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How to Use Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory in Your Writing

By Britton Perelman · June 9, 2021

“The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.” – Ernest Hemingway


Writers are world-builders. No matter what format you prefer or which genre you choose, the craft of writing itself requires filling blank pages with the words, imagery, and dialogue that bring a story to life. You start with nothing but a blinking cursor and create an entire world.

Inevitably, there will be parts of that world that don’t fit on the page. That’s where Ernest Hemingway and icebergs come in.

What is Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory?

The thing about icebergs is — there’s always more hidden beneath the surface. 

Hemingway’s “iceberg theory” centers on the idea that there’s always more to a story than what the reader or viewer sees. In Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway wrote:

“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.”

Hemingway began his writing career as a journalist assigned to the crime beat for the Kansas City Star. His articles had to be purely factual, with no opinion or personal interpretation added, and Hemingway naturally brought that minimalist style to his fiction writing. 

His stories were slight and restrained, leaving things unsaid instead of spelling everything out for his readers. In fact, iceberg theory is all about the idea that not including everything actually makes a story stronger. 

Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway

How Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory Can Help You

Above the surface is everything the audience sees — narrative, plot, dialogue, and action. But under the water, hidden beneath the surface, is everything else — thoughts, feelings, motives, symbolism, theme, and subtext.

But, as anyone with knowledge of icebergs knows, just because it’s below the surface, doesn’t mean it’s not there. In The Art of the Short Story, Hemingway wrote:

“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.”

It’s tempting to stuff your screenplay with every detail, but the greatest writing relies on the subtext that is created by the things unsaid, the things purposefully left off the page. Modern audiences don’t want all of the information; they want stories loaded with subtext and subtleties — that’s how the most profound meaning is created. 

Writers who utilize Hemingway’s iceberg theory must embrace the idea that they will always know more about the story, the world, and the characters than there will ever be room for on the page. For leaving things off the page can often be more powerful than spelling them out. 

So, develop your world until you know every detail. Brainstorm and freewrite and create every single little thing about your story. And then leave most of it out.