Worldbuilding Made Easy with the Iceberg Method

Worldbuilding Made Easy with the Iceberg Method


Fantasy readers often enjoy the feeling of being lost in a vast fictional world. A well-crafted story shares enough details of the world to paint a picture for the reader, but also leaves out enough to let them dream of what you've not told them. Readers tend to focus on the elements of your setting and your characters that most resonate with them; leaving some space for imagination can be beneficial to your story.

Today, we'll explore one common approach to worldbuilding, the Iceberg Method, which can enhance the depth of your world without the need to spend hours fleshing out every detail of it, and can create a healthy balance between how much information you expose and how much you don't.

What Is the Iceberg Method?

First discovered through one of Brandon Sanderson's worldbuilding lectures, the Iceberg Method instantly clicked with me.

This approach to worldbuilding entails creating an illusion of depth by adding hints of a deeper world (which I call 'iceberg tips') into your text. These go beyond the immediate story you're telling.

There is a degree of humbleness involved in applying the Iceberg Method. Although we are the creators of our fictional world, we do not know every detail of it. And that's ok.

Even if we choose to write our stories with an omniscient narrator, and want to give the illusion that the narrator knows everything, we, the writers, don't, and arguably can't, know everything.

Moving onto a practical example: suppose your character has broken into a house to steal valuable jewels from a rich merchant. As they walk from one room to the next, they notice a military uniform encased in a glass frame in the corner and embellished with many medals pinned across the chest.

This tells the thief (and, crucially, your readers) a few key details:

  1. The merchant has had a successful military career. This creates tension in your scene, as the merchant is likely skilled in combat and would be able to fight off, or even kill, the thief.
  2. Your fictional world has a complex military system that, as suggested by the medals, is probably hierarchical — this is the Iceberg Method.

As the writer, do you have to flesh out and explain the precise structure of this military system? Do you have to describe the color and shape of each medal? Well, no. It's not important to the story.

You can get away with omitting details strategically in this way because the thief is justified to give the uniform only a glance; after all, they're in a rush! You won't be judged negatively by the reader, as you would, on the other hand, if you don't develop or explain concepts that are key to the story. (For example, let's imagine your thief, later in the book, decides to join the army. When they do so, you are obliged to explain, at least to some extent, which armed forces the army is composed of, and which one they are looking to join).

Not only omitting detail in this fashion is justified, but if your reader is passionate about military structures, and thus intrigued by the uniform, they will be sitting at the edge of their seats turning pages in the hopes of getting more information!

Any way you spin it, the Iceberg Method is a great way to add the illusion of depth to your story while having the option to later flesh out the concept with minimal editing work on your early chapters. 

Kick-Starting Your Writing

The Iceberg Method is ideal for writers who encounter Worldbuilders' Block, which is characterized by the feeling that every single detail of the world must be fleshed out before the first sentence of the story is written. Given that most writers would agree some level of worldbuilding is beneficial before putting pen to paper, pushing that further, Worldbuilders' Block (mischievously) convinces us that we need to know every detail before we start, for the sake of realism.

For example, the inner critic within me, who thrives on Worldbuilders' Block, would lead me to believe counterproductive ideas such as:

How can we decide what happens between two countries at war, if we don't understand everything about them?

- Andrea's Inner Critic

Common Pitfalls

When employing the Iceberg Method, it can be tempting to add as many iceberg tips as you can across your story. However, you should give yourself reasonable limits. There are no hard-and-fast rules around this, but if you find yourself adding more than a few in each chapter consistently throughout your story, this may be an indication that you are over-using the Iceberg Method.

Adding too many iceberg tips may cause frustration and confusion in the reader, as the information we are revealing is intentionally unconnected to the main story. In other words, the readers may feel that we're opening up too many unexplored avenues, which can lead them to wonder why we're doing this (after all, the intention behind using the Iceberg Method — creating the illusion of depth — is kept a secret to the reader).

Beyond adding iceberg tips sparingly, make sure to use other worldbuilding tools as well, and to flesh out completely the concepts that are key to the story. The Iceberg Method should be one of many techniques in your toolkit for crafting a realistic and satisfying fantasy world.

The second common pitfall is making your characters say familiar things in unfamiliar ways — Brandon Sanderson does a great job at covering this in his lecture.

Imagine if your protagonist, after receiving an apple from their mother, says aloud:

Thank you mother for giving me this apple that grew in our family orchard at the foot of the hill next to our town, which in the past has been the location of many gruesome battles.   

The above is technically an iceberg tip. However, your protagonist, who is familiar with their own family's orchard, would never recite the entire history of it in a situation like this.

Be careful about these pitfalls when you add iceberg tips to your writing, and do so sparingly. 

Worldbuilding as an Art

The intention of this article is not to villanize worldbuilding but to warn people that Worldbuilders' Block if left unchecked, can be an obstacle in the way of writing the stories they love. The Iceberg Method can be a way to unblock writers who struggle with this.

Worldbuilding itself is a beautifully creative practice, and if you find yourself overly obsessing over your fictional world, this may be a sign that you are more passionate about building your world than writing stories set in it. If this is the case, there are many worldbuilding-related activities to lean into, such as creating D&D campaigns, drawing fantasy maps, and creating fictional languages just like J. R. R. Tolkien, who, commenting on his works on the legendarium, notably stated:

The ‘stories’ were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse. To me, a name comes first, and the story follows.


In this article, we explored the Iceberg Method, a common technique that can help add depth to your world. This method can be leveraged to create an illusion of depth and can help writers who struggle with overanalyzing their world. However, It should not be the only technique you rely on to build your world, as this can result in a world that feels artificial or too large to be real.

Andrea Cerasoni in Rome, Italy
Andrea Cerasoni

I'm Andrea, a Software Engineer, Technical Editor, and aspiring Fantasy Author. I'm originally from Rome, Italy, but am currently based in Glasgow, United Kingdom. I read and write classic Fantasy: the sword-and-shield, dragons, and wizards kind. In my articles, I talk about writing fantasy fiction, productivity, coding, building a website or platform, establishing a personal brand, and more!

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