Why writers should be aware of Ernest Hemingway's Iceberg Theory.

Written by Cole Schafer


After perhaps Charles Bukowski, Ernest Hemingway might be the most mimicked writer on the planet. Unfortunately, not unlike banana-flavored candy, it never quite feels like the real thing.

For obvious reasons.

There will forever only be one Hemingway and to copy this literary giant is a fool’s errand. However, understanding his writing style can certainly inform our own writing.

This understanding begins and ends with something he coined…

The Iceberg Theory:

In regards to writing, Hemingway was renowned for two distinct characteristics…

  1. He nearly always wrote in the first person (here’s why).
  2. His prose was sparse, punchy and direct.

The latter was accomplished time and time again through a belief he would eventually coin the Iceberg Theory (also known as the Theory of Omission).

Hemingway believed that much like an iceberg invisibly towering below the ocean’s surface, that most of a story should be hidden from the reader, leaving ample room for imagination to wander and fill in the gaps.

He wrote with the belief that by omitting something, the something being omitted would ultimately become stronger because of its omission.

For example, in Hemingway’s widely read romantic tragedy, A Farewell to Arms, he hardly ever writes of lovemaking but instead hints at it.

Take a look at the following passage…

“That night at the hotel, in our room with the long empty hall outside and our shoes outside the door, a thick carpet on the floor of the room, outside the windows the rain falling and in the room light and pleasant and cheerful, then the light out and it exciting with smooth sheets and the bed comfortable, feeling that we had come home, feeling no longer alone, waking in the night to find the other one there, and not gone away; all other things were unreal.

At the end of that excerpt, he writes “all other things were unreal”… allowing the reader to make their own assumptions of the “other things”.

Hemingway was also notorious for describing characters in this way. He would write about women being pretty or attractive but would not go into great detail on why this was so.

Instead, he left it up to the reader’s imagination to paint the characters faces.

If there is any lesson in Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory, it’s that some things in writing are simply better left unsaid.

By Cole Schafer.