Third post in my Jumping Into Writing series. I actually didn't think I'd end up penning this as fast as I did, but might as well share it on the heels of the last.
In an ideal measure, I'd just write until I finish the story I'm working on. But sometimes I get stuck.
I go from doing this:
I don't think there's ever a point in time when a writer *doesn't* get stuck at some point, but I minimize getting stuck by doing certain things to keep myself going when writing. I rarely get writer's block entirely (usually I just take a break from the current WIP and work on another project in progress), but if there's a point I get stuck on a project that I want to finish, I employ certain methods to help me unwind. One of these methods is by building a "story bible."
What is a story bible?
This is a screenwriter's term. Usually TV or movie writers will use story bibles to help pitch the story they've created, especially to maintain consistency in details and help others who may be on the same team trying to follow the story from its barest bones. Writers can use story bibles to help plot characters, overarching storyline, setting details, research, and other elements. What does a typical story bible look like? There are some really good ones out there for TV shows. Freaks and Geeks, Batman: The Animated Series, Gargoyles, Battlestar Galactica all have story bibles that were made available to the public and you could Google those if you're curious. (Or just click the links, it'll either take you directly to the pdfs or close to them.)
You could also think of video game guides and retro RPG games like Dungeons and Dragons, Vampire the Masquerade, Cyberpunk 2033 and Tales of the Crystals as story bibles in a sense, because they outline the characters and their stats, provide the walkthrough/scenario of the game (and plot), provide a bestiary (or some such enemy layout), place details (setting), among other things.
Yet another way you can think about it. Try perusing Wikia pages on certain fan related media - the structure of the Wikia pages have elements that could very well be included in a story bible for information about a given story or series.
Story Bible Structure for Writing a Novel
I take different methods of creating a story bible personally, because I may either use specific writing software to do it (yWriter5, Liquid Story Binder XE, Microsoft Word, Microsoft OneNote, etc.) or just use regular pen and paper or write in a notebook with tabs that help me keep track of the sections. I'm going to take a bare bones approach to it though, and you guys can use just whatever method you want to follow along in whatever platform you wish.
I start by creating the different major "divisions" for structuring the story. The ones I use include:
And many times I'll create subcategories under these headings, but I'm keeping this simple for the sake of example. You're free to create your own categories for what elements you want to focus on, but this is a guide I've used in previous measures.
I'm going to first describe each of these headings in detail. Depending on the type of writer you are, this process may be different n how you go about it, but I'll get into that later.
Ready? Let's do this!
Some writers have different headings to give to this piece of a story bible, but I always start here once I have the idea in mind of what story I want to create. This helps me shape further what it's about and what I'm planning with it.
My subdivisions in this usually include information such as the title of the work, number of chapters and projected word total I want to write for it, genre/subgenre heading, and a brief description of the work in question. There may be other things that I include in it such as notes about the work collectively that I want to keep track of, but mostly, I keep as an overview of the work's vital parts and source of inspiration. My outline/detailing of the story will come later in other sections.
Each section of a story bible can be as short or as long as you wish. Ideally, I'd rather keep it simple so that I don't overwhelm myself to start. I'll get into the pros and cons of story bible use later, but it is wise to start brief and then build as you need to.
This section could be used to include the cast list and character bios or extensive descriptions of the character's respective roles in the overarching story, complete with story spoilers if the writer wants to take it that far. Some may "cast" roles of actors or models to represent the characters to add to the descriptors. I usually divide up my primary and secondary characters into subsections in this part, but again - it's up to what you want to use it for.
Plot is a vital piece of the story bible. It sets up the scenario and allows you to see not only the backdrop the story takes place within, but also the progression of events over the entire scope of your tale. I usually divide this down into subsections to help me organize information.
My subsections look something like "Background" and "Beat By Beat." "Background" is where I set up the scenario that I depicted in my blurb and vet out the character and their motivations, "Beat by Beat" is where I take the major plot points that I know I'm going to include in the story and just jot them down - only to vet them in more detail depending on the story demand.
