Arbitrary Rules – Again

A recent Writer’s Digest article, “Building Backstory” by Larry Brooks, stated that a novelist should show only ten percent of his character’s backstory — the “iceberg principle” he called it. Suspense author and writing instructor Brandilyn Collins holds herself to a firm rule about backstory — none in the opening chapters.”

I found a rather long discussion of backstory on another blog, starting with the above lines. Why is backstory to be entirely banned from the first few chapters? Apparently, because it will slow the story down and isn’t necessary. And if it’s to be used at all, it should be limited to 10% of what might be known about a character in the past. This is the kind of absolute BS that drives me crazy.

If a writer can’t determine what part of the backstory is necessary to the story and what part gets in the way, then she shouldn’t be writing fiction. If she can’t introduce backstory in an organic way that doesn’t slow things down by becoming an infodump, she shouldn’t be writing fiction. Or god forbid, she could learn to do those things and ignore the rigid, beancounting advice that’s passed off as “professional.”

That is all.

Yeah, I’m still cranky.

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7 thoughts on “Arbitrary Rules – Again

  1. I hate these sorts of arbitrary rules myself. I think this is where a lot of the more mainstream books and publishing house books get into some trouble because they try to fit a formula that has worked in the past so they make it try to work for every story and every writer.

    1. The writer who said she never includes backstory in the opening chapters writes mysteries. I can see that if you’re developing that kind of plot, backstory is probably irrelevant and would just get in the way. But why use that kind of writer as an example for everyone to follow? Different genres demand different approaches. Advice based on what works for one person in one genre isn’t exactly universally true.

  2. Made me laugh–about the beancounting. I have the same reaction when I read about the academics counting adjectives and adverbs. Most advice is for beginners and changes with the currently accepted style.

    I do prefer ACTION stories, and backstory is not action, so I’m going to kind of lean toward this advice, but I’m not going to fall all the way into the 10 percent thing. There’s always an exception to the rule (advice.)

    Also, there’s different kinds of backstory. Some is boring filler or ‘set-up.’ Some can be as exciting as the main story. Depends.

    1. Yes, depends. One reason this really gripes me is that I just finished a short novel with loads of backstory. Crossing Boundaries is a sequel to Hidden Boundaries, and some of it wouldn’t make sense to new readers unless there was some backstory. So the problem was how to work it in in a very natural way, without infodumps. I’m not saying I did a perfect job, but it was an interesting challenge and learning experience, and proved to me that it could be done.

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