The Story Below the Surface

Untold depths

If a writer knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-ninth of it being above water. – Ernest Hemingway, “Death in the Afternoon ”

I heard this message early in my journey as a fiction writer. Immediately, I replaced “he” with “she”. It’s what I’ve been doing my whole life, but that is another matter.

While Hemingway’s observation had the ring of truth, I found it frustrating. How was I supposed to give readers a sense of the untold depths below the surface of a story? It was like writing about not writing—a paradox. Impossible.

Guess who? Picasso

The challenge of doing that haunted me a long time. The answer came from an unexpected source—Picasso. There is an older documentary called “The Mystery of Picasso”. In this film, Henri-Georges Clouzot films Picasso painting on a translucent canvas. We get to witness his creative process from start to finish. If you haven’t seen this documentary, I highly recommend it.

At the onset of each painting, Picasso explored a wild proliferation of ideas. No sooner would I fall in love with an image, than he would paint over it, moving on to something new. It was difficult to keep up with all the expanding thoughts, the detours, the returns to a common theme.

As he reached the end of the painting, he would step back, look at it, and see what he wanted to do. The cutting away began and it was ruthless. He would remove a huge portion of the visuals, and quite suddenly, the painting would be done.

Some things grow clearer

The proliferation of ideas in Picasso’s painting is like the iceberg below our stories. We need to explore those excursions, the expanding thoughts, and the returns to common themes. It’s how we know the bulk of the story. It’s where the eventual story weight and gravitas come from.

This involves a lot of writing—a ridiculous amount actually. I estimate that 80% of the story does not need to be shared. Although that mass of story is underwater, we know its shape and we carry its full weight in our imagination.

Other things remain a mystery

The how of all this is mostly a mystery to me, although I can feel it when it happens. With every draft, the story pairs down. I never forget the parts that have been removed. They continue to hold some of the meaning of the story. But what once involved a paragraph or a scene, may become a single word, or a sentence, or the overall feeling that finds its way into the tone of the prose.

The only thing I know for sure is that when I think a story is as short as it can be, it can be shorter. We spend most of our time on the underwater parts. It can be painful to let those interesting scenes and descriptions stay where they cannot be seen. Yet, it is necessary.

By Debbie Bateman

I'm an innovative thinker with a practical nature and a passion for explaining complex ideas simply. This makes me a dedicated and meticulous instructional designer, curriculum writer, and plain language editor. As a bonus, I am a storyteller, fiction writer, and novel editor.

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