Here's something to consider about crafting a story bible with respect to plot. If you are an outliner, you will likely do this before you start writing. If you are a discovery writer/pantser, you will probably have more bulk to this section only after you have most or all of the story down (or you write as much as you can and then hit a place where you may get stuck). The good thing about a story bible is that it helps you organize this information to come back to, have consistency, and identify trouble spots in structure and sequence.
If I'm building a story with a complex setting, then I'll likely end up putting those details here. In the current novel I'm working on - a YA cyberpunk story - I ended up having a lot of information in this section because of the depth of the world that I created with respect to the matriarchal society and its rules/regulations. This element can also be used not just in sci-fi/fantasy spectrums, but also to build town details for a fictional or real city you might depict, or you can limit it to certain commonly visited places in the narrative that your protagonist visits and where the "stages" of the story take place.
This is where I start penning key scenes that come to mind. Sometimes there are certain spark scenes I'll have when penning a novel and those are elements which I help use to shape the larger story that unfolds. If you don't want to do a detailed "beat by beat" scenario in your plot section, this is another place you can choose to do it as well.
This is an optional section that I don't always include in my story bible unless it's pertinent to the story that I'm building. Sometimes you may have a special item or object that your character needs to keep track of at a given time, or is used for some key scene in the story and you want to describe what it does, how it functions, where it is at a given time - those sort of details. You can put them in a section like this. If J.R.R Tolken wanted to do it, something like The One Ring could be put in this section and detailed for location, function, among other things in this section. Or if you have a character in an RPG game, this is probably a place where you could put weapons, armor, magic objects, costumes, etc. It can be used for a lot of neat stuff.
Self-explanatory - any research you do for your particular work in question can go in this section. Whether you might be researching another country, a particular controversial issue, a key element of your story, or just looking at things for food for thought and inspiration, it could go here.
Pros/Cons of Using a Story Bible:
There are some benefits and downsides to creating a story bible for your narrative that I'll go into briefly.
For benefits, creating a story bible allows you to:
- Keep track of details in one place
- Maintain consistency, especially if you're writing more than one book in a series
- Find trouble spots in the narrative
- Organize ideas and research
- Gives a platform to dive into the details of the narrative
- Gives a nice guide/point of reference so that you can focus on writing
But there are catches to this, and really the only major one I can think of is one I'll highlight.
Worldbuilder's disease: I've known people (and I'm guilty of having done this in the past) who've created story bibles that were so immersed in the task of building the story bible (building world, character details, etc.) that they took time away from writing the narrative they're supposed to work on. The story bible is not a substitute for putting the pen to the page and writing the work, it's meant to serve as a supplement and help you flesh out the project you're working on, keep things in focus.
Discovery/Pantser writers can use it as much as an outliner can, but I find that the problem with Worldbuilder's disease occurs much more often with outliners. Don't feel too pressured to include a lot in your story bible in one go. Think of it like a sketch - add details as you go along to give the complete picture.
Putting it Together
So now that I've established some of the different sections of a story bible, I'm going to make a very brief attempt at creating a bare bones one. Remember the story of Alex I penned in the last entry? Well, here's a sample story bible for his particular scenario, that could potentially develop into a project.
(Note: Weird of me to say this, but I'm actually brainstorming this as I go along for the purpose of illustrating examples of what you can do with a particular narrative. This was not an actual narrative that I crafted before doing this writing series, but if it ends up being a larger project of mine, I'll let you know.)
Title: Permanence by Rose Summers
Genre (Subgenres): Mystery/Suspense, Horror, Coming of Age, Contemporary
Age Group: YA with potential crossover, some mature themes and language
Estimated Word Count: 60,000 - 70,000 words
Viewpoint: Third Person Limited
Protagonist: Alexander Minton (Alex)
Time to write: 1 month (estimated)
The more things change, the more you wish they stayed the same...
