Writing a Novel? Make Sure You’ve Got a Story Bible

Originally published 14/07/2019

There’s nothing worse than reading a book or watching your favourite TV show and finding glaring inconsistencies in the story. You know the sort of thing I mean: a character’s middle initial changes inexplicably halfway through the story or the village post office moves from the foot of the hill to the middle of the road opposite the pharmacist.

And that’s before you start to introduce speculative/fantasy elements such as magic, goblins, time travel or parallel universes. Sometimes these can be so complicated, and so subject to manifold changes in the planning stage of your novel, that it can be almost impossible to simply keep it all in your head. That’s why you need a story bible.

‘What the heck’s a story bible?’ I hear you cry.

A story bible is basically a handbook for your fictional world, containing all the facts and details pertinent to your story.

Well, they come in various shapes and sizes depending on the story and the needs of the author, but a story bible is basically a handbook for your fictional world, containing all the facts and details pertinent to your story: synopses, character biographies, settings, organisations, histories and everything else besides, right down to the tiniest detail. The precise contents of your story bible will vary, depending on what your story is about, but I think it’s fair to say that all story bibles will contain most of these things, as well as magic systems, fictional technologies and other elements which are more peculiar to your story This means you will always have something to refer back to when it comes to writing and editing your story and weeding out all the little inconsistencies which could spoil your work.

A story bible is not a place for roughing things out. Don’t keep all your rejected ideas, general scribbles or ideas you may or may not use in here. Remember, the story bible is there for you to refer back to as you write and when you come to edit to ensure consistency in your story, so it should only contain facts about your world which are firmly decided.

How you format your story bible is, of course, up to you. Plenty of authors use physical ring-binders with separators though my handwriting is so appalling that I prefer to make my story bible on Scrivener. Also, being something of a plantser [2], it also means that I can make adjustments to my story bible as I go, without having to scribble things out or tear out whole sheets of paper.

I work with a basic story bible template which I’ve created for Scrivener (maybe I’ll share it soon?) consisting of a few elements I’m always likely to need. Being primarily a fantasy/sci-fi writer, my story bible template includes folders for magic, races, history and religions, as well as the more common elements such as character bios. I also have a few pre-made templates for creating character bios, settings and so forth, which makes adding new characters or settings a piece of cake.

The most important thing (apart from including all the relevant information, of course) is that you are able to easily access the information you want. The whole point of a story bible is to avoid the need to go hunting through piles of notebooks and assorted files on your computer to try and find that one key detail about a character’s height or the precise incantation to perform a particular spell. Ask yourself, how can I most easily organise this mass of information? How will I make it easy for myself to find what I want quickly, while I’m midway through a flow of writing or up to my armpits in red ink?

One of the reasons I like Scrivener is because everything is organised into a virtual binder. I can categorise and sub-categorise to my heart’s content and I can also search my files for key words. Recently, however, I’ve been experimenting with various database apps for creating a story bible too and the results so far have been promising (I’ll maybe post about that soon).

So if you’re thinking about starting a story bible for your own story (and I strongly recommend that you do), remember: make sure the information in your story bible is detailed; keep it relevant and keep it organised.

Do you keep a story bible? How do you organise yours? Do you prefer paper binders or do you work with an app on your phone, tablet or computer? Why not share your tips for keeping a story bible in the comments below?

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