ONE OF MY writer buddies (an NYT bestseller, btw) was on deadline and forgot the color of an important supporting character’s eyes.
Is this important? Maybe not to some writers, but I believe that anything that yanks your reader out of your story should be avoided like hamster avoids a snake farm.
Because she was on such a hard deadline, the character’s eyes were changed to vivid and the author immediately started a Story Bible.
I keep two Story Bibles–one as an extensive Master List, and a shorter one for my Work in Progress.
The first time I ever heard of a Story Bible was during a screenwriting class that used a soap opera story tracker as an example. Using their own tracker helps them get un-stuck, and how they raise characters from the dead–or if the bible shows that the character had a brain transplant, bring them back as an evil twin.
A ‘Story Bible’ is the literary equivalent of a photo album–it keeps track of how a character looks, his or her mannerisms, how they’re related to each other and the main characters.
I like to keep mine short and simple, without having to exhaustively cross-reference every detail–that takes too much time–time that is better spent writing.
How to Create a Story Bible
I keep an open Word document and save it as “WIP Story Bible” behind my main document–that way when I introduce a new character, I copy his or her description as the “walk on stage” and drop it into the open document. And don’t forget to hit “Save” every time you do.
When you’re done for the day, you can organize what you’ve written into your Master Bible.
Table of Contents
Why does your bible need a ToC (Table of Contents)? Same reason everything else needs one–it makes info easier to find.
What’s cool about doing this electronically is that Word Docs can manually update your ToC’s when you adjust them.
In most programs, the way this magic works boils down to one simple word: headings.
Open a new doc and look to the left, near the task bar for the ‘default’ or ‘body text’?
Click the box and look at ‘Headings’ – Heading 1, 2, and 3 will probably give you the depth you need. From there you can set a ‘style’–how large or bold you want your headings.
I use different levels of headings to ‘drill down’ into your subjects. Like breadcrumbs in an Internet browser, you will find your layout probably organizes itself that it wants to use this structure anyway. So you might end up with one potential set of levels going Plot > Opening Scenes > Introductions > Bad Guy Introduction. Or Characters > Major character > Heroine > Physical attributes > Tattoos.
Now you’ve made a few different pages, head up to the front page of your Story Bible and go (something like) Insert – Indexes and Tables – Table of Contents. You’ll probably have a few settings to play around with. Then, BLAMMO! Your ToC will spring into being.
Have a play. Have a fiddle. Notice how the ToC expands and contracts to cover the changes you make to your Story Bible. Cut a section out? No worries. Expand it dramatically? It handles all that for you.
You can even set your ToC to act as internal hyperlinks, to save you scrolling tediously through pages, trying to find the section that you want. It may take a little bit of fiddling in the Options menus, but I promise it’s worth it.
You’ll find that having a ToC is, essentially, the reason to make yourself a Story Bible. Organization, especially in an endeavor as vital as story-writing, pays infinite dividends in terms of time, consistency, and authority. Use your ToC to rapidly and accurately collect and categorize information in your Bible to help you in the future.
Now, what if you want to see the ever-growing web of relationships between elements of your story?
An index serves many of the same functions as a ToC. You insert it into your document in much the same way – traditionally at the end, but wherever suits you best.
Once you have an Index, you need to tell your document what the key words are. The simplest way to do this is to browse through your Story bible once or twice, highlighting and adding the words to the Index as you go.
A hint: Choose the option that means you only need to add a word of interest once. This means that whenever you come across a new topic of interest – let’s say, ‘corpses’ – then you find one instance of the word, add it to your index, and then can easily find all your other necro-affiliated references without resorting to manual porings-over.
What do you want to add to an Index? Anything that catches your fancy. The more comprehensive you are as you build, the more complete your references will be once you’ve finished. At the start, your index will probably be as sparse as your ToC. Once your Story Bible expands to a few dozen pages, though, you’ll be glad you’ve indexed.
So What Goes Into Your Story Bible?
Major Characters Heading
I put my protagonists here, the main antagonists, anyone who’s going to appear regularly through the book, and anyone else who is likely to show up later–think about the Harry Potter series–Arabella Figg, the crazy old cat lady who lives next door to the Dursley’s showed up in Book One–was she important? Not in that book, but it turns out later in the series that she’s a squibb (a non-magical person born to magical parents) who was commissioned to watch over Harry while outside of Hogwarts (his magical boarding school).
Major Characters get subheadings for appearance, background, religious views, relationships with other major characters.
