Author in Focus: Ernest Hemingway and the Iceberg Effect

Author in Focus: Ernest Hemingway and the Iceberg Effect 

Ernest Hemingway 1923 Passport Photograph, 1923

Ernest Hemingway 1923 Passport Photograph, 1923 (Photo credit: The U.S. National Archives)

Hemingway Bio:

Ernest Miller Hemingway was an American author and journalist. His economical and understated style had a strong influence on 20th-century fiction, while his life of adventure and his public image influenced later generations. Wikipedia

Born: July 21, 1899, Oak Park, IL

Died: July 2, 1961, Ketchum, ID

Movies: For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, More

Spouse: Mary Welsh Hemingway (m. 1946–1961), More

Children: Jack Hemingway, Gregory Hemingway, Patrick Hemingway

Why Hemingway?

Ernest Hemingway, was many things to many people and widely criticized for his machismo.  But for this purpose, let’s focus on his style of prose known by a term coined by Hemingway himself: The Iceberg Effect.

The Iceberg Effect 

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

Hemingway’s prose bears out this philosophy which is in essence saying less is more. As a writer, I find nothing more liberating in my work than to edit out text, reducing it to what I consider to be the essential words.

But this is very subjective and to reduce prose in the extreme way that Hemingway did, is difficult.

It’s particularly difficult when you are dealing with events in the past, pertinent to the narrative. But the reader is there for a good story, not a history lesson.

“Hills Like White Elephants”

One of his most famous short stories is “Hills Like White Elephants”. The couple in the story is drawn in such sparse prose, it leaves much to the reader’s interpretation. The man is never given a name, and though it appears the couple are simply killing time while waiting for a train, they are in fact alluding to whether or not the girl should have an abortion and whether they will split up. All if this is done in basic exchanges of dialogue, and straightforward snatches of information. Here is an excerpt:

‘They’re lovely hills,’ she said. ‘They don’t really look like white elephants. I just meant the 

colouring of their skin through the trees.’ 

‘Should we have another drink?’ 

‘All right.’ 

The warm wind blew the bead curtain against the table. 

‘The beer’s nice and cool,’ the man said. 

‘It’s lovely,’ the girl said. 

‘It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,’ the man said. ‘It’s not really an operation at all.’ 

The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on. 

‘I know you wouldn’t mind it, Jig. It’s really not anything. It’s just to let the air in.’ 

The girl did not say anything. 

The whole of the story is full of metaphor and innuendo, leaving the final interpretation up to the reader to make assumptions about the couples’ dynamic and what they are actually talking about.

Ernest Hemingway

Cover of Ernest Hemingway

Why The Iceberg Effect?

Supposedly Hemingway and others of his era, chose this style of writing as a backlash to the elaborate style of some 19th century writers e.g. Henry James.

What is your response to this minimalist style of writing? Do you know any 21st Century writers who write like this?

Come join the discussion, and please share this post on your favorite social media. 

Many Thanks!

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Author in Focus is a blog series featuring vignettes on some of the greatest writers of the 20th & 21st century.

“A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.”  ~ Italo Calvino



  1. I admire writers who can write so succintly. Hemingway was a master.

    A thougt to apply to my artwork.
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  2. I find that whatever the style, good writing is good writing. Hemingway was a master at this style like no other. I marvel at his word smithing, and how he draws out imagery with so few words. 🙂
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  3. I love Hemingway’s writing style. Most of the time I attempt to bring the same succinct style into my own writing, but there is still so much to learn.
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  4. This is a great series A.K. I love the vignette style. Hemingway has always been an enigma to me. He’s the author of some of my least favorite works of literature and also one of my very favorites!
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  5. Hi A.K.

    Reminds me of an Oprah talk I heard on information gaps…to keep readers interested. True, if the author doesn’t know what they’re doing with it, they’ll look ridiculous.

    But it can be super powerful.

    Lines like this say so much! ….The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on.
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    • What you don’t say is definitely as important as what you do say – in fiction at least. But it’s a skill to be learned that’s for sure. Ian McEwan is v. keen on that style. But his work can be so minimal the narrative is overly oblique. e. g. On Chesil Beach. And I agree, the line you picked out is real powerful. Thanks so much for your comment.
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  6. I like the new look of your blog, A.K.

    Thx for posting that pic of Hemmingway as a young man. I’d never seen that one! He was dashing.

