What is a Story Bible?
A lot of detailed information goes into the creation of a novel: beat sheets, plotlines, character wants, goals, flaws, and physical characteristics like hair color and tattoos, scene breakdowns, setting descriptions, research, revision lists—and so much more.
And that’s just for one book. If you’re writing a series, multiply all of that information times the number of books!
Whew! How is a writer supposed to keep track of all that information without losing their mind? Or worse…receiving emails from readers pointing out the heroine’s eye color changes across the span of a series and the small town baker’s name goes from Annie in the first book to Abby in book five.
No writer wants continuity errors if they can avoid them. Enter the story (or series) bible. In the simplest terms, it’s a tool for keeping all of your information in one place. Television screenwriters use story bibles to keep track of everything from character bios to episodes synopses to series arcs from the infant stage when they’re pitching a show to the series finale.
Novelists may not need to cover hundreds of episodes of storylines, but we do juggle more information than most of us can keep in our heads. A story/series bible eases the burden on our inner file cabinets. We've gathered our best tips on creating and using a story bible to your advantage.
Reasons to create a story bible
Remember all that information we talked about? Character sheets and setting details and revision notes—oh my! Having all of that information in one place that you can easily access will make the writing process easier in the long run.
Speaking of the long run, if you’re planning a series, whether it be with the same characters or a connected set of stories, your readers are going to remember things from one book to the next! And while we writers like to think we will remember our heroine’s eye color across three books…mistakes happen. It’s much better to open the story bible and verify her right eye is brown and her left is blue rather than publish the book and have readers and reviewers tell other readers your books are sloppy.
If you’re writing a long series—or even a duology—you already have a lot of work on your plate. You need to map out storylines, character arcs, location specifics, mysteries, love interests—it’s a lot of work and a lot of brainpower. Having a story bible at your fingertips gives you an opportunity to hit the highlights of your past books. Maybe you don’t want to take the time to reread an entire novel and take notes on scenes or characters. A story/series bible lets you go right to the information you’re looking for so you can get to the important part: writing the next book.
When to start a story bible
The easy answer is anytime. You can start with the brainstorming phase or when you’ve finished the novel. It all depends on you and whether you think it’s the best use of your time.
Keeping everything in one place is the best reason to start a story bible not long after you have the initial spark of an idea. At this point, it’s less about continuity and minute details as it is about saving yourself the hassle of searching for that receipt you scribbled a scene list on. If you’re already working with a story bible, you can slip that receipt into the binder or place it next to your computer so you can add it to your digital bible. The drawback to starting a bible this early: many, if not all, details of your novel will change.
Your first draft is done. You’ve taken some time away from the project to clear your head and it’s time to dive in and see what needs to be changed or punched up or deleted altogether. Creating a story bible at this stage can help you keep track of your revisions. First, by seeing what you already have scene- and character-wise. As you make notes on what needs to be revised, you can update the various sections of the bible to reflect your current draft.
The book is finished and locked! It’s in your publishing company’s hands or it’s already posted on the indie sites. Creating a story bible at this stage of the process is less about organization and more about keeping an official log of what’s in your book. If it’s a standalone story, you probably don’t need one. But if it’s a series, this is the perfect time to verify eye colors, distinguishing markings, important backstory, character arc, character relationships, setting details, and all of the other things you know you’ll want to remember as the series continues. The one downside of waiting to this stage: after planning, drafting, revising, working with an editor, marketing, etc.—you may want to be finished with the book and move on to the next project.
Tools to create a story bible
Your story bible can be as simple as you’d like—a few sheets in a notebook, a stack of index cards—or it can be detailed and thorough—a full breakdown of each scene, every relationship each character’s ever had. You could use a whiteboard, a roll of parchment paper, or the notes app on your phone: the entire purpose is to make your life easier. If you're creating a story bible for the first time, you may want to try one of these tools:
A physical binder
Grab a binder, pens, paper, a hole punch, and perhaps dividers and index tabs if you want to separate each section (one for plotting, one for characters, one for setting, one for research, etc.). Write down everything you need to know (or type it up and print it out) and store it in your personal binder. Be careful, though: if you lose the binder (and you didn’t save the typed document), your bible is gone. Additionally, unless you are a meticulous organizer and indexer (labels, color-coding, table of contents, the works), it’s not necessarily going to be easy to find what you’re looking for. And if you make changes during revisions, it’s a lot more work to correct the bible.
One of the best features of Scrivener is its built-in binder. It even has templates for characters, settings, and research if you want to use them. The software makes it easy to upload photos, web links, documents, and any other files you need into one location. You can create as many files and folders and easily rearrange them. If you’re drafting in Scrivener as well, you never have to leave the program to check your story bible.
Word or Excel (or similar programs)
These options are more do-it-yourself than Scrivener, but can be more secure than a physical binder. If you’re using Word, you can take advantage of the heading features to create different sections of your binder. In Excel, you can either create a giant template or use multiple sheets for the sections of your binder. Like Scrivener, it’s on your computer so you can easily access it while drafting or revising (or planning the next book). The biggest downside is the amount of time it takes to input all the information into the document, but the security of knowing it’s there makes it worth it in the end.
No matter how big or small, rudimentary or state-of-the-art, the story bible can come in handy at every phase of the writing process. Use any or all of the techniques above to create the perfect story bible for your writing needs and breathe a sigh of relief next time you need to search for a tiny detail that makes all the difference in your story world!