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Ernesto’s ethos: how to apply the iceberg theory to your novel

Ernest Hemingway was known as a brash, loud and unrepentant madman who travelled the world looking for danger and exotic game to hunt. Whether his personal style would fly today or not, he was also a fine writer, having written the likes of A Farewell to Arms,For Whom the Bell Tolls and what many consider his magnum opus, The Old Man and the Sea.

He also created what is known as the “iceberg theory”, a literary technique that essentially leaves it up to the reader to fill in the gaps and create a fascinating narrative in their own imagination.

This technique can easily be used to write contemporary fiction books, too.

My favourite example of such a moment was in For Whom the Bell Tolls, when the protagonist, Robert Jordan, is discussing a massacre perpetrated by the Spanish Republicans against their Nationalist enemies.

The Republican guerilla tells Jordan that the atrocities committed that day were the second worst day of the war, only being surpassed by the day the Nationalists returned to exact their revenge.

It doesn’t say how exactly the Nationalists got their revenge, leaving it up to the reader to imagine the vile atrocities that occurred upon their return and this, all told, is the essence of the iceberg theory.

The iceberg theory explained

If you have seen Titanic, or have heard the expression “the tip of the iceberg”, you probably have a reasonable idea about the structure of an iceberg. Only the very tip, a tiny portion of the entire structure, is visible above water, with most of the iceberg being underneath the sea.  

Now consider that in terms of writing.

Hemingway created prose that only admitted the most necessary information at that time. His prose was economical and succinct, creating a situation wherein the book reader is forced to use their imagination to produce an exciting narrative.

Why does this work? Because by omitting plenty of the information you could easily have admitted, you are creating suspense that readers adore. You’re not reading a news report, with all the facts laid bare and in great detail – you are left to essentially create your own story, and this is a very exciting challenge for the reader.

How you can use the iceberg theory

There are certain novelistic aspects that the reader can see: action. dialogue, narrative and plot. But what is equally important is how these aspects came about? What are the thoughts, motivations, themes and symbols that have created the main themes?

Just because they are not said it doesn’t mean they don’t exist – just like the largest portion of an iceberg.

Hemingway himself once said, “if you leave out important things or events that you know about, the story is strengthened”. Subtext is vital to writing a great contemporary fiction novel as it allows the reader to interpret the story in their own way, as opposed to having everything given to them and it being ultimately meaningless to them.

You know the story and its world the best and you will always know it the best. Consequently, by developing a complete world in which your novel characters exist before incorporating the iceberg theory into your narrative, you can omit some of the juicy information that you know the reader will have to create for themselves.

They will be left guessing, wondering, worrying and, ultimately, enthralled.