Episode 120: The Iceburg Theory

On November 7th, Kasie and Rex looked at the iceburg way of leaving things out of the story on purpose. Here are the show notes:

Theme for the day

The Iceburg


  • Join our community on Patreon
  • What is the iceberg?
  • How does it affect planning?
  • How does it affect revision?
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Link to the Podcast

Segment 1

Thanks to our patrons who continue to support the show and our efforts to bring writing craft lessons to the airwaves. If you’re ready to support the show, go to Patreon.com/WriteOnSC and join at the $5, $10, or $18 level to get access to behind-the-scenes footage, exclusive courses, and promotional work like Profile Pages and author interviews on the YouTube channel.

Did you know we have a YouTube channel? Check us out, dudes!

The Iceburg

Refers, of course, to the idea that the majority of your story is under the surface. So it’s a metaphor? Yep.

It started with Hemingway who said writers show 10% and allow the reader to fill in the other 90% of the story. This blog breaks it down into further detail.

Segment 2

So if only 10% of the story is above the surface — readable — what is beneath it?


  • the historical details, the truth about what life was like in the era, the costumes, the music, the furniture
  • the vocabulary and pace of speech, the in-between words (hello, goodbye)
  • the process — the procedural stuff related to moving between scenes, between places
  • the accuracy — we understand the value of realism, but if we know it happened, do we really have to read it?

For a reporter’s lament about all that wasted research, click here.

Thing is, “is this relevant?” doesn’t help you. As writers, we think it’s all relevant. And if we committed time to researching it, we know it’s relevant.

What You Already Know

  • Character exposition — where they’ve been, what they’ve done, how they feel about it
  • Historical timelines — what has been documented and taught as an understanding of history
  • Repetition — one detail can tell us the same as 15, if it’s the right one; select the right indicator of a set, a scent, or a view

This blog cautions against over-editing remembering that your memories and others’ are not the same.

Segment 3

Can you plan the iceburg?

The iceberg is many things, not the least of which is deceptive. It looks smaller than it is. I looks sturdy and habitable. It looks harmless.

So, when we think about the iceberg of the story, if it is the research and the exposition, what else is it? Icebergs are frequently you (the author) being the expert in a specific space.

So how does the writer not know the answer to various questions?

Hemingway said the writer who leaves out details because he doesn’t know them is cheating the reader. So whether you include the work or not, you have to know. 

What about the approach of seeing the iceberg first and only as we get nearer to it, recognizing the rest of it? Meaning, can the author reveal more and more as the story progresses?

This blog claims the technique is frequently used but seldom mastered. Why? What makes iceberg a hard thing to do?

Does the “theory of omission” leave too much to be interpreted? How do we know what the story is really about? This blog suggests that deductive reasoning with lead you to the correct interpretation. So X and Y and Z might be consistent with one theory, but W and V don’t fit. So it can’t be right.

Is there a difference in omission for effect and omission because of lack of skill or laziness? This blog suggests Hemingway intentionally left shit out. But did he? Or did he make that theory up to excuse the holes in the narrative?

Segment 4

How does the iceburg affect revision?

So how do you do it?

  1. In world-building, the temptation to add all the details to make to world as recognizable as possible is strong. Details, scheme-tails. Give us a (what percent?) of what you’re actually thinking. Enough to 2) establish ‘normal’ and 2) set this world apart from like or similar worlds
  2. The newbie lens — teach the reader about the new world through the lens of someone who just showed up. I.e. Harry Potter.

This blog says to focus on describing the plot, the characters, and the rules that govern the possible outcomes.

Want to learn more about Short Story Basics? Click here to get the class.

Ready to support Write On SC? Go to Patreon.com/WriteOnSC to become a patron!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s