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The first time I heard the term “story bible” my thoughts went immediately to the most commonly used meaning of the word ‘bible’. But it’s the second, informal, meaning of the word that applies here – “a book regarded as authoritative in a particular sphere.” – Oxford Languages

It felt weird calling something a ‘bible’ which was, in my more limited knowledge at that time, reserved only for a book that holds huge religious significance.

Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

To better define just what a story bible is, consider the synonyms for ‘bible’:  ABC, authoritative book, companion, enchiridion (“a book containing essential information on a subject”), essential book, guide, handbook, manual, primer, vade mecum (“a handbook or guide that is kept constantly at hand for consultation.”).

I had to look two of these up, so I included their definitions, also from Oxford Languages.

You can call it whatever you want, really, but ‘story bible’ is the commonly used industry term.

What actually is a story bible?

Your story bible is the document you use to keep track of the details and worldbuilding in your novel. If you are doing a series, you might have a series bible that spans the larger story in addition to, or instead of, individual story bibles for each book. You may also have more broken down specific character bibles or world bibles if your story has more than one world.

Story bible vs. outline.

Story bibles go by many names—from series bible to novel bible, to the more specific character bible—but they all are the same thing: A document used to keep track of the worldbuilding and details in your novel.

It sounds pretty similar to an outline, and it is, but it’s not quite the same thing.

Both will duplicate certain details like your characters’ names and backgrounds, important worldbuilding points like technologies, languages, and locations, and the little details you need to remember about what you foreshadowed early in your novel.

The difference is in the scope.

The story bible is a quick and short reference guide for editing. Its focus will be narrow and restricted to the basic details. It might even be in point form. This guide makes a handy tool to quickly check when you’re making changes to your story. It’s also helpful for your cowriters if you have any, editors, and proofreaders.

An outline is like a story bible, but more detailed and more in-depth. It’s a guide with more meat for the purpose of plotting and fleshing out your story. It is a not-so-quick reference guide that fills in all the specifics and organizes your plot.

Purpose of the story bible.

Having to go back searching through a 300+ page manuscript to verify what color that car/dress/other item was is not something you or your editors want to have to do.

Your story bible is your reference guide for all your planning for the novel: story concept, setting, cultural references, bits of dialogue and phrases to keep language consistent, potential plot conflicts, character descriptions, and more.

This can be especially helpful if you participate in National Novel Writing Month. Quickly jotting down little details can save a lot of time spent wondering about or searching for the small things you need to be consistent on. Instead, you can move forward and spend that time trying to blast out 1667 words per day.

Maintaining continuity is perhaps the most important job of the story bible. You never know what small detail a reader might latch on and be put off by your lack of consistency with. Especially with the more complex science fiction and fantasy epics. Suddenly changing the name of a place because you didn’t remember correctly which name you went with can be confusing and off-putting for the reader. And, keeping things consistent can be hard when you are revising, rewriting, or, like me, have more stories than you can name on the go.

Creating a story bible.

If you’ve never created a story bible, don’t let that intimidate you. You can do an online search and come up with all kinds of ideas and suggestions of what to include. The lists are abundant and if you compile them yours will become ridiculously long. There are also templates you can download, but they might not seem relevant if they don’t match your genre.

The key is making it yours. Make your story bible what you need it to be. Don’t make up details that are irrelevant and wouldn’t be in your story otherwise just for the sake of filling in a form list.

Start early. If you’re a plotter, you might want to create your bible first and then expand on it to create your outline, or you might find it works better to create it simultaneously with your outline. It you are a pantser, quilter, spastic quilter (me!), the best advice I can give is to create and update your bible and outline as you go from the start. Going back to do them later in the game is time intensive and leaves you open to the mistakes having them would have avoided. Maybe I’ll write a post one day on how to convert that manuscript to an outline if you didn’t do one as you wrote.

