For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn
This is Ernest Hemingway's infamous six-word short story, supposedly written after a bar room bet with a group of his contemporaries.
It’s also one of the finest examples ever conceived of what I like to call “iceberg storytelling,” where the writer gives the audience a sparse, stripped-down story with just enough information to fill in the details with their imagination.
In the case of this particular story, it forces the audience to imagine the circumstances under which this advertisement was written. It forces them to imagine a miscarriage, a stillbirth, a failed delivery. It forces them to imagine the pain of a grieving mother, selling the shoes because they’re a constant reminder of the child that never was.
All of that from six simple words — For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn
A powerful metaphor to shape your stories
The storytelling metaphor here is simple. With an iceberg, only a small portion of its total mass is visible to the naked eye. The remainder of that mass — the vast majority of it, even — lays beneath the surface of the water.
With the example above, the tip of the iceberg is what we’re given. It’s the six-word story. The additional pieces — all of those painful details and themes that we’re forced to imagine — lay beneath the surface. Yet all of this subtext forms the heart of the story, the thing that makes it so compelling, even though we weren’t explicitly told about any of it.
This is what makes iceberg storytelling so powerful. The human imagination is capable of incredible things, largely because we tend to use our own experiences and emotions to fill in those blanks.
As storytellers, this presents us with an incredible opportunity. By giving audiences simple story cues that are meant to stoke their imagination, then consciously stripping away other story elements and pieces of context, we can potentially create a more powerful experience than if we had simply told the audience everything.
Here’s a quote from Hemingway himself that poignantly summarizes the theory:
If a writer of prose knows enough of 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 movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.
Using iceberg storytelling in short films
Now that you’ve got a basic understanding of how iceberg storytelling works, let’s take a look at an example of how it can be applied to short films.
This film comes from Kassim Norris, a director, cinematographer, and colorist based out of Indianapolis. It’s a short adaptation of a feature film that he’s currently working on, and is a fantastic example of how a short film can tell a much larger story than its screen time would indicate.
Diving into the script of It Eats You Up
In order to help show you what iceberg storytelling looks like in screenwriting, I’ve included a portion of the script for It Eats You Up below.
Pay close attention to the pieces of dialogue that reveal something about the larger story. When you see one of these story elements, stop for a moment and imagine to yourself what the larger implications are.
Are you ready? Let’s do it.
INT. STATE CORRECTIONAL FACILITY – AFTERNOON
TARA sits alone inside a grim, dimly lit visitors lounge. She overhears footsteps approaching. A tall dark middle-aged man (DARYL) wearing inmates clothing walks into the room and heads towards Tara.
Tara stands up to greet Daryl as he approaches her. She quickly notices that Daryl seems a bit tense.
They take a seat across from one another. Tara slides Daryl a carton of cigarettes.
Daryl stares at the box of cigarettes for a moment, then hands them back to Tara. He leans in close.
Why do you keep coming here?
What do you mean?
Daryl pauses for a brief moment.
You know when you first told me I was your father? I didn’t think it was possible. Then I started to remember how wild I was. And as bad as I wanted it, it just didn’t add up.
Tara stares deeply into Daryl’s eyes.
You said you found me through the newspaper… OK. The man I killed, thirteen years ago, what’s his name?
Tara turns her head away from Daryl and avoids eye contact.
Daryl squints his eyes and moves in closer.
Why can’t you say his name Tara?
Daryl leans back in his seat and puts his head down while exhaling slowly
Look! You ain’t gotta to say it, I know why you been coming here. Why you made up all this shit about me being your dad!
Tara eyes grow big, shocked by Daryl’s statement
The minute I wanted you to be my daughter was the minute I knew you wasn’t. The man I killed…. is your father isn’t it?
Tara’s eyes begin to swell with tears as she looks away from Daryl in attempts to fight back her emotions.
What you did? I get it. You wanna know why I did it?
Daryl takes a deep breath and puts his head down.
Let’s just say, the shit eats me up. And if you keep coming here it’ll do the same to you.
From this single scene, which is essentially a well-crafted monologue, we can gather so much information about the larger story at play in this film.
