Monday, July 16, 2012

Ernest Hemingway's Iceberg Theory

I attended a fantastic workshop over the weekend presented by author Cinda Williams Chima, on creating compelling characters.  Something Ms. Chima mentioned that's helped her develop the intriguing characters of her YA fantasy novels is Ernest Hemingway's Iceberg Theory

A Young Ernest Hemingway
If you're like me, and not familiar with that theory, here's what it is, courtesy of Wikipedia:

In 1923 Hemingway conceived of the idea of a new theory of writing after finishing his short story "Out of Season". In A Moveable Feast, his posthumously published memoirs about his years as a young writer in Paris, he explains: "I omitted the real end [of "Out of Season"] which was that the old man hanged himself. This was omitted on my new theory that you could omit anything ... and the omitted part would strengthen the story." In the opening chapter of Death in the Afternoon he compares his theory about writing to an iceberg.

Hemingway biographer Carlos Baker believed that as a writer of short stories Hemingway learned "how to get the most from the least, how to prune language and avoid waste motion, how to multiply intensities, and how to tell nothing but the truth in a way that allowed for telling more than the truth." Furthermore, Baker explains that in the writing style of the iceberg theory the hard facts float above water, while the supporting structure, complete with symbolism, operates out-of-sight.

The Tip of the Iceberg
So what the audience reads is only the tip if the iceberg! Just think of all the back story and info dumps you’ve cut from your finished novels and short stories. You know a lot more about your narrative than your reader ever will—and that makes for a much richer story.  In addition, all that hidden information can go into creating a sequel!

Had you ever heard of Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory? If not, have you been using it without knowing there was a term for it? Thanks for visiting!


Intangible Hearts said...

I wish I could say I've been using it but alas I probably tell everything because that's my style. My not so icy idea is to give small snippets of things in each chapter to create the entire glacier which hopefully will be put together in the reader's head. That's my plan anyway. I think I heard of Hemingway's Iceberg Theory and I agree that readers want to figure out what happens.

Scarlett and James said...

Can't recall having had heard of it ourselves... but it's a good notion.

Maria McKenzie said...

@Eve: That sounds like a good way to do it--little snippets at a time. I was a big victim of info dumps, but finally got that under control;)!

@Scarlett and James: I'm glad I'm not the only person out there in wrting world not familiar with it!

Jennette Marie Powell said...

I hadn't heard it before the workshop on Saturday, but it totally made sense! Of course, my earlier efforts were guilty of all the infodump, backstory goodness typical of beginners. If I'd left that stuff in Time's Enemy, it would have been 250,000 words! As it was, I still had to cut a TON to get it down to its eventual 120,000. Now I do my best to leave it out in the first place!

Maria McKenzie said...

I've also learned to leave out a lot! I used to tell way too much:).

Gina Gao said...

I've never heard of it, but it sounds interesting. Thanks for sharing!

Maria McKenzie said...

You're wlcome, Gina, and thanks for visiting:)!

William Kendall said...

I hadn't heard of it, Maria. Fascinating though!

Maria McKenzie said...

I agree;)!