Keep the details light. You don’t want to duplicate your outline here. This is meant to be a quick reference guide. If you want deeper darker dirt on the details, refer to the outline for more. In fact, this is where hyperlinks are a beautiful awesomely spectacular wonderful thing.

Using hyperlinks, you can be a click away from more details in your outline. Hyperlinks are not just to bring you to web pages. In fact, if you are formatting an eBook, they are absolutely essential to link your table of contents to jump to the chapters. To make it easier, you might even choose to have your story bible at the beginning of your outline document so the hyperlinks are contained in one document you can share, move, or rename as needed.

It’s trickier if you decide to also use them in your working notes in your WIP to bring you to the relevant places in your outline. Warning: changing file locations and names will break your hyperlinks if they are not linked to a place in the same document.

Your bible, outline, and story are fluid like the writing process. They are likely to change until the finished product.

There is no one size fits all story bible. Each will be a little unique to the writer and the needs of the story.

Let’s start with those most central key points. Title your story bible and list your story bible header information.

  • Story Bible Title
  • Series title and book titles
  • Genre/timeframe
  • Elements/rules of the world
  • Setting notes, ie) time, place, mood, context (create a section for each setting)
  • Story Drive (everyone wants to say their story is “character driven” because that’s the popular story driver. But what drives the character who is driving the story?)

Example:

Where the Bodies Are – Story Bible

Series: The McAllister Series, book 1

Central conflict/plotline: A serial killer must be stopped.

Torn, reality fractured, the killer is desperate to be stopped.

Genre/timeframe:   Crime fiction, antagonist lead, contemporary urban/rural, current period

Main features/rules of the world:   Real world / real life rules

Setting notes:

  • Time:    current day/year not specified
  • Place:    small city formerly a rural town grown in size, rural and urban locations
  • Mood:  dark, urgent, suspense
  • Context:  all real world assumed/not detailed: demographics, political systems, social views, cultural practices
  • Story Driver:  character/antagonist, drive to stop the killer, driven to stop himself killing; underlying story driver: killer’s dead sister, Cassie

For the body of your story bible you will want to categorize your sections to cover pertinent things like:

Characters’ Overview:

  • List of characters/characters’ names:
    • Most important/focal character(s) – what character the story cannot exist without
    • Lead character(s)
    • Secondary character(s)
    • Other character(s)
  • Characters’ relationships to one another – this could be one peoples relationship to another or individual characters’.
  • Key features of characters – again, this could be specific to groups or individuals.
  • Character portraits – key details only.

Worldbuilding:

  • Maps.
  • Locations and settings.
  • Races, cultures, and social norms.
  • Technologies, spells, and magical systems.
  • Conlang words (the language you invented for your fictional world) and their proper usage.

Plot timelines.

Example:

Characters’ Overview:

  • Key features/character portraits of characters:
    • The killer
      • Male, not described, identity secret, torn in a fractured world where reality and insanity blurs, obsessed with finding his dead sister; kidnaps women resembling what she would look like if the grew up, murders them in a fit of blackout rage when they are not his sister.
    • The Killer’s Dead Sister: Cassie
      • Female, died as a child, The Killer blames himself.
    • Beth (Detectives’ office)
      • Female, 30ish, competent, “perfectly painted nails and matching lips”
    • Detective Jim McNelly
      • Male, older/middle-aged, obese, slovenly, gruff, ugly ancient brown rusting Oldsmobile, driven to stop the killer, takes each victim personally, unrevealed mystery behind dead wife.
    • Detective Michael Underwood (McNelly’s partner)
      • Male, younger/not too young, generally considered attractive, likeable guy, seems just as home drinking with the boys or at Aunt Bee’s quilting group, driven to stop the killer for his own (spoiler redacted) reason.
      • Goes undercover as orderly at hospital to watch prime victim 1 “Jane Doe”.
    • Molly, nurse (hospital)
      • Mousy, nervous, thinks she’s a bit clairvoyant, protective ‘mother hen’ to prime victim 1 “Jane Doe” in hospital.
    • Prime Victim 1: “Jane Doe”
      • Female, young woman, left for dead, no memory, killer obsessed with taking her back.
    • Prime Victim 2: “Kathy”, Katherine Kingslow
      • Female, young woman, abusive boyfriend, comes to see kidnapping as rescue from Ronnie (boyfriend), develops Stockholm syndrome relationship with kidnapper/The Killer.
    • Prime Victim 3: Connie Wilson
      • Female, young woman, held prisoner at the farm with prime victims 1 & 2, killed when the Jane Doe and Connie try to escape.
    • Reporter Lawrence Hawkworth
      • Male, tall/skinny, buzzard-like features and mannerisms, reporter with ‘less than moral morals’, colorblind, secret dream of being a cop, is clairvoyant, confidant/friend/associate of Detective Jim McNelly, helps McNelly search for The Killer.