First and foremost, we can piece together a narrative about Tara seeking out her father’s killer, finding him in prison, then convincing him that she’s his daughter, all in a wayward attempt to gain emotional closure of some sort.
Though we actually don’t see any of this, it’s easy to imagine thanks to the smart dialogue.
Beyond this story, which is compelling in and of itself, we get to feel the pain of these two people.
A young girl who had her father taken away at a young age, and who wants closure, maybe even revenge.
A prisoner who regrets everyday the thing that put him behind bars, made even more painful by the fact that his victim’s daughter is sitting right across from him.
These are emotionally-complex characters in an emotionally-complex situation, and despite the fact that we spend less than 5 minutes with them, we can feel the full weight of that complexity. It’s borderline overbearing.
An interview with Kassim Norris, writer and director of It Eats You Up
I was able to chat with Kassim about the process of making this film, and get his thoughts on iceberg storytelling in general. Here’s that interview in its entirety.
What inspired you to make It Eats You Up, and how did you go about turning that inspiration into fully fleshed-out characters and the overarching story of this film?
'It Eats You Up' is actually a short adaptation of my feature film, 'Adore the Wolf'. In the feature, we follow a 13 year old boy who runs away from home to avenge his fathers death.
In the short, we use different characters and settings but still capture that same uncomfortable atmosphere of someone facing their father’s killer.
When writing, did you start with that monologue already in mind, or did you start with the larger story of a girl visiting her father’s murderer in prison, and then work your way to that climactic moment? Either way, walk us through the process of getting the script written and the story fine-tuned.
I started with the scene, but since the feature was already written, I pretty much knew the outcome I wanted. It was never about the dialog but rather the uncomfortable tension between two people in such circumstances. My goal was to write the silence and just allow the dialogue to fall between the moments of tension.
In short, I knew the dialogue would be great if I kept it minimal but mastered the silence.
Why are you personally drawn to this idea of iceberg storytelling?
I think maybe because it aligns with my view in life. I strongly believe in the idea "less is more". By giving people too much they won't have a reason to appreciate, but giving them only enough will certainly fuel their imagination and curiosity.
Also, I believe that in reality people only share small fragments of their life while holding back the many unattractive layers that would reveal who they really are. The iceberg approach is only a mirror of the human experience.
You mentioned Japanese cinema in your email awhile back. Tell us about some of the influences on your writing and directing style.
As far as influence, storytellers that aren't afraid to be bold, blunt ,and honest rather than embellishing. In a majority of movies, people talk too much. In life, there is more time of silence than verbal communication.
In my opinion, mainstream films seem to miss out on the key essence of authentic communication. Artists like Tarkovsky, Nicolas Winding Refn, and Rembrandt are all different but masters of communication without dialogue. My goal is to create the most sincere human experience through an alluring aesthetic.
Talk a little bit about why this technique is so much more powerful and compelling than just spoon-feeding the story to the audience. What emotional impact do you think this has for people watching?
It goes back to the "less is more" theory. I truly believe that people do not want everything handed to them. I think people are naturally attracted to the mystique. By giving no explanations, people will connect with the characters in a way that is very harmonious.
I am creating an unfinished sentence but allowing people to fill their own names and memories in the blanks, which in return allows them to see themselves in the story rather than a predesigned template that forces them to accept a world that they cannot identify with.
What advice would you give to someone who's setting out to make an “iceberg" short film
While writing your script, stop watching films and watch people. Also, whether you are shooting on film or digital, rehearsing is key. This is where you will learn that what is great in the script may not be good in frame. Be influenced by yourself (and your story) and not that "great film" you saw recently.
Where can people learn more about you and stay up to date with your latest films?
All in all, iceberg storytelling is an incredibly useful tool to keep in your filmmaker's toolbox. It's an effective way to not only craft a compelling short film, but you can use it to structure a feature film as well, or individual scenes within a feature.
And when you combine iceberg storytelling with good writing, acting, cinematography, editing, and sound, you're well on your way to creating an incredible experience for the audience, one that they won't soon forget.
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