Icebergs and Backstory – What holds your story up?

“If a writer knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one ninth of it being above water. “

© Robert Davies |

At the Bread Loaf in Sicily conference which I’m recently back from, my instructor, the brilliant Lynn Freed, showed us a gorgeous image of an iceberg and mentioned Hemingway’s quote above. It’s an important topic for every fiction writer to remember.
When I’m working at the Red Oak Young Writers summer writing camps, I often find myself talking about the backstory. And, I’ve heard myself say more than once, “I don’t think you really know enough about this character yet. You need to know what got him/her to this point — what happened before? The reader doesn’t have to know it all, but you do.”
A wise writer friend of mine once recommended I journal as my character at a point where I was uncertain of something I needed to be certain of. That technique has helped me more than once when I needed to learn more to create a believable character/situation.
The best short stories and novels don’t overwhelm with the foundations, the past events and experiences that led to this moment in the character’s life; rather, the best authors are so clear on those unseen moments – the iceberg below the water – that the reader senses what he/she needs to know to wholeheartedly accept, and maybe even love, the character and the story.
Happy #writing all. Hope thinking about icebergs might help you and your work one of these days.

4 thoughts on “Icebergs and Backstory – What holds your story up?

  1. Pam, this is a great reminder — not only that as writers we need to know a lot more than we put on the page, but (equally important) we need to take OFF the page all that fascinating backstory that doesn’t move the plot. Only to his or her creator is every character infinitely fascinating! Many a book (& play) is sunk by a writer’s publishing “homework” along with the story, just because it took so much time & effort to produce.

    • Carol, I agree, especially with your second to last line, “Only to his or her creator is every character infinitely fascinating!” Hope all is well. I always appreciate your voicing your comments here. Have a great day.

  2. I’m a huge devotee of Hemingway’s iceberg theory of writing. An author who took Hemingway’s theory and made it her own is Joan Didion. In both her novels and essays, what she doesn’t say is more important than what she does–the result is narrative that is easy and clean to read but emotionally so layered and complex a single sentence can make you weep.

    • Thanks for that reminder re Joan Didion, Sandi. I haven’t read enough of her work, but she often comes up from another of my writer friends. I will move her high on my to read list.

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