Alex could do without change, at least as many as he's had in the past few years alone. Between the death of his favorite aunt and his father shotgun marrying a girlfriend of only six months, he's had enough of the emotional swing battles.
It draws the last straw when his father and stepmother Bree move Alex and his younger sister Quinn to a small coastal town of Senton, the place Bree calls her childhood home. Starting his junior year in a place where no one knows him, Alex decides to make changes of his own. He distances himself from his family at every chance he gets, tries to cope by reaching out to his life outside of home. But even with the way he's embraced at school and in his community, he wonders if even that has any kind of permanence, especially with his plans to attend college in less than two years.
But there's something else that bothers him. He suspects Bree had more reasons than one moving them to Senton. The town isn't the problem, apart from some strange and perilous incidents that occur around a month that seems to have heavy meaning for its residents. It seems to be the one thing residents don't talk about. For that matter, it feels like the few people who remember Bree would rather not talk about her at all.
Who is Bree, and in this "new and glorious" permanent life she's advocated for his family, why does it seem that she wants Alex out of it?
Alex - viewpoint character, 16 years old, junior in high school
Mitchell - Alex's father
Bree - Alex's stepmother, Mitchell's wife of only a year
Quinn - Alex's younger sister, 13 years old
Luca (Luc) - Alex's best friend/classmate in Senton
Kellie - Alex's classmate/friend
Justin - Alex's classmate/rival
Donte - Alex's classmate/friend
"Don't know if I really have anywhere to call home. With anyone. It feels like I go to sleep and when I wake up, something else in my life decides it wants to bail. Nothing I know is permanent."
Alex is a 16-year old boy who has his life uprooted when his family moves to the small coastal town of Senton. At the beginning of the novel, Alex is shown in his clashes with family as they settle into town, but his demeanor's remarkably different as he starts school and starts blending in with the local residents, even at his new job. But as Alex reflects on his tumultuous two years, he reflects on the changes within his family, one's he's not comfortable with, and further - a growing discomfort with his stepmother Bree. Some would pin his antagonism over his respective grief, but Alex sees it as something more. Things grow even more strange as a particularly dark month in Senton's history falls, and strange events begin to take place - some even dangerous that affect Alex's life as well as the ones he cares about. As he starts digging deeper into events, he also learns of his stepmother's respective past. The more he learns, the more it seems that Bree wants him out of their family picture - permanently.
Not much to say here for notes: Senton is a small beach community, tightly knit, friendly and inviting towards new opportunities for growth for its people. There are a few locations that are revisited throughout this story, including Senton Grove High School, the Community Library, Alex's home in the cul-de-sac community of RiverRun, among other places.
A key note to Senton's history: the month of October is a dark one for Senton's community because it involved a series of losses for well known community members and odd events, though each incident happened in separate years over different decades. The town doesn't formally celebrate Halloween, but it holds a festival in November which recognizes the harvest and some choose to carve pumpkins and dress up in the week following, because the week Halloween falls on is a time of remembrance for the losses of the town. Alex researches into the town's history in several places in the novel, claiming that he's doing a school project, but it's more that he's discovering more personal pursuits, including the history of his stepmother, Bree.
(Note: any scene sketches I wanted to do with the story, I could put in place here.)
(Any objects that are relevant to the plot or for me to keep track of, I could put here as well.)
(Here I can research potential details for the story, whether it may be stuff about town populations, eerie stories that run parallel to the one I'm telling, inspirations, or other things.)
That's probably all I can offer for this entry. Try looking at some of the story bible examples linked/referenced above, and think how you can create one of your own. It may even help to take a favorite novel for events and characters, try to structure it in the form of a story bible. That will give you a guide to see how you can use it for yourself in the structure of your own projects. You can play around with different ways to create a story bible as well - I made mention of a few programs that I use to create mine within. I may do another entry for structure on that in the future. But this is just one, among many, that help me in the process of writing my WIPs.
Until next entry,