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Writing Iceberg Stories


Ernest Hemingway once gave an interview in which he compared his writing to an iceberg. The words on the page represented the visible part of the iceberg. The part of the iceberg we do not see, which is up to 90% sitting under water, is the rest of the story.

Hemingway is the master of saying it without saying it. That annoys some people, but a few others and I find this the most compelling reading and the most advanced writing.

Hemingway’s Greatest Icebergs

These are just a few examples of what I’m talking about.

  • The Sun Also Rises – A nymphomaniac is in love with an impotent man. Hemingway never tells us he’s impotent, but still makes it clear.
  • A Farewell To Arms – They are not in love, even though they constantly tell each other how in love they are.
  • Hills Like White Elephants – A man tries to convince his girlfriend to have an abortion in a story that doesn’t even use the word “abortion,” or “baby” or “pregnancy.”
  • Ten Indians – Nick’s father lies to him about the unfaithfulness of his girlfriend because she is an Indian.
  • Big Two-Hearted River – This is pretty much all iceberg. It’s a story of a man who goes fishing. It has traditionally been understood as a man home from the war suffering from shell-shock. I mostly agree, but I think the man is still at war. He is wandering the battle front of Italy, but his mind is fishing back in Michigan.

The Best Example Yet

These are not the only examples, but just a few of the clearer ones. And yet, there is one work of Hemingway’s that uses iceberg composition so well, that I thought it should be set aside and discussed with a little more detail. I’m talking about the short story “Indian Camp.”

It’s a story about an eight-year-old Nick Adams who goes with his father, Dr. Adams, and his uncle George to an Indian camp near their fishing cabin in Michigan. Dr. Adams has to help with a difficult delivery of a child. Uncle George goes along because he is the father of the child. Of course, this is never said. This part of the story is submerged beneath the text, but is still a clear understanding. Consider the following facts from the story.

  • George’s boat arrives first.
  • George hands out cigars to others Indians there on the shore.
  • The woman in labor screams when Dr. Adams, Nick, and Uncle George enter her house. It seems she is screaming when she sees George.
  • The woman’s husband lays in a bunk above with a gangrenous wound on the foot (traditionally in literature, a wound beneath the waist is symbolic of impotency).
  • The woman bites George on the arm, and when he later looks at the wound, others Indians smile “reminiscently,” as if to say, “I remember when my wife bit me when she delivered our first child.”
  • After the delivery, the mother looked pale, which is a way of saying the baby is pale-skinned, which indicates a white father.
  • Dr. Adams says he should check out the father, who suffers the worst from “these little affairs.”
  • The husband had cut his throat during the delivery. He had known all along that he was not the father of the child, and now with the delivery his shame will be open.
  • Uncle George stays behind after Dr. Adams and Nick return to their fishing cabin across the lake.

These are all visible parts of the iceberg that tells us about what rests underneath. If you haven’t read it in a while, you may want to do so.

A Challenge To Us Writers

Even if you’re not a fan of Hemingway, if you’re a writer, trying reading some of his work, as well as the industry of other minimalists. Try to write something in a minimalist style, even if it is nothing more than an exercise. The value of minimalism to a writer is that it forces you show and will not allow you to tell. You’re writing not only becomes focused on details, but on those that are the only ones you need.

You may not wish to try your next novel or short story that you wish published in the Hemingway style, but having learned it, you will be a better writer. And who knows, but you might find yourself wishing to go on a fishing trip or see a bullfight. Now go and enjoy those icebergs, just don’t crash into one.

I can’t wait to read your thoughts on this. Please let me know what you think in the Comments section below.


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Show, Don’t Tell


This is the A-1 capitol axiom of Creative Writing. When I took classes, this was something the professor said over and over to me and all of the other students. This is hard skill to get down, in fact, I’m still working on this one. I probably will be for the rest of my life.

If you are a writer, then you need to show us the action of the narrative. Don’t tell us how it happened. This comes down to using great verbs or weak modifiers, such as adjectives and adverbs. Clear action told with strong verbs makes a story a much better read always than anything else. If you show instead of tell, then you can take two sentences of telling and make into two, three, or four pages of wonderful telling (if not more).

When I was taught, my professor used an example from Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon, and I still use today when I teach Creative Writing to someone. It involves Monroe Stahr, the main character and movie mogul, talking to his head writer, a man named Boxley, on how to build a scene.