    I do think that using intrigue definitely adds to the writing. You know the saying “Show, don’t tell.” It’s so true. Create the ambiance and the reader will be intrigued and want more. Cheers!
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  7. Hemingway’s style is not for sissies, that’s for sure! I’ve been told more than once my style can be brusque, but I do aim to cut as many words as possible. Not that I really attempt to leave it to the reader to make meaning in what’s left unsaid. That is such a hard literary device to pull off, but a technique most writers are well-served to try to achieve. One a side note, I’ve seen the house he was born in Oak Park as well as where he committed suicide in Ketchum. Even better is the tour of his house in Key West. He used to have a ton of cats, and to this day, volunteers help feed the cats that still roam the property. He even used a urinal from Sloppy Joe’s to make a drinking trough for the kitties too 😉
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    • Great all round comment Jeri. I’d read about the cats, but totally wild that their offspring are being tended to. As to leaving things unsaid, it is difficult to achieve without it being contrived or overly obtuse. When I can get rid of the verb to be from much of my text , I’ll get back to you on that one- ha,ha. Less is more is my current mantra. Unsaid will have to take its turn unfortunately.
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  8. I loved that. There are so many valuable lessons we can learn from the master writers.
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  9. Hemingway was a master, no doubt. I enjoyed his style from the get go and I started reading him in high school. Less is more in practically everything and most specifically in writing. Some celebrated literary writers have me yawning with their long descriptive phrases when 20 less words would have done the trick. Personally, it takes me out the story…I disengage and then have to jump back in. Love the series AK!
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    • Thanks so much for the comment Jacquie. Glad the series appeals to you. Long descriptive passages can be OK , but only from the very few, (Margaret Atwood comes to mind) but even then they need to be well balanced with short ones. But generally speaking writers who ramble tend to be writers who make me yawn too. I’ve now decided to close novels and move on a lot quicker now, so they won’t hold me for too long .
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  10. This is so interesting to me A.K. As I am writing my business book for introverts, my editor is teaching me to say more with less. I’ve never heard of it referred to as the iceberg effect; such a great metaphor.

    There was so much I used to read of author’s like Hemingway and when people as you start a discussion around them, it brings along wonderful memories.

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    • How synchronistic pat:-) it’s definitely a skill to learn. Frankly I don’t feel I have it as pinned down as I’d like, but I’m getting there. It’s exciting that you’re writing a book for introverts, but I can imagine your editor is lengthening the process . Rewrites are so essential but do take time that’s for sure. Thanks so much for stopping by Pat.
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  11. It’s been a long time since I read Hemingway. He was never a favourite of mine, though. Having said that I regard him as a great writer who didn’t get the Nobel prize for nothing,

    Speaking of the name Hemingway, will never forget when 25 years ago someone in Japan thought I looked like a young Margaux Hemingway. Have to admit I was flattered.
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    • My thought exactly Catarina – we so often agree it seems. I thought more of him until I discovered his macho side I guess. In re-reading, I feel some of his work is dated, in a way that Steinbeck for example who write in a similar period is most definitely not.. Good for you being compared to Margaux Hemingway. Must have been a real boost.
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  12. I enjoy Hemingway. Although he writes in a minimalist style his stories are rich in substance. This is a difficult line to walk. I personally like some ambiguity in writing. I don’t like everything handed to me. It is very difficult to write in minimalist style and keep in interesting. As Blaise Pascal said, “I made this letter longer than usual because I lack the time to make it short.”
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  13. Kathleen Schmitt says:

    Hemmingway was all the rage when I took English literature. I found his style interesting and liked to emulate it. However, I never liked his attitude toward women, either. I’m not sure even For Whom the Bell Tolls will save him there.

    Thanks for your ongoing blogs, A. K. Look forward to more.

    (Sorry my blog sites are down at the moment.)

    • I enjoyed Hemingway more when I was too young to realize what his attitude to women was. But I will try For Whom the bell Tolls. The short story above I did find inspirational I must confess. I read The Sun Also Rises which was one of Times best 100 novels a couple of months ago & found it dated, and the women painted in an unlikeable manner. Good to see you here Kathleen:-) Do let me know when your blog sites are up again.
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  14. I have a tendency to babble so this style would be very difficult for me to master. With that said, I do edit my writing a lot and try to get rid of the extra fluff. I think I have a long way to go to achieve this style of writing though.
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  15. I loved reading Hemingway when I was young. I thought his style was unique and didn’t even consider trying it myself. Nor did I want to write about the things he did. I certainly do edit out the unnecessary verbage in my own writing however. Nice article.
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    • I also enjoyed reading him more when I was younger and first discovering writers. But although I applaud the “Iceberg Effect”, his subject matter is not something I look to for inspiration. Give me Helen Dunmore or Margaret Atwood any day over Hemingway. But we learn what we can from wherever we can too. Thanks for stopping by. I appreciate your comment.
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  16. There was a time when writers were paid by the word, which of course, runs counter to the idea of minimalist writing. I am a published poet and poetry is definitely a minimalist art. The more you can show without telling, and in as few words as possible, even if the poem is long, the better. This makes for well chosen words and also gives the reader credit for what they bring to a story or poem when they are reading it.
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    • Poetry is a fantastic way to limit your word output, that’s for sure – I would highly recommend it for any writer. It’s very liberating to strip everything back to the bare bones. As you say, even if the poem is longer the same applies. I like your comment too about what the reader brings to the story or poem, particularly the latter which can be very open to interpretation.Thanks so much for stopping by:-)
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  17. I studied Hemingway in school but I didn’t fully appreciate him until I became and adult. I has a way with words it kind of plays with your imagination.
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  18. Good writing is good writing. For me I find it difficult sometimes to read and understand without going over it several times. I really have to be in the mood to put in the effort to read this type of writing. But again, good writing is good writing.
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  19. I do enjoy Hemingway. Sure he has a minimalist style but it wouldn’t work if his stories weren’t compelling. One of my favorite books of all time — written well over a half a century ago — and still as popular as ever is “The Elements of Style” by Strunk & White. They famously state, “eliminate needless words.” A must read for every writer.
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  20. So glad you mention Strunk & White’. I don’t think it’s as widely known as it could be & despite its age it really packs a punch. Thanks for reminding me. I should include it in a post sometime. 🙂
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