Being a Better Writer: Story Bibles and Other Forms of Story Organization

Well, after a wild weekend consisting of both roller coasters and more viewers in a day to the site than I normally see in six months, I’m back! To those of you who are regular readers, hello again, and to any of you who are new, I hope you like what you see and stick around!

Right, down to business, or brass tacks, or whatever other work-based colloquialism you might be able to think of. Today I’m tackling another reader request topic, but before I do, I’ve started to notice a trend with these. Lately, a lot of the requested topics have been—How to put this?—mostly on one side of the writing spectrum. Dealing with structural topics, such as organization, motivation, or the like, rather than close-in topics like characters, tropes, or plots.

I’m not complaining. It’s just that I’ve noticed the trend, hence I’m not going to be using requested topics all the time as I’d like to keep BaBW from focusing solely on one aspect of writing like that. As important as things like motivation, goals, and other bits “surrounding” the act of writing can be, I don’t want to write solely about them for a long period of time because there are readers out there who want to hear about characters, pacing, tropes, and other fun topics that you’ll run into in the act of writing. So in the future I’m going to try to make sure to balance that a little better, as I feel that lately a lot of the topics I’ve discussed have been that “infrastructure,” for lack of a better word, surrounding writing that doesn’t as commonly prove to be an issue with writers.

That said, this week’s topic probably rests somewhere in the middle between those two points. Story bibles, along with other forms of story organization, are a particularly common tool in the toolbox of most writers, even among those that are primarily the “write-as-you-go,” pantsing sort. No matter what someone is working on, there’s usually a point where it can’t hurt to have a little bit of a reminder sitting there to help them keep track of what they’re working towards. Or to have something to serve as reference material.

Now, this is actually trickier to write about than most would probably expect (and certainly moreso than I expect the reader who requested this topic guessed), and not because of how tired I am (pretty tired) but more because this is one of those topics where so much of it boils down to both individual preference between authors and the story itself, changing from project to project. For example, while I usually create a story bible for most of my works, there have been times when I have not. The forth-coming Colony, for instance, despite being a juggernaut of a book and universe, never had a story bible. No, the most I ever wrote up for it was a few lines about one of the main characters back when I was starting out, and a simple checklist timeline of “This needs to happen by the end of the book.” And Colony is one of my longer epics to date.

But it didn’t need a story bible. Though to be fair, it was also a book where I wanted to see how I did pantsing a story, so not having one was deliberate (Knowledge gained from this experiment? It took me twice as long to write Colony—six months—as it did the similar-length story Beyond the Borderlands I wrote right after it which had a full story bible).

My point is that there’s no “right” way for me or anyone else to follow here. There’s no set “proper method” for doing a story bible. There’s no right way to do an outline. At the end of the day, whatever assists you in getting your story written is what you want, and that can be anything from a large, complex story bible to a simple checklist of events you want your story to wind its way across.

No, in this case, the only thing that could be said to be “correct” is that the outline, checklist, bible, or whatever else you create does its job in helping you formulate and write your story. As long as it does that, its good. That’s all it needs to do!

Right, now, that all said, there are undoubtedly a few readers out there who are looking for a few pointers on where to start, so let’s go a bit past the name. Let’s look at story bibles, but also a few other other frameworks of organization and planning that various authors make use of.

The Story Bible
We’ll tackle the largest one first—though to my knowledge, not the most common. A story bible is … well, the title itself is fairly on point. It’s a collection of documents, usually ordered in some way, that comprise a very large chunk of background information about the world, setting, characters, plot, etc, of a book, or more often for this type of story, universe that will serve the author as a reference.

These things are packed with information. Based on the work, they’ll contain everything from a detailed write-up of how the world’s magic works (either loosely or precise, depending on the type of magic system the author is running with), to the history of cultures and civilizations, from cities to leaders, to character write-ups or political shenanigans.

If that sounds like a lot of information, well .. it is. Before sitting down to even start Shadow of an Empire, I spent at least a week working on my story bible, which contained everything from detailed character write-ups and a full break-down of the magic system to information on cities and trade, a bit on the political structure of the Indrim Empire, and even bits on local wildlife! At the moment, this “bible” consists of around ten or twelve documents, and not small ones either.

Now, before we talk about anything else here, I want to talk about the substance I’ve just mentioned. Or rather, the contents of those documents I just mentioned. Yes, I wrote up information on a collection of cities and trade. Yes, I wrote up a document on some of the wildlife that could be encountered across the country the book takes place in. I wrote up a file on their money, even.

