Tips on Creating a Story Bible

story bible book mistakeSo, you’re editing the last part of your novel and mention a character’s sister named Annie. Or was it Annabeth? Or did you give in to that wild idea of changing the sister’s name to Rasheeda? You can’t remember, because you only mentioned the sister once–in chapter three. So, what do you do now? You could do a search for all three names. Or you could turn to your story bible.

What’s a story bible? Like the persistent bestseller it’s named after, the story bible is a guide book of sorts. It’s a compilation of all the crucial facts about your book. It lays out character backgrounds, story setting details, pertinent acronyms and everything else you need to know in one easy to find place. This is very useful when editing. And it’s downright essential if you’re writing a sequel, either a series or serial, as Stephen Hise discussed not long ago.

So, a story bible sounds cool, right? How do you get one? Well, you have to create it yourself. What you put in it is up to you, and how detailed you make it is up to you. These are the basics to include: characters, locations, and world-specific stuff you made up.

Before we go deeper, I’ll just note that it’s easiest to create your story bible either upfront or as you go along, depending on how you write. If you’re a plotter, filling in the character information for your story bible may help you in plotting. If you’re a pantser, where you just write what comes to mind, take a few minutes at the end of your writing session (or beginning of next) to record any pertinent details that emerged during the writing session. Plotters should do the writing day update, too, as even plotters come up with new details as they write. They should drop pertinent new info in the story bible. If you’re already done with your novel, it’s not too late for a story bible. Just go back through your novels and create entries based on the guidelines below.

Now, back to those three basics items your story bible should include. With characters, you want to include their name, age and physical descriptions, including eye and hair color as well as build (fat, lean, pudgy, femme-fatale curvy). In physical descriptions, you can include any scars, or other identifying marks. Beyond the physical, you want background info on where they’re from, family members, best friends, level of education, and even names of schools they’ve attended or companies they’ve worked for, if those details are in your book. You can go deeper and give information that’s not in the book, if you want to, but that’s not a requirement. You’ll appreciate that deeper info later, if you’re writing a series or serialized novel. However, as the goal of a story bible is to help maintain consistency, the most important things to include are things that are in the novel. [Arline Chase shared her tips for creating a character worksheet here.]

The second thing to include in your story bible is what I call location info. If there are certain places your characters visit repeatedly, you should give them an entry in your story bible so the details of the place stay the same. If your characters hang out in a coffee shop, it shouldn’t suddenly have an upstairs in book four, when it’s described as a single story building in book one.

Finally, you’ll want to include anything you created as part of your story’s world. To avoid legal entanglements (possible libel/intellectual property lawsuits), most fiction writers create some imaginary businesses or acronyms. If you write science fiction or fantasy, you’re probably going to have a fair amount of things you made up to world build. Those should go in the story bible. This would include things like acronyms, business names, creatures, or special technology. For example, my characters have an LMS chip (life monitoring system) in their arms, so it’s in my story bible.

A story bible is meant to be a reference guide for you (or your editor) while you’re editing or writing, so it doesn’t have to include every detail of your book. But, it should include information necessary for you to be consistent. It would be nice to say that the story bible should only include things you’re going to mention a lot, but chances are, if you mention something a lot, you’ll remember the detail. Story bibles help you with the things you’re unlikely to remember. It will keep characters from having brown eyes on page 8 and hazel eyes on page 208 (or for eBooks, location 623 vs location 3244). You’ll also avoid name changes similar to the ones I mentioned in the opener.

So, do you have a story bible? Would anyone like to share the biggest gaffe they almost made before checking the facts?

Author: RJ Crayton

RJ Crayton is a former journalist turned novelist. By day, she writes thrillers with a touch of romance. By night, she practices the art of ninja mom. To learn more about her or her books, visit her website or her Author Central page.

27 thoughts on “Tips on Creating a Story Bible”

  1. This becomes even more important when you’re writing a series, and you decide to change the timing of an event. I hadn’t thought of location info, but I can see where that would be helpful.

    Thanks, RJ.

  2. Great idea. I got caught once when I changed the gender of a child. Even though that child was not a character, the mother was, so I had to get it right. Fortunately my editor caught it.

    I read this title as ‘Bible Story” instead of Story Bible at first. lol The tricks our brains play on us,eh?

    1. Oh, changing the gender of a child is a good catch to make. And as a writer it’s so easy to make a mistake because so many things percolate in your mind. Halfway through the first draft of the final book in my series, I realized I was calling a character I’d named Jane in the previous book June. But June had been her original name and I decided I liked Jane better. Only my brain reverted to that original concept.

