English Literature » Notes » Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory

Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory

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 in Death in the Afternoon

Ernest Hemingway coined this theory when he determined that by omitting parts of a story, details that the writer and reader both inherently know, the story’s prose will the shortened and strengthened. He believed that writing in this fashion forms a stronger bond with the reader because the author has confidence that the reader is knowledgeable and intuitive enough to pick up on the pieces that were omitted. This led Hemingway to feel that the true meaning of the story should not glisten on the surface, but rather be found inherently embedded within the structure of the story.

The “iceberg theory” describes that only 10-20% of the story is directly revealed through prose. In comparison to an actual iceberg, that is usually the portion of the floating ice mountain that is visible above water. The other 80-90% of the story lies behind the scenes and is integrated in the structure of the story. This is akin to the remainder of the iceberg that is located underwater: the part that is not visible on the surface of the sea.

While this is a brilliant theory, it must be used with caution. As a writer, you must instinctively understand where to draw the line in the story of what your readers inherently know and what does not warrant to be repeated or drafted into detail. A writer cannot cut apart his or her story with a sharp knife, omitting all details. The story will lose its structure, its value, its poetry. A writer needs to balance how much detail to give the reader and how much to withhold, ingraining the omitted details within the story’s structure itself. A bond must be forged with the readers and then, and only then, can the writer determine how much to give to the reader superficially and how much to bury deep within the text.

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

In The Art of the Short Story, Hemingway was quoted, “You could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.” In other words, the reader will feel a deeper connection to the story because they had to use their knowledge to understand the items that were omitted. This, in turn, allows the reader to trust the author because the author knows their readers are smart enough to comprehend the work and not have every little concept spelled out in detail.

As an author, play around with your stories and understand the balance to your prose. Too much omission will leave a story weak and difficult to understand or to see the whole picture. Too much detail will bore or irritate the reader. The author must find the balance of the perfect level of omission to keep the “iceberg” from inverting.