Worldbuilding:

  • Contemporary urban / rural. Real world.
  • Unnamed small city formerly a rural town grown in size, rural and urban locations.
  • **Locations not named because this could be your city/town/rural area. This could be your community.
  • Old hardware store: inspired by a real hardware store in a real small town in Manitoba
  • The farm (Killer’s hideout): long abandoned, rundown.
  • Police precinct: a small-town precinct that never grew up with the growing town turned into a small city. Police on the 2nd floor, municipal offices on the 1st floor.

Plot timelines:

Part One: Jane Doe: Learning about Victim 1 Jane Doe and the people connected to her.

  • Introduce Jane Doe victim left for dead.
  • Introduce characters: Nurse Molly, orderly (det. M. Underwood), Detective McNelly, Beth (civ. Missing Persons), reporter Lawrence Hawkworth.
  • Mystery man (Jason McAllister) tries to see Jane Doe at hospital after visiting hours.
  • Reporter Lawrence Hawkworth starts investigating the story of vic. 1 Jane Doe.

Part Two: Losing Grip: Killer has break from reality, almost kidnaps a little girl.

  • The Killer watches a woman’s house. She resembles his sister, but grown up. He slips into the blackout void of his madness and therein attempts to kidnap the little girl who drew his attention.
  • The Killer is sickened and in shock over almost taking an innocent child, not his intended target.

Part Three: Suffer the Righteous & Pamela Makes Three: The third woman kidnapping victim.

  • Deceased victim (2, 2nd Jane Doe) is found in parking garage, The Killer murders ex-priest/witness.
  • The Killer takes Pamela, victim # 3 / lesser victim character, not prime vic. 3.

This example is shortened for brevity here. Listing every bit character and event is not relevant to the blog post.

You see from my example that I only included the very basic details. If I described something (Jim McNelly’s car) in more specific terms that cannot be changed, I included that information. Otherwise the story bible becomes too long and cumbersome or becomes a detailed outline.

In some cases, particularly for a lengthy list of characters or locations, a checkbox form might be better suited.

This is a very basic example, but if you have your pertinent details filled in with this form repeated down the page for as many characters as you need, you can just click/check-box down with the minimum time spent filling in details and it keeps everything consistently organized:

Characters:

Name:                                         ☐ Female          ☐ Male              ☐ Other                 

                                                          ☐ Infant            ☐ Child               ☐ Teen

                                                        ☐ Y Adult          ☐ Middle aged ☐ Elder

                                                              ☐ Tall                 ☐ Short              ☐ Average

                                                              ☐ Thin               ☐ Obese            ☐ Average

                                                              Species/People:

                                                              ☐ People A        ☐ People B        ☐ People C

                                                              ☐ Town A           ☐Town B           ☐ Town C

If you need more in-depth lengthy details that’s where you want to turn to your character sheets or outline because you are no longer looking to reference a quick list guide.

Keep writing my friends and start journaling your storytelling adventure by plotting your bible and outline.

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