“Suppose you’re in your office. You’ve been fighting duels all day. You’re exhausted. This is you. A girl comes in. She doesn’t see you. She takes off her gloves. She opens her purse. She dumps it out on the table. You watch her. Now, she has two dimes, a matchbox and a nickel. She leaves the nickel on the table. She puts the two dimes back into her purse. She takes the gloves, they’re black. Puts them into the stove. Lights a match. Suddenly, the telephone rings. She picks it up. She listens. She says, ‘I’ve never owned a pair of black gloves in my life.’ Hangs up. Kneels by the stove. Lights another match. Suddenly, you notice there’s another man in the room watching every move the girl makes.”

Boxley then asks, “What happens?” and Stahr replies, “I don’t know. I was just making pictures.” Notice this is simple action, and it’s riveting. He feels no need to add superfluous describers, such as happily, triumphantly, or eerily. He does use “suddenly” twice, which I wish he wouldn’t, and if I was one of his editors, I would have struck them both. The point is that you and I are like Monroe Stahr, and like what Boxley should be, people who are just making pictures, or telling stories. That is hard enough and there is no need to complicate it with things that should be cut out anyway.


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Book Jacketing


Creative Writers compose stories that begin in one place and end in another. But this is not done in a vacuum. It is done within the lives of people, albeit completely fictional. Why do we start here and end there? The lives of the characters begin long before the book starts, and unless they die on the page, their lives go on. Why we seemingly pick two arbitrary boundaries is not a real problem with readers, but subconsciously it’s prickly. A good way to psychologically handle this problem is with a technique called book jacketing.

Just like a good, old fashioned book jacket, sometimes called a dust cover, the book jacket wraps around the front cover and around the back cover. In a literary sense, book jacketing is when the author references something at the beginning of the story that we bring back at the end. It provides a satisfactory sense of closure to the story as a whole. It sort of makes sense of why we begin here and end there.


I’ll give a few examples from my own novels, since I am more familiar with them than anything else. In my third novel, Prince, the main character, Charlie, proposes marriage to his sweetie, Lizzie, in chapter one. After she says yes, they talk about their future. Charlie thinks it’ll all be bluebirds and sunshine and Lizzie is worried things may go poorly just because life does at times. They leave chapter one with a wager, if it isn’t happily ever after then I’ll owe you a coke.

I don’t have to tell you things went south quickly. They never got married. As they are saying their good byes at the end, Lizzie reaches into a brown paper bag and pulls out a six pack of Coca-Cola. Charlie refuses them and insists that they will someday have their own happily ever after, just not at that time and not in that world. It’s such an incidental thing, a can of soda, just it ties the story in a bow for the reader.

Prince is available of Amazon and Kindle. You can click here to find it.


My fifth novel, Pietas, begins with a nuthouse burning and patience running free while being chased by doctors and attendants. Two of these escapees are my main character, Darl, and his best friend, Benjy. Darl set the fire in order for the two of them to escape, which suits him since he was put in the asylum for burning down a barn. As they run away from the inferno, Darl says that the first thought that ran through his head was that he had no more excuse and had to visit his mother’s grave.

Darl and Benjy, followed by others from the asylum, have adventures all over Mississippi during the Great Depression before settling down in Panther Burn. The citizens are slow to include these people, but with Darl’s help, they end up on big happy town. But Darl kills a man and has to leave. As he rides off, he thinks about heading towards Jackson where his mother us buried. Here the book jacket is not an item but a thought. It functions just as effectively in summing up all the action of all these people into a single story.

Pietas is available of Amazon and Kindle. You can click here to find it.


Entanglement is my seventh and last novel. It begins with Rex shooting a mouse in the corner of his living room. His cousin, Axel, runs into the room and takes the gun from him. The gun belonged to Axel’s dead father and he didn’t like Rex playing with the gun. Later, Rex and Axel fight in public and neither are willing to let it go for reasons of their own pride. About halfway through the novel, Rex takes the same gun and kills Axel on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida.

