How I Keep Action Active and Suspense Suspenseful – Using Hemingway’s “Iceberg Theory”


“We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”

– Ernest Hemingway

Those who have followed my blog for some time know I idolize Papa Hemingway.  That picture is his writing desk, preserved in his house.  Someday, I will visit that house and tour it.

I try to emulate “Iceberg Theory” in my own writing, with my own stylistic choices.  Iceberg Theory, or, as English Majors like to call it, “The Theory of Omission”, came from Hemingway’s time as a journalist.  Hemingway started his writing career as a newspaper reporter with no formal education or experience as a journalist or writer.  His first editors impressed upon him the idea of reporting only the facts and avoiding editorializing the story.  Because of size constraints, it was encouraged to only report the relevant facts and avoid the background information.  Hemingway grew to respect this style of writing and believed it was “real”.  He adapted it for use in his short stories and novels.  He believed you could omit anything from a story and it would only strengthen the story in the mind of the reader – leaving the reader to read between the lines to fill in the blanks.

“A few things I have found to be true. If you leave out important things or events that you know about, the story is strengthened. If you leave or skip something because you do not know it, the story will be worthless. The test of any story is how very good the stuff that you, not your editors, omit.”

– Ernest Hemingway, “The Art of the Short Story”

I made heavy use of “Iceberg Theory” in “The Shifting Sands“.  “The Shifting Sands” was a very personal experiment for me, as I was drawing on memories of Iraq I otherwise purposefully avoid.  I wanted it to be genuine – I wanted other veterans to read it and nod their heads and say, “He got it right.”  So many times I read war stories and just shake my head – it wasn’t right.

The first thing I realized, in my initial drafts, is most war stories contain too much information.  Soldiers don’t think about the tiny details.  Just like Hemingway, I realized the story would be better if I omitted much of what I wanted to write down.

This is where the author has to battle his or her own ego.  We want to tell the story, we want to wax poetic on the color of the sunset and the softness of the sheets.  We feel a desire to paint a picture so vivid, so powerful, the reader is compelled to be a part of our story.  We want the reader to come out of it and shout triumphantly, “I was there!”

But, think about when you read someone’s work.  How often do you find yourself skipping sentences or even entire paragraphs because they aren’t about the actual story – the action?  One of the most difficult ideas for an author to come to terms with is the reader wants to create their own world.  You aren’t the director of their imagination, you’re the guide.  You help them navigate through their own mind.  Your story, no matter how vividly detailed and described, takes place in their world, not yours.  You can influence how their world appears to them but, ultimately, it is still theirs.

So how does this apply to action or suspense?  Why am I even writing this?  Answer: quit badgering me, I’m getting to it.  Let me wax poetic when I can.  My ego is still pretty damned big, all things considered.

Some time ago, on a Facebook group called “Writer’s World”, managed by a friend of mine who happens to be an excellent author and editor, the question of how to write suspense came up and I answered with a brief description of “Iceberg Theory” and how to apply it to suspense: Write only what the character knows and witnesses.  Nothing else.

This is where I can cheat.  I have lived action and suspense on a level that left me scarred mentally and emotionally.  So, when I sit down to write an action scene or a suspense scene, I call upon those emotions and think about what actually made those events so suspenseful.  The answer is always the same: the unknown.

I can’t tell you what time it was in any of my firefights but one – and that knowledge only comes from the after action report and the news story.  At the time, I may have known what time it was and where exactly we were, but that information was quite literally blasted from my mind by the immediate danger.  I can’t tell you the names of everyone involved or what they looked like.  I can give you a generic idea – most of them were wearing uniforms, for example.

But, as writers, when we sit down to write these events we want to fill in those blanks.  We want to write:

I scanned the alley.  Sergeant Andrews was to my left, sweat forming on his brow.  Dirt clung to the stubble on his cheeks.  His uniform was filthy and torn and his eyes were tired.  To my right, Private Jones hunkered down behind his M240b machine gun, eyes squinting down the sights, face contorted in concentration.  At the other end of the alley, the insurgents faced us from behind their barricades.  Their dark faces shone with sweat and the bright lights from our humvees.  A glimmer flashed on the barrel of an AK-47.  They were ready.

Don’t get me wrong, it sets a pretty nice scene.  But it isn’t action, it isn’t suspense.  If I put that in the middle of a firefight, I break the pace and slow the story.  So I yank it out and rewrite it:

Andrews was on my left, Jones on the right.  Haji waited at the end of the alley.

