In this post, I want to look at how ideas about writing evolve and change from writer to writer. In his book, “Death in the Afternoon,” Ernest Hemingway spoke about what he called the “iceberg principle” or the “theory of omission,”he explains that:

 “If a writer of prose knows enough about 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 the movement of the iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. The writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.”

In James Scott Bell’s book, “Conflict & Suspense” he refers to the iceberg principle under the subject of… Subtext. With regard to writing scenes in a book he says: “A scene should be about more than what it is about. On the surface it is what the characters are doing and saying. But underneath the surface, other story deposits are bubbling up toward the top.”

Now, granted most icebergs don’t bubble, but that’s beside the point. But Bell did include a very interesting diagram in the book, which shows the exposed part of the iceberg as the “scene,” below that he lists, “character relationship,” “backstory,” and “theme.”  This is in keeping with Hemingway’s idea, that if you understand the characters relationship to each other, know some of the backstory, and have considered the theme you are exploring. Those elements don’t have to be written in the scene as part of the action, but it can inform how your characters interact with each other.

Now, I look at all of this and in my small mind, what do I see? I see a form. If I haven’t told you, I’m not big on “pantsing” when it comes to writing, I’m a planner. I don’t outline, as it’s tough to really consider creating an emotional experience for your reader when you are just outlining: “this happens, and then there’s an explosion, and then this happens.”

So, with this valuable insight I created the following form. One on side is your POV character, on the other, the opposition character (in this particular scene) If you fill out each blank, for each character, you know about their backstory, their relationship and this may inform how you are expressing the theme of the overall story. You can use this as a guide to shape the scene, now knowing what to omit.

it always helps to look beneath the surface….

In the diagram, I looked at two characters, Phil, the detective, the POV character in the scene. He’s investigating a murder, Cheryl, is a key witness and he goes to her jewelry store to interview her. Now, add to the mix that Phil broke off a relationship with Cheryl years ago, and Cheryl hopes one day to win Phil back. This gives you, the writer a whole set of choices to make when creating this scene. How does Cheryl look to Phil now? The scene is from his point over view, is she still as pretty as ever? Or has she aged… badly? Is he going to use their past relationship to get more information out of her?

I hope you can see that doing this little exercise works from the top down or the bottom up. Let’s say you have decided on the themes you want to explore but have not created the characters. How would you create a character if you know that one side of your theme question has to do with “everyone lies” they way they did in the television show “House”?

What do you think? Would you find this helpful the next time you are stuck in a scene? When you want to add more tension, the kind that just simmers below the surface? I would love to hear what you have to say. Thanks as always, for stopping by.