Once in a while, as readers, we run into the story "about nothing." They can be hard to swallow, especially if not done well.
But here's the trick: there's no such thing as a story about nothing. Not really. The good ones are always about something, but that something is never mentioned in the story.
Hemingway didn't start this notion, but he did develop it for his own works. You can see the idea progress over time as you read his stories. One of the first to demonstrate this concept, which he called the Iceberg Theory, was Big Two-Hearted River. On the surface, it's about nothing. It's a fellow who goes fishing alone, in the wilderness. What is it about? If you know Hemingway's life and times, you can see that it is about a man coming home from the war. (We know this because of his other writings and because he went on a similar trip himself after the war. Only, Earnest went with friends—and early versions of his manuscript show evidence that he originally had more characters as well.)
Hills like White Elephants is another example from Hemingway. It's just a conversation between two people waiting for a train. Under the surface, it's about abortion and separation.
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 —Earnest Hemingway
This theory is also known as the Theory of Omission. The lt;dr version is this: cut out what you know well and the story can do the work for you.
Now, this doesn't mean we should all write like Hemingway. Mimicry is always the wrong answer. Don't seek to follow the footsteps of the wise men of old; seek what they sought. So it is with writing, grasshopper. (Grasshoppers also play a role in Big Two-Hearted River.)
In fact, we could find a dozen different ways to apply this theory to modern writing. It doesn't have to be literary and obscure. Personally, I don't like that we have to know about Hemingway, his life, and his notes to get what Big Two-Hearted River or Hills Like White Elephants are about.
But if you have, let's say, an info-dump to deal with, perhaps the Theory of Omission can help shed light on the way forward. Hemingway originally ended Big Two-Hearted River with eleven pages of stream-of-conscious introspective from his main character's head. He later told his editor that he had discovered it was all crap and cut it out. Yet, perhaps a few more hints at the character's past might have left fewer readers scratching their heads. I'm not going to suggest Hemingway did it wrong. The story was acclaimed in its time, after all. Instead, I'm looking ahead—as a writer seeking ways to improve.
Here is another example. If you know the background well, skip the info-dump and just write the present story. Let the reader figure out the backstory from the clues present as a result of your intimate knowledge of the back story. Let it appear naturally and organically, not forced. Then, if your beta-readers come back and say it was too confusing, you can consider dropping in some more information where needed. My bet is that it will rarely be needed.
The ultimate no-no, as Mr. Hemingway states above, is to omit something you don't know. Your character must have a back story, a life, and you need to know it well. Your reader, on the other hand, can learn it between the lines. Reader engagement comes into play when you let the reader do some of the work—thinking and deciphering—for you. Your end of the bargain is to not put too much on the reader's shoulders.
Writer of speculative fiction. Current work in progress is an untitled dark fantasy novella.