Rex flees to Cuba and settles in Havana. But after a decade there, he has the need once more to leave in haste for killing another man, so he returns the St Petersburg. His plantation is in ruins and the mansion is abandoned except of the butler. He used Rex’s so it still worked, and he took it to go to the Governor’s New Year’s Ball that night. Things go badly for Rex, and driving away he almost has a wreck from being distracted. When he stops suddenly, the gun slides out from under the passenger seat. A policeman pulls Rex over for his erratic driving and Rex, a crack shot, unloads his gun on the cop, who ends up unharmed. The policeman returns fire and Rex dies. Here the book jacket item is important to the telling of the story.

Entanglement is available of Amazon and Kindle. You can click here to find it.

Not all of my novels are book jacketed, but it is a device available to writers. It can be something the story centers around, like a gun. It could be a thought like I need to visit my mother’s grave. Or it may be something as innocuous as a can of Coke. Anything can be used as a book jacket.


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“Of All The Gin Joints In All The World:” The Power Of Coincidence In Fiction


One of the most beloved and best quoted movies in the 1942 classic Casablanca. It’s set in the costal Moroccan town during the Second World War. Our hero, Rick Blaine, is an American expat who for runs a nightclub and casino. A Czech leader of the Resistance, Victor Lazlo, comes to Casablanca and to Rick’s place with a woman, Elsa Lund, one with whom Rick shared a romantic past in Paris. They decide to leave when the German Occupation is upon them, but she abandons him at the train station with only a note of goodbye.

The Germans are trying to keep Victor from leaving for America. In the end, Rick helps them escape, even though he sticks out his neck for nobody. He is strongly tempted to disappear with Elsa and leave Victor with the enemy. He nobly sacrifices his happiness for the greater good, the fight against Nazism. One of the most familiar lines comes the night Rick sees Elsa again after the club is closed. He says, “Of all the gin joints in all the world, she had to come into mine.”

It Just So Happens

It is the greatest of coincidences that she had just happened to come with her husband to the club ran by her ex-boyfriend. But the movie would be nothing without that coincidence. It’s not just the arrival of Elsa. There are a series of coincidences that make the story possible. It just so happens that letters of transit were stolen from German couriers, and it just so happens that the thief asks Rick to watch over the letters. Another coincidence is that the thief is shot. Now Rick is in a place to help Victor or himself or no one. The string of coincidences begins long before all of this. It’s coincidence that some time before Victor was a prisoner of the Germans and Elsa thought he was dead, that as a grieving widow she happens to meet and fall for Rick, and finds out Victor is both alive and free just as she is supposed to leave Paris with Rick.

Great storytelling relies on the wonderful power of coincidence and how it connects the dots of the plot. Coincidence arranges for Jay Gatsby to live across the bay from his former girlfriend, Daisy Faye, now Daisy Buchannan. This same coincidence just happens to arrange for her cousin to move in next door to Gatsby, and he uses this to arrange a reacquaintance that steers the rest of the story. Sometimes the coincidence helps with the plot twist. Pip just happens across an escaped prisoner and helps him, and coincidentally he grows rich and becomes Pip’s benefactor. Pip and the reader assume this will help him win Estella, but it doesn’t. She is such a manhater like Mrs. Havisham that Pip is better off without her. And the twist is the help of the benefactor places Pip in a better world with class and status.

Suspension Of Disbelief

The British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge popularized the idea of the need for a willing suspension of disbelief on the part of any reader of fiction. Without this, the reader constantly exclaims, “That’ll never happen,” and never get around to enjoying the story. Try reading and enjoying “Oedipus Rex” with your skepticism barking as a guard dog at every fantastic occurrence. In genre like Fantasy and Science Fiction, it is clear how the suspension of disbelief is indispensable. But even in more mainstream stories with realistic settings, a willing suspension of disbelief is needful. One place this works is in the story’s reliance upon a heavy use of coincidence to make sure everything happens just as it should.

The Creative Writer needs to be aware that coincidence is necessary for fiction and not be afraid to use it. We can hope that the reader will do their job and chain up the dog. Still, we need to be careful in how we apply the use of circumstance to suit the story. If it’s done in a ham-handed manner it will be a weight to the suspension and help the skepticism poke through. We need to take care to apply the coincidental in a manner that is still believable, something that makes the reader say, “I could see it happening like that.” It needs to resemble the time and chance that happens to us all. If coincidence does not look like the regular occurrence of life that happens to everyone, it’ll be hard to swallow. So when our characters have their own “of all the gin joints” moment in our stories, the reader consoles the character, and says, “I’ve been there before, too, buddy!”


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