By itself, those two sentences are almost meaningless.  But they do something very important: they remove the extraneous details and leave the reader to fill in the blanks.  Instead of fluffing up the scene, they report exactly what the character knows at that moment in his life: he has a friend to the left, a friend to the right, and the enemy facing them down.  Full stop.  That is all the soldier thinks about, that is all he is focused on.

Now, I believe some extra description is necessary – and so did Hemingway, despite his assertions otherwise.  His writing is an example of that.  I just have to keep in mind, when I am writing it, that I should only be putting on the page what the character knows at the time the action is happening.  With all that in mind, here is an example of a firefight I wrote in “The Shifting Sands“:

Before I jumped out of the seat of the humvee, behind Sergeant Major Goode, I tapped Thompson’s leg. She paused in firing a veritable wall of 7.62mm death to look down at me, her tiny face eclipsed by the comically large tanker goggles she wore.

I pointed at myself, then at Goode, and then out towards Stratfield’s motionless form. She gave me a thumbs up and returned to her gun.

I swallowed hard, jumped out of the humvee, and ran without a thought for my own safety into the middle of the street. On all sides there were sparks and dust clouds from bullet impacts. The roar of gunfire and explosions was a constant white noise overpowering all other senses. The sound went beyond the ears and filled my skin, I could even taste the gunfire – acrid, biting cordite in the cold, dry, desert night.

Doc Frase was ahead of me and running to Stratfield’s body, motionless in the road. I froze in place, shock overtaking me. A tracer round, green with the color of Soviet-era ammunition, flew in between Frase’s legs. She didn’t even flinch, didn’t even notice. The unmistakable feeling of the air moving by my head told me another round had missed my brainpan and off I went behind her.

Goode was first to Stratfield, Frase two steps behind him. Something moved in a nearby window, facing them, and I fired three rounds into the window before I registered it. A second later a trail of smoke shot between Frase and myself and exploded violently somewhere to my right, sending me sprawling to the ground with dust and chunks of concrete raining down upon me.

Someone grabbed my left arm and I looked up to see Cooke pulling me to my feet. Impacts were kicking up just inches from us. I half ran, half crawled, to Frase and Goode while Cooke fired randomly into the building. Red tracers shot over Goode’s head. Thompson was doing her job. Nobody questioned how close it was, nobody looked up or back at her. We trusted her.

Goode and Frase worked on Stratfield.

Cooke pulled me to the other side – between the enemy and the three of them – and yelled, “Cover them. We are their armor, got it?”


I don’t recall aiming at any specific person. If I saw movement I shot it. All of our guys were behind us. Cooke and I were the “front line” – we were the physical protection for Goode, Frase, and Stratfield.

For a brief second rational thought broke through my instincts. What the fuck was I doing? Every nerve in my body screamed at me to get out of the open and behind some cover. But I couldn’t do that – I couldn’t leave them unprotected. I buried the feeling as quickly as it surfaced by firing a half dozen rounds into dark windows.

A shape appeared behind a jersey barrier near the building across the way. It was clearly a person. I sighted through my optics. It froze in place and I squeezed off two rapid shots. It dropped. The rush came upon me – that feeling of being godlike – I had power over life and death. It was a sanguine adrenaline rush of pure pleasure and power. Nothing could touch me.

There is one other thing I should add in here.  I also believe in the power of “less is more”.  I do my best to cut out anything I can from a sentence.  If I can reduce a sentence to three words and still convey the meaning of it, I will.  In this way, I feel, the action and the pace moves in a stuttered, jerking, way.  This gives the reader the same sense of disconnect and excitement one gets when one really experiences a suspenseful situation.

To sum up: my belief in writing action and suspense is to tell only what absolutely has to be told.  Cut out any extra description you can, while still maintaining the scene.  You will always need some description, some metaphors, so the reader can identify and feel what the character feels.  But keep it at a bare minimum.  Really try to put yourself in the scene.  Remember what it was like when something traumatic happened to you – a fist fight, a car crash, etc.  Remember what you felt when it happened, what you thought about.  Put those things, and only those things, in writing.

Try to use smaller sentences than normal.  Make use of fragments – they can convey stuttered thought in a way a complete sentence cannot.  Use unusual comma placement, dashes, and even semi-colons.  Avoid adverbs, if possible.

Then, when you are done, read it out loud as if you were telling a friend.  Pretend it just happened to you and you are trying to relate what happened with that panicked feeling still pumping adrenaline in your blood.

If you find your pulse rate rising as you read it, you did it right.


One thought on “How I Keep Action Active and Suspense Suspenseful – Using Hemingway’s “Iceberg Theory”

  1. Pingback: “Snake Charmer” free, featured on other sites, and more! | Aric Catron's Author Page

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