Hemmingway’s Tip Of The Iceberg: Omit What the Reader Knows

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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. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.
—Ernest Hemingway in Death in the Afternoon[1

This quote from Hemmingway’s, Death in the Afternoon, is a timely reminder that most of what the reader picks up from a really good piece of prose is submerged. Writers sometimes go to great lengths to make sure that the reader understands every detail and assumes a lack of understanding. Writing can, in this instance, lose it’s subtlety and and crush the flow of the words. You can feel what a good writer is implying without the words actually reaching the page. A good book is charged with these undercurrents and the reader can dig down and grasp emotions and ideas which are never actually written.

To give an example, yesterday I read the Costa Short Story Award winner Avril Joy’s beautiful piece, Millie and Bird. I won’t give anything away but the key theme is always implied, never stated, and deftly written in the hands of a writer who knows her craft. Her story is both lyrical and compelling. Those of you who have been following know that I am currently immersed in short stories (both reading and writing) and I was particularly struck by this one. A well deserving winner, I would say.

Alison Moore’s, The Lighthouse, also follows a strong theme of rejection and loneliness without it ever being stated. The reader is swept away by the desperation of the protagonist’s situations in both his past and present.

I particularly like Hemmingway’s description of the dignity of an iceberg’s movement. Remembering that those critical seven eights of its mass are under water should serve as a warning not to push everything up to the surface or to write all the words into the frame of your picture.

3 thoughts on “Hemmingway’s Tip Of The Iceberg: Omit What the Reader Knows

  1. Of all my faults, this is one I’m pretty good at, because I hate wordy prose and over-description.

    It’s good advice.

    1. It’s difficult to keep yourself in check over descriptions.

  2. Lovely post on the importance of subtlety. Especially enjoyed that last sentence – it should be pinned above many a Writer’s desk! Thanks for sharing 😉

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