Hemingway's Iceberg Theory

The best short story I've read is only 6 words

WB Logo

Before we dive in… a big thank you to this week’s sponsor.

David's Image

Three years ago, Ana Fabrega was a teacher who wanted to write about education on the internet. But she had a tiny audience and no idea where to start.

Today, she’s on the C-suite of an ed-tech startup, writes to an audience of 150,000+, and recently released her first book The Learning Game through one of the most respected publishing houses in the world.

Her writing journey started with David Perell’s Write of Passage.

And on March 13th, David’s running a free workshop on How To Start Writing Online. If you’re interested, join me and 100s of others at the free workshop.

Ernest Hemingway wrote what may be the most gut-wrenching short story I’ve ever read.

“For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.”

Oof. Six words, but so much to unpack and so much that’s left unsaid.

  • Did the baby pass away?

  • Was the baby male or female?

  • Was there a miscarriage? An abortion?

  • Did the girlfriend or wife leave the guy before the baby was born?

Hemingway doesn’t answer these questions. Because he knows something about storytelling that us mere mortals, you and I, may struggle with.

Storytelling is more about the details you omit than the details you include.

It’s not what happens in the story that’s important, it’s the feeling imparted. And those six words hit like a gut punch because he doesn’t tell you the details.

This is a core philosophy of Hemingway's writing approach — the 'iceberg theory' of storytelling.

The Iceberg Theory of Storytelling

Hemingway said: “If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.”

You and I may not be Hemingway, but we can use this idea, too.

When you omit a piece of your story, your audience doesn’t just skip that part. Instead, you entice your audience to use their imagination. To make their own inferences.

Your audience fills in the story for you. But, naturally, they do it in such a way that resonates most with them. Each audience member creates a slice of story that’s uniquely theirs. Something only they could come up with.

Think again about Hemingway’s short story. Do you think it means the same to you as someone else reading it?

Let me give you two examples of the Iceberg Theory in action to make the idea a bit more concrete:

  • In Hills Like White Elephants, Hemingway writes about a man and a woman discussing an operation the woman is considering. But he doesn’t tell you what the operation actually is. You have to infer through their dialogue.

  • In Gone Girl, author Gillian Flynn doesn’t just withhold info, she deliberately gives you the wrong info through an unreliable narrator. It’s a genius move. By strategically omitting info, Flynn gets her readers to act as detectives. You can’t read this book and not try to solve the murder case yourself.

By omitting part of the story, you engage your audience in an entirely new way. They become a secondary storyteller. An active participant. A co-creator.

It’s not just your story, now it’s theirs too.

Have an awesome weekend,


PS. Open Loops is a great micro-essay to pair with Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory.

Want to go deeper on storytelling? Two ways I can help:

1. Storytelling: Zero to One. Over 300 folks joined the first iteration of Storytelling: Zero to One. If you missed it and want to join the waitlist for V2, just click here.

2. StoryWork. If you want a practical way to improve your storywriting in less than 25 minutes daily, check out StoryWork (350+ students).

Thanks for reading! What’d you think of today’s letter?