Many writers have heard Ernest Hemingway’s “Iceberg Theory” of writing from Death in the Afternoon. It goes like this:
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.
Hemingway’s sentiment makes a good deal of sense: You can’t include everything your reader might want to know in the story. There just isn’t enough room—and, worse, you then leave the reader with no work to do on their part, nothing to infer. And readers like to infer; they like to participate in the story. If you, the writer, know the details that aren’t explicitly stated, you let readers read into things—and that’s what they’re here to do, right?
Without going so far as Hemingway and giving my complementary theory a name, I’d like to provide another lens into how to make the omissions in a story bolster it even more. Rather than just see it as the things you’re intentionally leaving out, see it as the context that surrounds the story.
Oh heck, let’s give it a name. Call it the Snapshot Theory.
So often in my creative writing classes at Gotham Writers, I see students who begin their stories at the first word and end them at the last word. Nothing seems to be important enough beforehand to provide any context for what leads up to this point, and there’s no indication of where the story is headed after that last word. If you want a story to truly live – to hit a level of authenticity that the reader is sucked into this narrative–you have to see the story as existing in more than just this first-to-last-word vacuum. It exists in its own fictional timeline in a world just like our own.
When you’re eating a bowl of cereal in the morning, is that all you’re doing? No. You’re thinking about that game you played last night and whether you’ll have time to play again today. You’re getting ready to work, scheduling out your day. And I’ll bet you had to wake up and get to that bowl of cereal to eat it, and I’ll bet that you did something after breakfast as well.
Use that same thought process around your story. Something happened before, something happened after. Both are important.
Let’s say your story takes place in a car. A married couple is arguing while driving, and they hit something. Maybe the story starts with the characters arguing about who should be driving because both had been drinking. They go back and forth, getting angrier and angrier, and all they do is talk about who drank more and how their marriage has fallen apart. Then they hit something and pull the car over and have to check the damage, all the while still arguing.
That’s the scene, but it’s not the whole story. If you created these characters to live in the vacuum between the first and the last word, don’t be surprised when your characters come out looking and sounding flat, with very little resonance after that final punctuation mark.
Because that’s all you gave them.
Think of your scene—your story—as a photograph. Sure, the photograph can tell a story in and of itself. But if that photograph captures a movement, or an emotion, it exists beyond just the snapshot you’ve captured.
Picture a photograph of a tiger mid-leap. Beautiful in its own context, but the viewer has two things to think about—where is the tiger leaping from, and what is it leaping to? Maybe we can analyze its face. Is it hunting? Is it leaping onto its prey? Is it leaping away from something, to avoid something?
There is so much that exists outside of the photo’s frame. It lets the viewer actively participate in the picture and draw their own inferences from it, thus maximizing their engagement. You want your story to be the leaping tiger.
(Is it too late to call it the Leaping Tiger Theory?)
Now, let’s get back to that car ride. All we know as far as what happened before was that the characters were drinking. All we know about what might happen after is that they are arguing. There isn’t a whole lot for the reader to do here. They can guess: Maybe they were coming from a date, from a dinner party, from a midnight barbecue in a shuttered parking garage. Who knows? And as for what happens after…who knows? They seem to have disdain for each other. They’ll probably keep arguing, since that’s all we’ve seen them do.
But that’s not what you want the reader to think. You want the reader to think about where they’re coming from. Not just where they were drinking (my money is on the shuttered parking garage) but also how long they’ve been together, what sort of obstacles they’ve overcome in their relationship, if they think they have a future together. Those aren’t all details you can fit into a short story, nor should you try to, but as a writer, if you know these details and have plotted them out, then Hemingway would tell you that you’ve done your part, and the reader will do the rest.
What do your characters talk about?
Dialogue is important: It shows how characters speak, and it helps build their authenticity on the page, but it also conveys information. If they argue about nothing other than how much the other was drinking, we get very little out of it. But even with that foundation, the reader can infer things from the way they speak to each other. Do they have a cutting attitude? Are they trying to hurt the other or just make a point? Is there any sense of humor at all?
There are lots of different kinds of arguments. Instead of dropping in a bunch of words and tones in your story, you can strive to understand where their relationship is coming from, both short term and long term, and make educated dialogue and reactionary decisions based on that.
Are both characters attacking each other? Are they hurting each other’s feelings? Is one on the attack and the other playing defense? These dialogue choices go a long way toward substantiating who these characters are and what their relationship is together, thus building out the options of what happened before and after this story took place.
This is the difference between hollow and substantial, if you ask Hemingway.
As for the ending, if all we’ve ever seen them do is argue, the reader has no work to do. This couple is done for, and there’s no reason to see it any other way. But if there’s even the smallest note of compassion—maybe after they hit whatever it is they hit, they make sure each other is OK before going back to arguing—that makes a world of difference. All of a sudden, the reader is thinking about what went wrong to lead to this fight, or how they still care about each other—and how there may still be hope for them to patch things up afterward.
All this, from one little check-in.
Putting it all together
For the purposes of this example, let’s call the driver Fritz and the passenger Tango. Rather than having the story center solely on their argument about who drank too much, why don’t they argue about how at the Tango family Christmas party, one cousin awkwardly hit on Fritz, and Fritz went along with it for far too long? Besides, the rest of the Tango family never liked Fritz that much anyway. But the Fritz family always liked Tango, and no cousin ever hit on Tango. And how about how Tango broke their sobriety because they saw this wayward cousin and Fritz’s entertainment of the flirting? And maybe Fritz is worried about Tango’s relapse into drinking, but all Tango wants to talk about is if Fritz is going to keep in touch with that cousin.
Sidestepping the awful names, there is so much crammed into an argument that goes into this kind of detail. We know that this couple has been together long enough to meet each other’s family and establish their own opinions of each other’s family. We know that jealousy is a factor in their relationship, that Tango can be self-destructive but that Fritz wants to make sure everything is OK, and that Tango knows the cousin thing wasn’t really the cousin thing wasn’t really the catalyst for Tango’s drinking so much as Tango’s low self-esteem.
Fritz seems to care. But is Fritz just deflecting from the cousin incident?
It’s not hard to factor these kinds of details into a conversation, which then works to cast the story backward (in a good way) far beyond that first word. As the reader, we have all kinds of contextual information to fill in pieces as to what led them to this dark, desolate highway in the middle of the night.
Projecting forward is even easier. Any story that dead-ends on the last word has some major underlying issues, but as the writer, you should go that extra mile to establish some direction for the reader’s thoughts. We’ve already covered that check-in. Showing a contrasting emotion to the pervading feel of the story. If they are arguing the whole time, give the reader one show of love and affection. Or if they’re lovey-dovey the whole time, give a show of irritation or anger.
Why do you think some of the most memorable characters of all time are the likes of Severus Snape, Jaime Lannister, Darth Vader? These are all characters of intense and diverse emotions. They don’t just feel one thing. The same goes for a story. Even if your story has one pervading emotion, introducing contrast opens up a world of possibilities for the reader regarding what comes afterward.