The top? The words on the page. Then there’s what is under the surface. For one thing, you can see that the reader is going to not only bring their own stuff to your story (the nerve!), but also their imagination is your biggest asset. You don’t have to write out every little thing, but you do have to know every little thing about your fictional world because once you do, it will appear ‘under’ your writing. It’s part of why – and granted, this depends a lot on the tone and subject matter – but generally speaking, you can write less for a sex scene and get a greater impact. The same can hold true for horror, violence, even swearing. Yes, swearing. Hemingway taught me that you don’t have to use the words themselves (again, it’s a matter of preference and what works best for the story). You can indicate that the character can’t believe what’s coming out of their mouth or you can, in all of the cases above, describe the effect on others. There are a myriad of ways to explore these kinds of limitations, if only as an exercise to force yourself to go (you know I’m going to say it) deeper.
And this isn’t to be fussy – I think the language Junot Diaz used in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao worked seamlessly with the story. When I think back, I don’t remember the f-bombs, I think about the story and that’s really the point here. Your approach should serve the story rather than call attention to itself. You are the one who is going to have to determine if you are being lazy with language and not explore options or if the explicit is better for the story you’re telling. Most writers err on the side of laziness. Don’t be that writer.
But back to our iceberg…
In Working Backwards From the Worst Moment of My Life, Rob Roberge writes two sentences on the aftermath of a failed suicide attempt: “The cops took the slug out of the wall and I ended up wiping down the wall of blood and brain and bone and patching the hole. The carpet was replaced.”
See what I mean? There’s an entire world resting below those 31 words.