One Dutch Editor, One Nomad Writer

Why everyone should consider a story bible

A story bible is like a network of Wikipedia pages for your story. In it, writers can further develop their world For the longest time I was hesitant about starting a story bible. In my mind, it was just wasted time that I could spend on my book, instead. 

Rarely before have I been so wrong. Once I gave in and started, I just couldn’t stop. Now, my story bible includes pictures of sketches that I made of the relevant buildings, character bios, notes on the weapons – both famous and standard ones, info on how shields were constructed, and so much more. 

ClipArt by unknown artist

What constitutes a story bible

A story bible can take on any form you want. Mine is digital, while others use a notebook. And both of us use it differently, too. My story bible is more than a compilation of facts and numbers. I added a coarse outline for a new POV character and challenged myself to think about the environmental descriptions, too. In a way, it’s me telling the story to myself: much like how Terry Pratchett felt about a first draft. 

Whereas my story bible contains a coarse outline (I had to weave in a new POV with a whole new set of characters), not everyone adds in an outline. Pine, on the other hand, uses their story bible to slow down their thoughts and think them out in greater detail. The key questions you should ask yourself: what do I want to gain from this? And how does this improve my writing?

What are the advantages

The reason I’m gushing about using a story bible is because it helps me connect events and work out character motivations for more than the POV characters. When I started to write about their personalities and had to give examples of where that behavior is shown, I ended up with a deeper understanding of the characters and what they want to happen. If your characters read flat or don’t seem to have a life of their own, a story bible might remedy this.

On a more meta level, a story bible can help you move past writer’s block as well. If your motivation for writing this particular story is dwindling, writing about it might trigger some ideas that will make your love flourish again. And if you’re way too enthusiastic about it and can’t get things done because of that, a story bible will help center your thoughts and stay on-topic.

My story bible is growing steadily and it was the perfect preparation for the current NaNo challenge. Just the act of writing about my story and its different facets allows me to make connections between events and characters that I wasn’t able to make when I only thought about them on a more superficial level. There is a huge difference in knowing your characters and understanding them – and it shows in my writing.

Deeper understanding of the characters

As I wrote the biography for my MCs best friend, I went from describing her personality using examples where the behavior shows, to summarizing her storyline. I described her responses to crucial moments, who influences her, what drives her, what puts her off, and why. By writing this out in full sentences, I got into her head space and as a result, I have a much better grasp on who she is and what she wants from life. That helps me strengthen her dialogue, her decisions, and where her advice comes from.

This is especially important to keep an eye on when you write multi-POV. Having adequate notes that help you make sense of the story lines is so very important in such a setting. Getting to know your characters and giving them a well-rounded personality is a big plus in any book.

The same goes for worldbuilding and other details

For most of the locations, I created simple maps that give a broad overview as to how the room looks. Having those on hand (either pasted into the document or a link to the image with a description) can help you describe the spaces where your character lives in more vividly. 

I’ve been struggling with descriptions for a fair bit, but since I added those maps to my story bible, I learned a lot about my world and how my characters interact within it. 

Accessibility of my story bible

Another advantage is that I now have a document that I can search with ease. Instead of scattered notes in five (!) different notebooks or having to read back how I described the eyes of character # 27 back in chapter 13 — or was it 17? — I can go to the character’s page and save myself a lot of time. 

A story bible preferably combines all your thoughts and notes in a single document or notebook with a clear overview. Personally, I recommend an option that doesn’t rely on one type of software or website servers. The moment you lose access, even if it happens through no fault of your own, you may lose everything you worked on. Mine is stored in a cloud that I can access from anywhere, as long as I have a computer or my phone on me. Since Pine’s is analog, they can use it as long as they have it nearby. I can read, edit, and add to my heart’s content. Should I lose access, I am still able to use the software to copy everything out to an alternative.

How to structure a story bible

If I’m close to convincing you that a story bible is a good technique for you, the next step is to come up with a structure. 

Below is the structure I used for mine. I used Word and love the headings to create a tree structure to my story bible. On the top page I can click on the automated table of contents for quick navigation. Any parts that I don’t want to see, I can hide through the headings function.

It’s easy to add new headings or move around large swaths of text. Because I started on this with a structure in mind, I can write about whatever part of the world or characters I feel like and make it as extensive as I want. If I need to make subcategories for other branches, that’s easily done. 

I write about Vikings. Norse mythology is a huge part of that, as well as the various locations I need to work out, cultural aspects that play into the plot or character development, a soft magic system, and a summarized outline according to the story beats I use.

So what software is out there to create a story bible?

Glad you asked! There’s a ton of (paid) software out there that promises that it keeps all your info together. But here are some of the ways you can see how you like the concept before you put in the work and then have to pay to keep your work. 

WorldAnvil

One that comes highly recommended is Worldanvil. As the name suggests, it’s mostly geared towards worldbuilding, but it does have a separate option for writers. Within your account, you can create interactive maps, a detailed history and timeline, family trees, and character bios. Especially for fantasy that uses a secondary world and sci-fi, this website is definitely worth checking out. The free accounts give you access to everything you need to write your story.

For example, in creating an article for a Building, you get space for a freeform vignette, a dropdown menu for location type, a place to put alternative names, a place to put its purpose, plus spots to place any alterations, and descriptions of its architecture, as well as its history, its parent location, the date that it became a ruin (if applicable), its ruler/owner, and its owning organization.

The downside to all these options is that you might get sidetracked into oblivion with all the different options. There’s also a limit to the number of drafts you can enter before you have to publish the article onto your page. But, don’t worry, if your account is set to private, no one will know about your worldbuilding.

Wiki software

Wiki software is a second viable option. You are completely free to build your own structure and because it is lightweight, you could even write your whole story in there. All the images and content you want to enter can be built in there, no limits or accounts of servers required. You can even password-protect it and run it off your own server. However, it does require some basic programming skills with building your own links to other pages, and the formatting and layout might take some time to set up.

Standard text processor

As for me, I use my standard text processor. I love that I’m already familiar with all the ins and outs and use the subheadings to create a tree structure. Through cloud sharing, I can reach it from any device that’s connected to my username. Aside from Word, there’s OpenOffice and Libreoffice that might give you what you need.

In short

Starting a story bible was my way to finding back my sense of direction. It is a fabulous method to keep oversight on your stories. Writing about your story in a meta sort of way can help bring out rich details and helps breathe life into your prose. If you’re stuck on edits like I was for the longest time, I highly recommend this technique to move past your road blocks.

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