I suggest trying to balance out a combination of facts and observations about your characters. Facts might be things like:
- Skin color
- Hair color
- Family ties
- Religion observed
- Disabilities / Special abilities
I try to riff on these characteristics–kind of like if you were going to describe the person to the police should they wind up missing.
This is also the place where you connect character’s relationships, history, attitudes, etc.
Note: Not all of this will go into your story. It’s only important that you know it. I once read that you should be very specific when writing–if the character had a mole with six hairs, the writing instructor said to include that. I disagree. Unless the six hairs are going to somehow animate, jump out and kill somebody, it’s sufficient to say “he had a hairy mole.”
These are the people who keep your character’s life running–the office receptionist, Harold the Heavyset Guard, the barkeeper at The Pier, the red-headed waitress who flirts with Logan at the Oasis.
Giving characters names – even if they’re only in one scene -can be a great way of bringing them to life. Note these down here. You can flesh them out if you want, maybe note down the one or two oddities (like an unusual tramp stamp) that make them into real people.
Your protagonist will call people he or she deals with on a daily basis by name, but may call incidental folks (characters who likely will not show up again) by their appearance–i.e. Thug One and Thug Two.
Recurring Groups and Organizations
Cauley works at The Austin Sentinel. The rival paper is The Austin Journal–in Morgue File, I’m planning to have the Sentinel fold and merge with The Journal, which will cause all kinds of problems for our aspiring crime journalist. Mama and her best friend belong to The Charity League. Include any important group or organization and how it relates to the characters, i.e. Mama and Clairee often use their ties with The Charity League to try to set Cauley up on dates.
Having the group dynamics laid out grounds your story more deeply–makes it more realistic.
Settings – Large
Even if you’re basing your work in Earth or another location which everyone’s got a good understanding of, it’s a good idea to have a quick overview of where everything is. This is a great place to go to town with physical facts and descriptions.
It’s also a good place to cover things like what season it is, where exactly in your world the story’s taking place, and anything that might be different about an otherwise-mundane setting.
Settings – Small
Once you start to zoom in closer, you can get into a lot more detail. Here is where you want to break down information about the locales of your story. How small you go is up to you, but any place that gets visited more than once is definitely worth an entry. I keep a picture of a house that look’s like Cauley’s in my Bible, along with a simple diagram of her house’s layout.
Some other areas I diagram or describe are:
The Sentinel’s downtown office
Flesh out the places your characters spend time in makes them setting more real, and in turn, makes your characters real people.
When writing fiction, often there are systems in place in yor story which you need to keep track of.
These systems can be anything – magical, physical properties of your world, political systems of government, courtly etiquette.
Whatever rules you generate for your world go here. For example, in my current novel’s Writing Bible, I have System entries for the innate magical talents of nine different races, the systems electing governing bodies of three different City-States, and some notes on the economic interactions between the three.
Specific histories – the backstory of your characters – are best left in their entries. However, when you create a story, you don’t create the characters in a vacuum. You create your own instance of the world they inhabit. Depending on where, when and how your story is set, you may have a little or a lot of back-story to work on.
Has there been an Apocalypse? A zombie uprising? Even if we don’t find out all the details in the story, it helps if you’ve mapped out What Has Gone Before.
Writing a historical story? Then this is where the summaries of your research go. This is where you lay out the meat and bones of your back-story, the pre-narrative events that bring us up to the points of action and interest.
Think of the General Histories section of your Writing Bible as a verisimilitude-generator. Knowing what has come before makes your story consistent and gives your characters a common framework to base their experiences and attitudes off.
What sort of timeline is your story set over? Do you need to make notes of dates in history – either before, during, or after your story? What if you want to plan out a possible sequel, or the latter two thirds of a trilogy? Here’s a great place to lay down a sense of scale.
You can also plot out the time-lines for events in your story in more detail here. Nothing’s more awkward in trying to weave together disparate plot elements, only to realise you’ve given your hero two hours to fly from Paris to New York in order to defuse a bomb…
Sometimes, your writing is going to need outside reference material. If it’s historic, then you’re probably going to spend some time with your nose in history books, soaking up characters, events and places. You might want to refer to journal articles, online encyclopaedias, quotes, images. You can use a Reference section to either link to information you’ve found on the ‘Net, or to put it into the body of your Writing bible directly.
This is also great for providing a reference for acknowledgements if you publish your story. Keeping track of the people who’ve helped you in your writing process is important. Thanking them publicly is a great ego boost for them and acknowledges your use of their time and expertise.