But you don’t need to do all that.

First thing, if you’re going to sit down and build a story bible? A story bible is going to provide you with all your background information for your story. So if it’s something that isn’t going to come up in your story, either as background or a story element, you don’t need to worry too much about building it. I wrote up a bunch of information about wildlife in the Indrim Empire because the main characters spend a good chunk of the story on horseback traveling from one place to another in the Outlands, which means that they encounter that wildlife and it plays a part in the story. I wanted to know what they would run into in advance (particularly for some of the more unique species), and so I did a write-up on them as a reference.

In that same vein, you don’t need to recount information that would be obvious. Which is why I said story bibles aren’t as common in my experience. Inside Sci-Fi and Fantasy, sure, but outside of that? If you’re writing a story set in the modern day, with things that you are familiar with, a story bible may not be needed because what would be in it is information that you already possess, either from know-how or research.

What I’m getting at is that you shouldn’t concern yourself too deeply with writing out a specific entry to your story bible unless it’s going to help you write your story in some way. Indrim money? Helpful. Wanderer Tribes? Helpful. Wildlife? Helpful. Cities on the eastern side of the Empire? Helpful.

Cities on the western side of the Empire, which the cast will never visit? Cities that aren’t important to the story outside of “they exist?” They got nothing. To be honest, I don’t even think I named any of them until I was halfway through the story itself. Why? Because the most those cities contributed to the story was being a place that was referenced but never seen. They were the western end of the rail lines … and that didn’t really matter in the story I was working on outside of that lone fact.

Sound tricky? Well, in way, yes. Being able to distinguish what should and shouldn’t be your focus when you’re putting together a story bible is part of the creative process. Which means you’re going to at least need to have a general idea of what elements you want in your story when you start. And you can always go back and add things in later.

Now, where to start start with your story bible? Well, that’s up to you. Me, I tend to start with some of the things that make the world unique. For instance, though I had basic ideas of my primary cast when I sat down to start putting together Shadow‘s bible, but I didn’t start by writing out the characters. Instead I started by writing out the magic system Shadow uses, followed by a bit about the Indrim Empire, since the characters in question would be heavily influenced by both. Only once both of those were in place did I start working on Sali and Meelo.

In other words, think about what is going to be the largest influence on your world and start there. Is it the country? Ancient history? A group of people? Start there. If it helps, start a character sheet or some other bit and figure out what you need by identifying the blank spots (like magic, or where they grew up).

This is all dedicated worldbuilding, obviously. Don’t be afraid to go into a lot of detail, or at the same time, to leave some details sparse so you can figure them out later (as long as you don’t forget to add those details back in somehow when you refine them later). If there is something that’s going to be important to your story in any large capacity, then write about it. Money, culture, music … this list is, as far as writing is concerned, endless considering the numerous plots one could write out there.

Now, if writing an endless story bible sounds daunting, well … it is. So don’t do it. Just write what your story needs. Ask yourself basic questions like “Where will this story take place?” or “What kind of city is this?” and extrapolate from there, adding any details or bits that you feel may be relevant to the story that you’re going to tell. Eventually, you’ll reach a point where you don’t have any more questions like that which you can’t answer, and that’s when you’ll know you’ve got a pretty solid story bible, at least on the background angle.

Now, a question I’ve had from other readers that ties into this: what about organization of a story bible?

See, this is a question that goes right into framework. And my answer is … whatever works.

No, seriously. Yes, there are dedicated story bible programs out there, some of which even contain word-processors inside them that will cross-link information for you based on keywords. Or so I’m told anyway, I’ve heard a few authors talk about them and the programs they use, but I’ve never tried one. I have no reason to doubt that they exist, nor that they can be very helpful, but since they cost money and I find my own system works just fine, I’ve never splurged for one.

Me? The first few times I built a story bible I used Microsoft Word … which was a little awkward in practice. I had a folder that was just “background” and it contained a bunch of word files on various topics. Usable … but functionally a bit annoying, as Word doesn’t exactly make it easy to jump between any large number of open documents.

At least, not as easy as Google Drive, which is what I currently use for my story bibles. While still writing said stories in Word. Turns out, Google Drive makes it quite easy to open a multitude of files, organize them in folders, and the like. For example, with Shadow of an Empire I have the main story folder, which has seven different documents discussing a selection of topics, and then I have a sub-folder for characters, each with their own file. Since I can open each document in a new tab, and each is clearly labeled, it’s pretty easy for me to just leave my browser open and pop over if I need anything.

