Today I’m pleased to welcome fellow Wattpadre author (Wattpadres is a group of 12 Wattpad authors) J. M. Butler to the blog. I hope you enjoy learning about book bibles from J. M. and don’t forget to check out her book!
Without a doubt, the story bible is one of the biggest aids for keeping track of information and maintaining continuity in a large story or a shared universe. It has made all the difference for me as I juggle various series with interconnected worlds and characters.
Though it’s my favorite organizational tool, it’s one that I’ve found many of my tutees and students haven’t implemented yet. So here are some of the most common questions I get about story bibles and how you can get started with your very own story bible.
What Is It?
A story bible is essentially a custom made reference for your story. It includes all of the information of your story, including
- Locations and descriptions
- Maps and pictures (if you have them)
- Character bios
- Character descriptions
- Items used in story (such as what sort of horse your MC rides or a ring she always wears)
- Snippets to include later (just in case you have a brilliant idea but it isn’t time to include it yet)
As a general rule, I find it best to err on the side of adding too much detail rather than too little. There are few things more exasperating than having over 300,000 words and realizing you can’t remember what color a character’s eyes are or whether another character takes his tea with lemon or blueberries.
What Do You Need?
You can make a story bible out of a notebook, journal, a three-ring binder, a whiteboard, index cards, or a standard word processor. Or maybe a combination of all of these.
As much as I love paper and physical books, I have to admit that the electronic story bible has an edge because there’s always room for expanding information and the keyword search. But if you prefer a physical one, make sure you leave plenty of room for additional ideas. Binders often make a good compromise since you can add pages as needed.
For the electronic version, you can use Microsoft Word, Open Office, Google Docs, Scrivener, or any other word processor. My personal favorite is Scrivener. Don’t try to keep the story bible in the same Scrivener file as your novel or series, though. That will just cause problems later on.
If you use a whiteboard or something similar, take pictures as you go just in case it gets erased. The same goes for setting out index cards to outline your story.
When Should You Do It?
Every writer has a different point at which composing the story bible is most effective. While some prefer to do it at the beginning, others simply want to dive into the story. The good news is that, so long as you do it at some point, it doesn’t matter.
Personally, I fill out some of my story bible before I start writing. Generally I take notes while brainstorming and put them in later. Then, at the end of a writing session, I update the story bible with relevant additions as I discover them.
Another alternative is to put it together after the story is done. To do this, you read through the story and fill out the information as you encounter it. While you may run into more errors this way, it can help get all the information fresh in your mind and take on the larger picture.
How Do You Find Information When You Need It?
Now as excellent as a story bible is, it won’t do you much good if you can’t find that information later. This is one of the reasons I prefer an electronic story bible. Scrivener’s word search function, at least on Windows, is spectacular. (Not to mention the Collections tool which can be quite helpful.)
If you are doing this on paper though, I’d recommend using dividers between the major sections. You can paste them into journals or cut them down to size for index cards. Then for the actual writing, you might consider using colors to indicate certain types for information. Blue ink for information that will be true throughout the whole series, green ink for book one, purple for book two, and so on.
One other tip if you’re doing this on paper is to create a good table of contents. You won’t be able to include everything, but it will help you get in the right general area.
In both cases, you’ll have to decide whether you want to present information alphabetically or by frequency or by appearance in the story. Alphabetical can be easier to find while frequency will put what you most use at your fingertips. Bear in mind that frequency organization will make other details trickier to find. And appearance in story (organized in the order that they appear) requires that you have a general idea about when the information appears.
Alphabetical is my preferred option most of the time. Occasionally I have some files in order of frequency because I use them so often. The fact that they are out of order bugs me though, and I may have to change it back to pure alphabetical. (Yeah…going to have to go change it. Can’t take it.)
Should You Include an Outline?
Outlines and story bibles are two separate things. But I’ll admit that I actually combine them in mine, and I’m not the only one. I add in the general outline (if I have one), but then I create a separate document in the story bible for the reverse outline.
The reverse outline is one I update after each writing session. It includes
- What happened in the chapter
- Characters present in each scene (don’t forget to include ones who are hiding)
This reverse outline is so helpful when it comes to drafting a query letter and refreshing my memory. It’s also useful to read back over before I start writing for the day.
A Parting Word of Advice
Remember that the story bible is just a tool. It’s for you. So feel free to change all of this as you need and according to your circumstances. The story bible doesn’t have to be perfect. Sometimes you might have to choose between fleshing out your story bible and writing. Remember that the story bible is intended to help you write so writing should still take the priority. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It can just be serviceable.
So adapt your story bible to include whatever you need. Update it when you can, and have fun writing. All the best with your stories. What organizational tips do you have for keeping your stories on track?
About the Author:
J. M. Butler is an attorney and a freelance writer as well as an author. Despite her love of organizational tools, she often gets behind in updating her own story bibles and is left playing a game she likes to call “tie up all the loose strings before anyone notices.” She fills her days with writing, tutoring, cooking, baltering, and occasionally knife throwing. From time to time, she also teaches creative writing with an emphasis on speculative fiction and fantasy most of all.