Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory: A Tool for Detail

by Renee Seledotis

Ernest Hemingway’s “Iceberg Theory” states that the deeper meaning of a story should shine through implicitly. Like an iceberg, the surface of the story, what is revealed to the reader, should be barely anything compared to what lies beneath. The more the author knows about the story, the fuller and richer it gets, even if the reader is not privy to this massive underwater block of information.

We’ve all read stories where it seems that the characters are floating in space, shut in by the margins of the page. The best pieces hint at characters’ pasts, at the happenings of the world around them, and at what drove them to the action of the story. As authors, this is something that we should all be thinking about. I like to surprise myself with the first draft, then think about it and rewrite it using questions like these:

·        Who are the main character’s parents? How much interaction did they have? Are they similar to the main character or different? How was their childhood?

·        Who’s the president? That is, who’s the leader, the most famous political figure, the one who gets to decide policy? How do the characters engage with the politics of the setting? How do the politics affect them?

·        What would a normal day look like for the main character? A story practically demands separation from the everyday in the form of conflict. If the inciting incident didn’t happen, what would the character be doing?

·        How do the characters know each other? How did they meet? What have they done in the past together? What will they do in the future together?

·        Who do the characters know? Who impacted them, and how? Don’t be afraid to develop characters that the audience will never meet.

·        Where do the characters live? What does it look like? What material possessions do they keep in their living space or on their person?

·        How much does the character know about the world around them? Where does that knowledge come from? Vice-versa; what don’t they know and why?

Sometimes, the answers to these questions develop naturally as you experiment with a character, or as the story expands. Sometimes they require a bit more thought. Still, I hope that this list helps when it comes to building a more fleshed-out world. You don’t need to know what kind of cheese is your character’s favorite or where their great-great-grandpa worked (unless these are important to the story), but asking general questions like these will help the characters seem more real and those details will give the piece some weight.

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