A Reformation is Needed

One of my earliest posts on this blog was about creating a Story Bible – an in-world encyclopaedia to go with my novel.

It’s somewhat depressing to read in that post:

I am getting closer to finishing my first novel…

and be still talking about the same novel, two and a bit years later. Well, I guess technically any progress is moving closer… and (in some respects) I have finished it; now I’m just polishing.

I’m currently revising Vengeance Will Come, hopefully for the last time (pre-publication or pre-free-release), and I’ve noticed that only best intentions weren’t enough to keep my story bible well organised or up-to-date. If only I’d used best intentions and discipline it’d be in a better state.

The question is do I use valuable editing time to tidy up the story bible, ensuring it’s true to the current version of the story? The answer is yes. Vengeance Will Come is book 1 of a series, and so I need my source material to be easily accessible (and accurate) for when writing other books in the series.

I’ll however keep editing for a while longer while my brain is sharp. As the Writing Excuses podcast would say, “‘Smart Ben’ can edit. When ‘Dumb Ben’ subs-in later, he can work on the story bible.”

Story Bibles

Story Bible: a collection of world-building information, back-story and notes to help you write a coherent and consistent story. It is a reference document of truth for the story (especially useful for multi-book series).

(That’s my humble definition, and given its 3:00am and I’ve been mostly awake since 1:30am, I apologise if it’s not the tightest).

There are two groups that writers generally fall into when it comes to story development: outliners and discovery writers. Outliners plan out the story before beginning the writing process and discovery writers start writing and then allow the characters/plot to develop organically. Outliners are like the meticulous folk who plan their landscaping first and then execute with precision; discovery writers let the garden grow and then decide on how to trim it.

There are of course varying degrees of flexibility to both of these groups: some authors will outline the plot and allow their characters to discover themselves. Brandon Sanderson (in the fantastic WritingExcuses podcasts) recommends that writers need to try both methods and find what works for them.

I am getting closer to finishing my first novel and had always considered myself to be a discovery writer. However as I approached the tail end of the book I’ve realised that my absence of pre-planning was really hurting the quality of my story. I’ve been writing it for an embarrassingly long time and so the concepts that were in my head aren’t any longer. Thoughts, like old people, have a tendency to wander. Although I knew what the ending was going to be (roughly) I hadn’t done all of the leg work to ensure my characters acted consistently. That’s where the value of the story bible comes in.

So I thought I would share how I have built up my own story bible. As this is my first book I fully expect that the process will incrementally improve over subsequent books.

The very first iteration of a story bible created years ago was just a word document. That was ok but it hardly inspired me to keep it up-to-date and wasn’t all that useful. (Back then the “Find” feature didn’t provide the context that later versions of Word do).

Story bible v2 is in Microsoft OneNote. If you haven’t used OneNote you don’t realise what you are missing, it is one of the most underrated pieces of software. OneNote is essentially a digital notebook and has some fantastic features. It’s a little bit intense, so probably explained best through a screenshot.

Story Bible screenshot from OneNote
Story Bible screenshot from OneNote

I have a separate “Notebook” for each story. A “section” is the equivalent of a manila folder tab (marked with purple/blue). You can also have a collection of the sections by using a “Section Group” (marked with red). Then within each section you can have multiple “pages” (marked with green down the right hand side).

This can be seen a little better with a more detailed (but redacted) screenshot. This is “inside” of the Characters Section Group. You can see that there is a section for every main character, and inside of each that are multiple pages per character.

Inside the Characters "Section Group"
Inside the Characters “Section Group”

The Story Bible enables me to keep “straight” all my facts that I have written about characters, plot and settings.

I have also chosen this particular page to show because it is a one-page summary of my character. When I am writing scenes from Menas Senay’s point-of-view I display this on my secondary monitor to remind me of who he is. This helps me to find his personality and faithfully imprint it throughout the story.

OneNote also has the following great features:

  • Search across multiple notebooks easily, using the search in the top-right of the window.
  • Place text anywhere (you are not rigidly controlled like in Word)
  • Easily copy in images, emails, sound files, scanned documents… (when you paste from the internet, it will automatically paste in the URL as well, which can be handy).
  • Draw and mark-up things.
  • Annotate text with icons e.g. like the tickable todo box, and the question mark below.

OneNote3I have found OneNote to be an excellent application for the storing, sorting and searching of material: which I think are the three main components required in a story bible.

Do you use a story bible? What software or techniques do you use?