What Is The Iceberg Theory?

When you see an iceberg from the surface, it looks like a small mass of ice, but underneath, it is another gigantic mass of ice.

So, even when we don’t see its entirety, there is always a big chunk that is hidden from our view.

This scenario is what brings us to Hemingway’s Iceberg theory, which—when summarized—states that humans only deal with the things we visually perceive.

Whatever is hidden to our naked eye is usually ignored or thought to be nonexistent, just like the submerged part of an iceberg.

This theory is important for writers, especially creative writers, because it helps them communicate to the reader even with some overt narratives missing.

In the subsequent sections, I’ll explain what the iceberg theory is, how important it is, and how to use it among other things.

Let us get started!

the iceberg theory

What Is Hemingway’s The Iceberg Theory?

So, what is the connection between what I said in the introduction and Hemingway’s iceberg theory?

Icebergs always have a big part hidden beneath the surface, and Hemingway said that—at all times—there is or there should be more to a story than what meets the reader’s eye.

He was quoted as saying:

“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 part hidden beneath the surface can be a lot of information that you—the writer—can leave out of your story. For example, you can omit character sketches, backstories, political issues, et cetera. As the writer of the story, you ought to know what happens or happened in the story, but you have to give the reader what’s on the surface.

the reader has to see the tip of the iceberg.

In other words, the reader has to see the tip of the iceberg.

This is why Hemingway invented the Iceberg Theory, so he left out things from his stories, letting the reader find some things on their own, thereby forcing (in a good way) the readers to be more engaged and immersed in the story.

When you break down the iceberg theory, you’re slapped with the familiar rule, “Show, don’t tell!”

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

How to Use the Iceberg Theory to Improve Your Stories

As a young journalist, Hemingway wanted to craft his newspaper reports with a bit less context or interpretation and leave the rest at the mercy of the readers’ imagination.

He continued with this style when he started writing short stories, mainly focusing on details that he thought would give the reader enough insight. His stories retained surface elements and were minimalistic when revealing underlying themes.

We don’t have to write like Hemmingway to use the Iceberg theory differently, we can draw inspiration and contextualize the theory to suit our story.

This is my recommendation on the usage of the Hemmingway iceberg theory:

At the beginning of the story, let the main character be unaware of as many things as possible. As the MC learns new things about his environment and history through experiences and discoveries, so does the reader.

how to use the iceberg theory to improve your stories

Feed the readers with necessary information scene by scene, and as the story advances, you’ll discover that some things become predictable, which means that they do not necessarily need to be explained.

Let’s imagine you’re writing fantasy or sci-fi, and you want your main character to be as knowledgeable as they can be—from the beginning of the story. The best way to go about using the iceberg theory is to let the main character introduce you to the setting.

In this way, you’re “showing” not “telling.”

Otherwise, you would be writing a hatful of plain descriptions.

In essence, write a story that involves the characters experiencing new things or learning in their past or about their setting.

You can also use dialogue to drop hints about some exciting and unusual elements of the story’s setting.

If you’ve read the Harry Potter series, you understand every tip that I’ve given. Not only did J.K Rowling start with a young Harry, but she also patiently added new details as the narrative progressed.

Parts of Your Story That Can Benefit From the Iceberg Theory

If you’re a plotter, you probably go through a lot of details, countless lines, and pages, which are all replete with world-building content, themes, characters, et cetera.

It is always a tough task deciding what content is to be retained and what is to be omitted. You go through your project file in scrivener and you just can’t seem to get it together.

You want to use the iceberg theory but don’t know how to fit it into the story.

Here are some tips on how you can insert Hemmingway’s iceberg theory into the layers of the story:

1. Plot

The plot advances with the help of action, and it is also with the help of action that you can sneak in the iceberg technique into your storytelling.

In every story, the principal characters have interests, goals, or motivations. Once you have these interests figured out, you’ve figured out what drives the character or what they are after.

Therefore, there’s less need to explain the reasons behind some actions, with simple deduction, your readers will understand that the character was simply holding onto or defending whatever it is they care the most about.

2. World Building

a closer look at the map of middle earth
A closer look at the map of Middle Earth.

The way you present the setting needs to make the reader visualize it, they have to live in it and feel it.

So, there are a lot of details involved in world-building, but you don’t need to describe every little thing in this world.

I know you’re dying to show off your inventiveness when it comes to world-building, but it is prudent to stick to relevant elements only and, if you have enough room, subtly sprinkle more details when the story goes on.

3. Characters

Character development is important, and the iceberg theory is a perfect way to unload information about the character as they develop throughout the story.

It requires creative use of the character’s actions to display their emotions and use their problem-solving skills to show their level of intelligence or education.

Whatever technique you use to tell your story, it needs to move forward through action rather than never-ending, mind-numbing descriptions. The reader will keep reading the story if it remains immersive and entertaining. Yes, you wrote it, but they want to be involved as much as possible and want something that arouses their imagination.

How the Iceberg Principle Relates to Content Marketing

Largely, I have covered the iceberg theory with regard to fiction writing, but it is an equally important principle for content marketers.

Come to think of it, isn’t what lies below the surface just as important as what the content your audience is seeing/reading?

When you create, publish, and distribute content for an online audience, what you want is the content to say more than the words on the screen.

The ultimate goal for any content marketer is to always produce compelling content, and usually, most of an iceberg’s mass is underneath the obvious content.  Behind the content is a chain of the marketer’s targets, goals, and overall content marketing strategy.

Therefore, it is the stuff underneath the tip of the continent marketing iceberg that is more important.

In content marketing, the iceberg principle applies more often than not, even without the content marketer’s knowledge of the principle.

how the iceberg principle relates to content marketing

Underneath the surface, you—the marketer—try to study and appreciate your customers’ needs using data gathered from online analytics services or your customer feedback.

Then, you try to fulfill these needs by providing answers to questions and providing content that fills a particular market gap.

Without the intentional or unintentional use of the iceberg principle, you’ll simply create content that is too telltale, amateur, and content that is abortive and begs for a primed marketing strategy.

Final Words on the Hemmingway’s Iceberg Theory

To recap, the Iceberg Theory is a style of writing coined by the Nobel Laureate, Ernest Hemingway.  Hemingway always believed that a story’s deeper meaning should never be in plain sight but be implicitly expressed.

So, he usually focused on surface elements and wove some elements into the content, explicitly discussing underlying themes.

Even when Hemingway was writing newspaper reports, he focused on relevant events while excluding the background. In the words of his biographer, Jeffrey Meyers, “Hemmingway objectively reported only the immediate events to achieve a concentration and intensity of focus—a spotlight rather than a stage.”

Hemingway’s Era might seem like centuries ago, but the principles still apply today. And not only do they apply to fiction writing, but they also apply to journalism, content marketing, and even video content.

About Jessica Majewski

Jessica started off as an avid book reader. After reading one too many romance novels (really... is it ever really enough?), she decided to jump to the other side and started writing her own stories.

She now shares what she has learned (the good and the not so good) here at When You Write, hoping she can inspire more up and coming wordsmiths to take the leap and share their own stories with the world.