nonfiction editor and writing coach, I am co-author, with Dr. Terri Lyon, of the book Make a Difference with Mental Health Activism: No activism degree required—use your unique skills to change the world. Visit my website page Make a Difference and Dr. Lyon’s activism website Life At The Intersection to learn more about Make a Difference, including how to place bulk orders.

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1 Comment

Thanks for explaining this. I assumed the difference between Hemingway and other writers was just style. But I can see the genius now.

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