Thanks to The Killing and a few other things I’ve spent a fair bit of time in the company of TV people over the last couple of years. There’s a lot to learn from these talented people. One thing is the art of the story bible.
In TV a story bible is a document that contains a detailed description of the world, characters and background of a story. Most novelists, I suspect, build story bibles in their head as they work. I know I always did. That’s often fine. But sometimes it helps to hammer out details other than narrative as you go along or even in advance. If you’re writing a series, for example, it’s always a good idea to set down repeat characters and locations in a document outside the actual book. That way you can refer to them as you work on a new instalment.
I suspect that in future I will create a story bible for everything I write. It’s an engrossing habit once you adopt it, and can save a lot of time in the end. So let’s look at a simple way to get a story bible off the ground. And to help you there’s a Scrivener template at the foot of this post you can use for yourself.
You can create story bibles in any number of different programs. One of the best is Microsoft’s OneNote which comes with Office. I really like OneNote but there’s no native app for it on the Mac. You can run it on Android, an iPad and, at its best, on Windows. You can also access a web-based OneNote library through a web browser on a Mac (and host it for free on Skydrive). But I don’t find the browser terribly easy to work with. So here I’m going to use Scrivener not for writing but for creating a OneNote clone.
Could you do all of this within the same file you use for your novel? Yes. But I’d think twice about that. A story bible isn’t about being creative. It’s to do with management, logistics and routine. When I write I want to imagine to the full. I don’t want to be flicking through different windows trying to find what I want within a set of files. These are two very different tasks. So I prefer to keep the bible separate, open in another window, and just refer to it when needed. Though you could feel differently and incorporate this into your novel file if you want.
My story bible breaks down into four different areas: Management, Characters, Locations and Research, Like this…
These are notes about handling the work in progress. There’s a synopsis — which could be written in advance, noted as the story develops, or a combination of the two. The diary is very important to me. I make notes in it as I go — thoughts, doubts, ideas. Crucially I write in a word count at the end of each week. I don’t regard word counts as sacred but it’s always interesting to see how a manuscript is progressing.
I’m always hearing new titles suggest themselves as I write. This is a place to record every single one as they appear. Some are terrible. Some are simply daft. But you don’t know that until later. So write them down and decide when the book is finished. The ‘to do’ document is self-explanatory — if I know something needs fixing later here’s the place I will write it down. ‘Trouble ahead’ is a way of noting things such as repetitive phrases that need to be checked. ‘Reviewer comments’ is where you’d put in any feedback you receive.
There’s a character section in most standard Scrivener templates. As I explained above I prefer to keep this information outside the novel file. I find it easier to refer to it in a separate window and document. If photos stir your imagination use them. But most of all get in a description of the character, in as much detail as you want to use in the story. Hair colour, eye colour, taste in clothes… get the main details down here so that you can refer back to them and avoid continuity issues.
I also find character groups — police, crooks, adults, children — are more manageable than straight lists of every character in a book. The relationships document can be used to document how your characters interact — who likes whom, hates whom for instance.
Locations and Research
Pretty obvious. But again remember you can drag in photos, copy and paste from web pages, and include pdfs too if you like.
Scrivener does a very good job of all this. You can search across the files and link one to another if you like. I tend not to. A story bible is a simple document really — a collection of notes in a digital filing cabinet.
OneNote is designed for this job and to be honest is a bit better at it really. I particularly like the way you can snap a photo on a phone and place it straight into a note. If I worked in nothing but Windows I’d use it instead, mirroring this structure exactly. But without a Mac OneNote — and there seems to be no sign of one — Scrivener is a very good substitute, albeit one that isn’t easily handled outside a computer.
Here’s a Scrivener story bible boilerplate for you to play with based on the ideas above. It’s in a zip file so you need to decompress it. The document should open directly on a Mac. On Windows you’ll get a directory and will have to open it using the slightly more roundabout way Scrivener does things there. Please refer to the app instructions. This is a freebie and comes without technical support.