The iceberg


If you are a writer, you have probably at some stage of heard of something referred to as ‘the iceberg principle’. It’s pretty simple really. The premise is based on the idea that 90% of the iceberg lies invisible, under the water, with only 10% visible above the surface. This is a metaphor for what you know about your story, world and characters, vs what actually makes it onto the page for your reader to see.

Just by way of example, here’s a sentence from one of my WIPs:

If she had been at home, she most likely would have been abed with a hot brick and one of her housekeeper’s restorative tisanes.

That might have taken you all of two seconds to read. And it probably took me a couple of minutes to craft the actual words that went into it. But that sentence also represents at least 45 minutes worth of internet research on:

  • 18th Century remedies for period pain
  • Lydia E Pinkham
  • Liquorice root, including where it grows and what its medicinal properties are
  • the medicinal properties of Dandelion root

Which is basically just my way of reassuring myself that it’s OK to have only produced 200 words after getting up at 5.30 am and writing for 1.5 hours before the family gets up and we all have to get ready for work/school/etc. And also goes some way to illustrating why it takes so damn long to write a bloody novel.

And now I have had that stupid Lily the Pink song stuck in my head all day. Yeah. You’re welcome.



Perspective from the tip of the iceberg

I’m convening the CSFG novel writing group this year, and last month we did a session on connecting the reader to your story through point of view. We did an exercise where I got everyone to write a short, descriptive scene from a character’s point of view. I got each person to read out their scene, then the rest of us shared what information we had gleaned from the scene about that character. I only gave the group 10 minutes or so to write the scene, so they were very short. But, what was remarkable was just how much we all got out of a few well-placed details.

You’ve probably heard about the iceberg writing model. You know the one: only 10 per cent of what you know about your story, your characters and your world, makes it onto the page. The rest stays ‘under the water’, as it were, in the murky depths of your writerly brain. You need to know about it; it’s an important foundation for that tiny 10 per cent of your story that is the only part to ever see the sun.

Image courtesy of Liz Noffsinger at

Well, after hearing what we all got out of these tiny snippets of writing, it struck me that if you include the right details, your readers are going to be able to take that measly 10 per cent and use their imaginations to construct something far larger and more complex than that iceberg tip you gave them. They’ll be able to stand on it and look down through the ice into those depths you left lurking there. They might not see quite the same things that you do, or their vision might be clearer, and they might see stuff you never even knew existed.

But, for me, anyway, that’s part of the whole pleasure of reading: exercising your imagination and using the writer’s words like Lego bricks – to construct something wonderful that only you can really see.