Are there other systems? Sure. There’s probably someone out there that prints out all their story bible and keeps it in a binder by their desk. Or handwrites it.

If at this point it’s starting to sound like “whatever you feel comfortable with that works,” then you’re on the right track. Because that’s exactly what this is. Feel free to experiment a little bit and find what works for you.

Now, what about other forms of story organization?

This one is a pretty good classic even when you’re not building a story bible (though a good story bible may include a variant of one of these). A timeline is a great way to get a handle on your story’s ups, downs, and general goings-on. It can help draw attention to early pacing problems or potential plotholes, but it can also help provide a steady sense of direction and foundation in early chapters.

Of course, there are several different methods you can use for writing out a timeline as well. Colony, for instance, had what was essentially a “checklist” that I put together after I’d started the first few chapters of the story (pantsing, remember?). It was a single 3×5 notecard listing out each of the big events that needed to happen, in order, for the end of the story to come together. It wasn’t pretty, but it was effective. It was a nice little reminder of all the big, important “beats” that I needed to hit (the little ones I just cataloged mentally).

Other times, I’ve engaged other timelines. Working on The Phoenix, for example, I had a collection of notecards that postulated a chapter by chapter breakdown of events. As each chapter was finished, I flipped to the next card, which had the beats the next chapter needed to hit written on it.

Now? These days my timelines are part of the story bible, and a bit more flexible. For both of my last two works (Beyond the Borderlands and Colony) I’ve had a chapter summary for the first bit of the book (usually the amount of the book this covers varies), followed by a list of chronological story beats to hit after that. This way I “hit the ground running” when I start because I can get a feel for the new world and characters I’m writing without worrying too much about the plot beats since I’ve got a summary to remind of them. By the time I’m well-settled in the world and characters, the timeline is giving me just what I need to keep in mind as the characters do their own thing.

My point here is that a timeline is a great tool for organizing your book, and you can do a lot with it. Some timelines are just a doc in the story bible with a series of ordered beats. Others may be chapter summaries, plot summaries … I’ve seen people use line graphs to explain their book.

In other words, pick one that sounds good to you and give it a shot! If you feel that a timeline will help you organize your thoughts, than make one! Start basic, then reach out to try different things as you complete and then start new projects! Like the story bible, there’s a lot of room for individual flexibility here. Use that capacity to find what serves you best.

Character Chart
Right. Now this one I’ve never done more than once, a long, long time ago, but it still counts as a form of story organization, and based on what you write, you may find it very helpful. This one is a bit more complex (and may require some arts and crafts), but at its core the concept is fairly straightforward.

Basically, take a sheet of paper. Now, at some point near the center of that sheet, put a little icon that represents your primary (or one of your primary) characters. Next to it, detail a few things about them, particularly personality or character interactions with others.

Got that? Now you do similar for all the other characters, but spread around, in a lose circle, if possible. Once you’ve done that, assign colors to their attitudes towards other character characters, and draw lines connecting them. So if Character A is angry at  Character B for some reason, draw a line in the proper color and note the why next to the characters. If Character B is in love with Character C, draw another line of another color (it may be helpful to simplify your lines down to “red means dislike, blue means like, green means neutral, etc). Continue making lines between all the characters.

When you’ve done this for all your characters and side characters, you’ll have a helpful, quick-reference guide that you can read at a glance if you ever forget anything.

This can actually work for more than just characters. If we expand the definition a bit, a character chart such as this can be used for other things too. Writing an epic that has political drama and need to keep track of political parties or individuals? This can work for that. It works on a national level too, for keeping track of nation’s interactions with one another (in fact, Civilization and other 4X strategy games have used charts like this before so that players can read national currents at a glance).

Now, personally I’ve never done this one, as my character sheets suit me just fine. But if you want to play with very tricky interactions or worry you might be losing information, this approach might serve you well.

And at this point … well, I’m out of ideas. If I go any further, it would be within the realms of both a Google search and “I’ve never done this nor learned about it.” At which point I would question my own use in parroting it back at you, readers.

So, just a quick refresh. Story bibles are compilations of organized background information relevant to the story that you’re writing, everything from character sheets to background history or politics. Timelines can be tailored any variety of informational density, but serve to remind you of all the beats your story needs to hit along the path to the end. And character charts can be used to summarize complex relations in a simple, easy to read system to make keeping track of complicated interplay a little bit simpler.

Which of these will work for you? I don’t know. There’s no silver bullet; everyone builds their own system that works best for them. All you need to do is find it.

Good luck. Now get writing, and I’ll see you next week.

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