  3. RJ, this is excellent, thank you. Even for a standalone book. I’m using a version of a “story bible” now, on various spreadsheets and Arline’s terrific character sheet, to help me keep track of a timeline that involves a prequel and a sequel to an existing book. Very handy.

    1. For stand alone, prequel or sequels, story bibles definitely help. Going back to add new backstory info for a prequel sounds like a fun project. It’s always cool to learn the history of characters you thought you knew.

  4. Great post, RJ. I’ve caught a number of potential problems with my version of a story bible — some of them, right out of the box. Initially in “Land, Sea, Sky,” Sue’s name was going to be Nan. Then I made my character list for the book and realized I’d have both a Nan and a Nanabush. That’s when Nan became Sue. 😀

  5. I always keep character dossiers, “chapter events,” and other story details for my novels in a Word.doc on my desktop. I also write stuff down in a notebook I can check in a single glance. If I didn’t, my scrambled brain wouldn’t be able to keep anything straight!

  6. RJ, great post, great ideas. I guess I’ve actually been doing this all along but just kept a running list of things at the front or back of my latest WIP so I could check back as I needed to. One more thing I do, if it’s pertinent, is keep a timeline: dates when the characters were born, when impactful things happened to them (parent dying or leaving, marriages, divorces, children born, etc.). Another is to give brief descriptions of personality traits: jealous, insecure, fear of heights, etc. The more info the better! Thanks for pulling it all together.

    1. Melissa, you’re so right about timeline. That keeps coming up, so clearly it’s important to know not just what happened, but when. And personality traits are important, too.

  7. I fill out my story bible as I go through the planning, writing, and editing stages. I’m working on a six-book series right now – I actually wrote the whole thing, beginning to end, and I’m doing the first revision on the whole thing as a single unit to make sure I don’t get the kinds of inconsistencies you can get in a series. Also to make sure I actually finished it 😀 Putting together the story bible for the has been a huge job.

    I’m pretty good about characters’ appearances; I see them very clearly in my mind. The thing I have the most trouble keeping track of is who knew what when, and how they knew it. I’ve been making note of that as I go through the revision, but it would probably help to keep track during the actual writing.

    I did have a town go through several different names – Stone Creek, Stony Creek, Stony Gulch.

    1. Sounds like you definitely need a story bible, and it’s good you used it throughout the process. Doing it as you go along is definitely easier than trying to backward create it. And sounds like everyone ought to have a timeline, too, as that appears to help keep people on track.

  8. Thank you RJ. I’m with Melissa, a timeline is essential as well as the book bible. I use the software Scriviner when I write. It keeps all the vitals in one neat project file, accessible at all times. Of course the same can be accomplished with multiple files, but I recommend the software as a writing tool. Usually you can get it half price if you finish during NaNoWriMo.

    1. Thanks, Melissa. Timelines definitely are important. I’ve never used Scrivener, but people who do seem to love it, so clearly it’s doing something right.

  9. Great post. 🙂 I have two ‘bibles’ – one is a mammoth file of world facts [re my alien world], the other is my alien dictionary, which includes names, ranks, titles etc. It’s a lot of work to set up but it’s the best aid to anyone without a photographic memory!

    1. Yes, exactly my sentiments–and I’ve never met a person with a photographic memory, so not sure they really exist. Kudos to you on creating an actual dictionary. That’s awesome.

  10. Great post, RJ. I use one, but not to the extent that I should. I would be lost without, considering how long it’s been between book one and book two of the series.

    You gave us some great ideas of how to use it that I haven’t been doing. Thanks for helping me get better.

  11. I would be lost without my bible. I keep a printed copy on my desk. It’s hard to remember an entire town, especially with odd spelled names.

    1. Printing it out is a great idea! I hadn’t really thought of that, but the truth is, I love my style guides in print version. Even though you’d think the size of a style guide would make it harder to find stuff than electronically, I’m so used to where things are, that I find it easier to pick up the guide and flip the pages than I would to use the electronic version.

      1. Much easier to flip back and forth with printed pages than scrolling through a long file or multiple files. I keep the timeline, maps, and other research in the same binder.

  12. Scrivener makes this so much easier, in every way.

    For my fantasy series, having a separate little document at the left side for each character, setting, or idea (like religion/worship, government, military ranks), organized in folders however you want, and accessible all the time makes it so easy to create, update, and refer to. And combine that with the search function pulling up all the scenes or other documents matching whatever details you want to double check or capture, I can’t imagine doing it any other way.

    Another yay for Scrivener!

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