The Iceberg Principle: What It Is And How To Use It To Write

Iceberg Principle

The things we see, hear or read are, in reality, the most superficial layer of all the history that could lie behind it. People’s lives appear like an iceberg only the tip of the large piece of ice being seen.

This reality is what the famous writer Ernest Hemingway used when writing his stories, rather short stories, with few details but with enough information for readers to fill in the gaps in the story.

The iceberg principle is a literary technique used by the American writer Ernest Hemingway which we are going to see below and which can be related to practically any aspect of life, in which there is much more than meets the eye.

What is the Iceberg Principle?

If you read Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) you will get the feeling that his work seems as if it were floating on water. But, despite that, his stories did not shipwreck, quite the opposite. The stories and stories of this American journalist have gone down in the history of universal literature and there are few people who are not familiar with the name of this author, one of the main novelists and short story writers of the 20th century.

The symbolism of Hemingway’s stories is found underwater, a metaphor that fits very well with the name of the technique he coined: the iceberg principle. What he wants to tell about his stories cannot be seen with a mere quick and superficial reading of what the famous writer captured with printed words, but through assumptions. The core of his stories was suggested, in the form of brushstrokes that cannot be captured by reading verbatim.

His Iceberg principle is simple to understand. According to Hemingway, every story should reflect only a small part of the story, leaving the rest to the reading and interpretation of the readers. Just as when we see an iceberg floating, what we are seeing is only its surface, with about 90% of the large piece of ice submerged, not visible to the naked eye.

History should not reveal the true background gratuitously, it must be like that iceberg, be suggested and make the reader strive to see it. With this we are not talking about morals or double meanings, although they can also be included in that submerged part of the iceberg. The concept proposed by Hemingway goes much further. For example, if we want to talk about love through a story, what we can do is focus the story on a couple who fights while on vacation.

You may be interested:  What is Personal Coaching? 7 Benefits of a Coach for Your Mental Health

Through this discussion we will enter into a greater reality, love itself, and the consequences associated with aspects of a couple’s coexistence, such as lack of communication or time in the life of a couple. All of this could be done without explicitly talking about love in the text.

Application of the technique

Applying this technique, Hemingway first wrote or thought of a complete story and, later, when he had everything formed, with every detail and aspect of the story thought out, he eliminated up to 80% of its content, leaving only and exclusively the essential. With this method he forced readers to make the effort to fill in the gaps left by the writer with their own interpretation.

On many occasions, Hemingway wrote his stories by making the plot revolve around a conflict or a topic that is not explicitly mentioned throughout the text, leaving it up to the reader to discover what is happening. Thanks to this technique, meticulously selecting the information worthy of being put in the text and also omitting the convenient one, it made the reader have to reread the story, even though with the first reading he felt that there was something that had struck a chord with him. .

Hemingway's iceberg theory

Hemingway did not delete information randomly He followed his own criteria, one so extremely good that it was what made him go down in the history of universal literature. The American journalist eliminated those parts that he considered superfluous and that did not point or direct what he wanted the reader to understand. Although in a subtle way, he managed to ensure that what he put in the story, in the end, took the reader where Hemingway wanted to direct him.

It is said that Ernest Hemingway began to mature this theory during 1923, after finishing his story “Out of Season.” The author himself commented that omitted the true ending of this story, which was that the old man who stars in the story ended up hanging himself. Hemingway omitted this part, which apparently is so crucial, but it helped him see that, according to his then new theory, any part can be omitted and that it will be that omitted part that will reinforce the narrative.

You may be interested:  32 Things You Do to Yourself That You Should Eliminate from Your Life

One of Hemingway’s biographers, Carlos Baker, once commented that the writer learned how to make the most of the least, of shorten language and avoid unnecessary movements to multiply the intensity and the way of saying nothing but the truth in a way that allows more of it to be told.

Practical example of this method of writing

It is difficult to fully understand how Hemingway’s method works if you have never read one of his stories For this reason we are going to talk (and also reveal) one of his stories: “Hills like white elephants.” This story presents us with an apparently trivial conversation between a couple of Americans who are waiting for the arrival of a train to Madrid at a station near the Ebro River. The couple is talking while observing the landscape and drinking some beer and anise. The story ends with the announcement of the train’s arrival.

The story is, basically, a conversation in which we are clearly told that the couple is going to a place where the girl will have to undergo an operation and the two will discuss whether or not to continue with the plan. And little else. The man doesn’t even have a name and the young woman we only know is that her name is Jig. Their appearance is not described nor is there hardly any talk about how they behave or what mannerisms they have.

The story is pure dialogue and has almost no temporal markers. It is a story with a sober appearance and very natural, plain and simple language.

However, as the reader reads more carefully, you may intuit that the two characters are talking about a possible abortion, an intervention that will have consequences for the continuity of the couple. That would be the first level of depth of the text, and it is something that can be interpreted this way since the text contains many elements that reinforce that idea.

You may be interested:  Why Thinking Positively is Not Always the Solution to Bad Times

For example, the characters are in a relationship crisis, something that is reinforced by the space in which they find themselves, a stopover observing a Mediterranean landscape. On one side of the tracks, the landscape is green and exudes fertility, while the other is arid and dry, symbols of pregnancy and abortion, respectively. The girl comments that the very dry hills actually look like white elephants, something that could be interpreted as a metaphor for fertility. Even Hemingway shows duality when he states that the two have a different vision of the taste of anise.

But We haven’t reached the deepest layer of the iceberg yet Beneath that layer, we find another more submerged one that talks about the couple’s situation and their breakup. The story confirms the differences between the two characters and that reconciliation is impossible. The possibility arises that neither of the two options, abortion or not, is the solution to their problems. The couple is already broken, and no matter what is done, there will be no possible solution. The couple ends up separated when the train arrives, although, as readers, we never see how the transport appears.

By recapitulating the story and relating it to the beginning of the iceberg, we can make a mental and graphic image of the data given to us in the story. The most superficial layer is what is read verbatim in the text, each of the words put in Hemingway’s handwriting. The next two layers are what actually give us a more extensive view of the story, getting closer to its core. Read superficially, this is nothing more than a banal conversation between a traveling couple, but that is not what is actually happening.