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

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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ATTENTION AUTHORS:

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest.

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Pants, Plants and Plans: A Beginner’s Guide

If you’re the sort of person who spends a lot of time reading up on story writing, you’ve probably heard myself or other writing bloggers talk about the differences between planners, pantsers and plantsers. It’s a spectrum we writers are all spread out across, separating those on the one extreme who plan everything before they write from those who pants their way through their story (that is, they write ‘by the seat of their pants’, making up the story as they go along with absolutely no forward planning whatsoever). And of course, slap bang in the middle of the spectrum, we have Plantsers (because it’s a combination of the words ‘planner’ and ‘pantser’, see?).

We all naturally gravitate to one side or another on this spectrum. However that doesn’t mean we can’t choose to plan, pant or plant even if it doesn’t come naturally to us. After all, we might be tempted to think that one method is inherently better than the others, and that we should try this.

We might even be right. For my money, I think there are some situations where planning is more appropriate and others where pantsing is more appropriate. I’m not going to tell you categorically that any one method is better than another* but there are pros and cons to each. If you’re struggling with whatever method comes naturally to you, it may be time to try a different approach. And so, what follows is my own short and ill-informed concise analysis of each approach, comparing pros and cons as evenly as I can.

Planning

Strengths: Planning everything in advance saves buckets of time. If you already know exactly what is going to happen, how it’s going to happen and who it’s going to happen to, all neatly ordered into chapters and scenes, you won’t waste time writing lengthy portions of narrative you won’t use. You can also rest easy in the knowledge that your first draft won’t have too many large plot holes to sort out.

This makes it easy to work to a schedule. If you know you can knock out 1000 words a day, you can reasonably well estimate that it will take you about three months to complete a draft, especially in those first drafts, because you won’t get stuck about what to write.

Weaknesses: it’s easily the most strict approach to writing. The writer must be disciplined enough 1) not to begin writing a draft too earlier and 2) not to deviate from the plan when he does start drafting. This does not suit everybody. Many authors find it sucks the pleasure out of writing and stifles the imagination, as new ideas insist on being heard throughout the writing process.

Tips for Planning: Be disciplined. Plan everything and resist the urge to draft until you have completed all your chapter outlines, character biographies, the lot. When you finally do begin to draft, don’t deviate from the plan. Add nothing, change nothing, remove nothing. Write it exactly as you planned it. Remember, dear planner, you’re not making art. You’re constructing an intricate machine.

Pantsing

Strengths: This approach to writing allows the imagination to run wild. Most people who write stories tend to do it because they’re people who like to dream, to create and to give artist form to their flights of fancy. Pantsing lets you do just that. I often find that, while pantsing can produce a lot of excess material, some of it can even be later recycled to create a whole new story. Many of my story ideas have come from material I rejected while pantsing an earlier work.

Weaknesses: If you’re serious about writing for any reason other than as a hobby, you will probably find this approach seriously undermines your productivity and success, especially if you’re writing anything longer than a short story. Pantsing out a novel length story in a couple of months is easy in theory but it is doomed to be full of half baked themes, plot holes and other inconsistencies that will need to be fixed before they can pass over any agent or publisher’s desk. You may find yourself virtually starting from scratch when you come to do your second draft, assuming you ever reach the second draft stage.

Tips for Pantsing: Don’t get too attached to your work. A draft that has been fully pantsed will require a lot more editing than a meticulously planned draft. While killing your darlings is always good advice for any writer, pantsers will probably find themselves producing a lot more darlings (because their imagination has been given unlimited credit in the sweetie shop) that have to be killed (because their story will be full of things that simply don’t work).

Plantsing

Strengths: Plantsers have the best of both worlds. They are anchored to a plan but they are not enslaved to it. If the author wants to make changes halfway through writing their draft, or if they identify problems with their story, they can simply adjust the plan as they go along. The imagination is thereby given space to work but is also kept under a tight leash.

Weaknesses: It’s probably the hardest method to strike the correct balance with, even if you do find yourself naturally gravitating towards it. Planners know to write nothing until their story is fully planned out and pantsers don’t give a rip if their story doesn’t make sense in the first draft, but plantsers must learn to bring these two extremes together and make them work in harmony. It is difficult to create a systematic approach to plantsing and will be largely figured out by trial and error. This can be time consuming and frustrating.

Tips for Plantsing: Plantsing is not creating a plan then disregarding it, nor is it writing a draft then making a plan around it. Both of these are a waste of time. Plantsing involves blending these two seeming opposites in a way which allows you to work to your strengths, while still enjoying the benefits of both extremes. For example, you might pants out a few zero drafts to stimulate your imagination while you plan. Alternatively you might create a very loose-fitting plan (story beats for example, but no chapter outlines) and pants out your novel within the boundaries of that limited plan. You might also decide to forsake character biographies in favour of conducting several ‘interviews’ or ‘auditions’ with your characters to help you get to know them better. The possibilities are truly endless when it comes to plantsing. My best advice is to spend a little time finding an approach which works for you.

Footnotes:

*I know what you’re thinking: ‘if he’s going to be so unbiased in his approach, why has he only got pants in the featured image and nothing else?’ Well the short answer is I just couldn’t find a single picture on the internet which depicted a plan, a pair of pants and a potted plant so I had to pick one. I picked pants because pants are funnier. Sue me.


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Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

I’m looking for authors (especially, but not limited to, new and/or indie authors) whose work I can feature here on Penstricken over the coming year. It will simply take the form of a quick Q&A about yourself and your work via private message or e-mail and, of course, a link to where we can all get a copy of your work.

I’m open to interviewing authors of almost any kind of story, provided your work is complete, original and of course, fictional. I will not consider individual short stories/micro-fictions, however I am happy to feature published anthologies or entire blog-sites of micro-fiction, provided you are the sole author.

If you’re interested, or want to know more, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.