RJ’s Guide to Creating a Story Bible

Organization is the bane of many creative types. Some of us love the chaos. Some of us just don’t have the patience to build (and maintain) organization. But, inevitably, creatives of all stripes need to be able to organize themselves. Sometimes we just have an idea too large to be easily contained. Sometimes we have poor memories incapable of holding all the information on a story we need. Sometimes we take on something complex, which makes it easy to misremember something. Sometimes… well, shit happens.

A story bible is a method of organizing important information on a book or series so it’s easy to access for future access. Some people use a notebook. Some use looseleaf paper in a binder. Some use notecards. How you do it doesn’t matter all that much as long as you can easily access the information you need. My one ‘rule’ for this system is simple: use only the parts you believe will benefit you. The rest is garbage, so toss it out.

Story bibles can be used for all sorts of things, not just books. Essentially, this is a method of storing information. Some people need to know every nuance of a character’s life, fictional or real. Sometimes you need to know history of a specific location. Some people need to know nuances of a location. The beauty of the story bible is that it can be rigged to be what you need. So, everything here? Take it with a grain of salt. Really. Pick out the good bits and throw the rest out.

I hope this is a good starting point for those of you who need to track information for creative purposes.

Honestly, I have several methods of creating a story bible. It depends on each project. The information will (often) be updated as I write a book, so it’s a living entity. It shifts forms. It changes. It changes to match the individual book I’m writing. One novel, I’ll meticulously note down every little detail in a journal for later reference. Others, I keep everything in my head.

The logic on how to build a story bible applies for all my methods, but how it emerges may vary.

You can even do this digitally with mind-mapping software. Use the tool that works best for you.

What’s important is the information you need to access.

In a way, this is a tutorial as much as it is revelation of my writing and cataloguing process.

The above image is an example of a table of contents for a series story bible, and it contains information I need to access about the world, story, and characters. There are several other pages of contents. I was working on this story bible right before I moved to the CIRCA system, so the journal itself is incomplete/being moved into a CIRCA system as I prepare to write The Tides of War. Every entry contains relevant information for the series I’m writing. I essentially built a list of things I would need for the series so I had a place to store it as I wrote it. The book trumps the story bible, and as the author, it is my job to make sure the story bible matches the book. Until the book is written, the story bible is nothing but an over-glorified procrastination method. (Albeit a useful one once the writing begins.)

I can’t say this enough. Story bibles are fantastic, but they are a tool to help you write. Or art. Or take photographs of swanky locations at the height of a super cool ceremony where you can capture a unique image. Or do what you need to do. It’s a way to store research. Research without doing the art project, taking the trip to take that super swanky photograph, or writing the book… is just research. It doesn’t do you any good.

It’s a tool, but it shouldn’t prevent you from writing.

The above image gives a good look at the sort of information I need when I’m working on the series. Sometimes, an entry only has one or two brief sentences reminding me of the most important things. Other entries are a treasure trove of details. How much you need is up to you.

Click the images for a larger/closer look.

The beginning is almost always the hardest part for me. What information do I need? Why do I need it? Knowing the answers to these questions will help you establish the contents of your story bible before you put it together–and that can be infinitely helpful, especially if you aren’t using an interchangeable journaling system or a digital system. For most of my story bibles, I use the CIRCA system, which allows you to move the pages as necessary. For those of you unfamiliar with the CIRCA system, here’s a quick introduction, because I legitimately can’t finish this post without squealing over this system. Seriously. It’s expensive, but so worth it to me. The paper quality from Levenger is archival and just delicious.

This is an unused CIRCA journal, but it’s one of my favorites. I’ll probably use this one for novel summaries for the Susan Copperfield books. I have an identical journal for other world building information for that series.

Price: $125, approximately, per journal, excluding extra paper. I use the largest sized rings Levenger sells. Yes, they’re among the most expensive options available for CIRCA-like systems. TUL (Office Depot) and ARC (Staples) are two similar systems. Michael’s (the art store) also has a system similar, but I’ve heard reports they’re not fully compatible with the CIRCA system. TUL has a slightly different cut to the paper than CIRCA and ARC. CIRCA and ARC are 100% compatible, and they’re my two favorites of the options. That said, TUL covers are compatible with CIRCA rings and paper, but the paper itself is questionable for compatibility. It has to do with the cut of the rings.

That may have changed, but I typically keep my TUL paper/rings separate from my CIRCA systems.

You can get a complete ARC system journal for approximately $30, including a pack of dividers, which I find is extremely useful for story bible purposes.

You can use a standard composition notebook you get at the dollar store for $0.25 if you’d like. Or the $0.10 one subject journals. It really doesn’t matter how you store your work as long as you can easily find everything.

As an example, here’s a really old journal I did to help record things for a story bible–this was before I started using the CIRCA system for almost everything.

Note: this is for the Rift series, but much of this information has been altered; it’s one of the very first incarnations of the Rift world story bible, so it may not match what is in Storm Without End and Storm Surge.

This journal was used to start getting ideas onto the paper, both before I wrote and while I was writing. Each little flag marks a different element, be it a character, a piece of culture, terrain information, etc.

This is one of the ways I start building a whole new world from top to bottom–and without being able to rely on current information or history, it’s a lot of work–but it makes an excellent starting point for understanding what you need in your story bible. So, as I said about, take what you like and throw out the rest.

The entire point of this is to help you build your own, finding a way you are happy with.

I tend to be haphazard. I’ll write an entire book without referencing a story bible once, and then randomly, six months later (when I can’t remember a single thing I’ve written) I’ll go back to the story and create a bible and take notes. I have some books without story bibles at all. Every book is different.

Every story bible is different.

So, let’s begin.

Content

Content is king. We’ve heard this time and time again. What do you need to make a book strong? What information do you need to make sure you’re writing consistently? (Readers love consistency.)

Here’s a ‘brief’ list of content to work with in your story bibles. Add more as you see fit. These are just the most common ones I use.

  • Characters
  • Plot
  • Terrain
  • Government
  • Religion
  • Trade
  • Education
  • Myths/Legends

On Characters

This is one of my most basic character summaries I’ve ever used in a story bible. This is because this specific sheet is an overview; it explains the character’s purpose in the story without elaboration. This is also on the Levenger paper I adore. It has a note column on one side, lined on the other, which makes it spectacular for story bible purposes.

This is often how I begin creating a character. What is the character’s purpose in the story? I ask questions, give a brief summary of their history. Yes, this contains some spoilers for the Dae Portals series. Oops! (Alexa is the main character of my Trillian Anderson series.)

So, what do you need to have a good character record for a story bible? That really matters on you, but here’s what I’ve used in my various story bibles, and I really enjoy like having this information readily available, even if the reader never sees this information.

  1. Physical description: eyes, hair, build, physical quirks, notable features (weird shaped nose, scars, disabilities,) height, weight, and physical capabilities (Do they need glasses? Are they clumsy or dexterous? Do they have ambidexterity? Anything that is purely physical and can influence their role in the story.)
  2. Personality: I use tropes to help determine this. Are they nice? Are they snarky? Are they overly polite? Do they speak formally? What makes this character tick? Now, before you pick personality types, it’s often necessary to understand their background. So, while you’re establishing your personality, consider what sort of background is required for the character’s personality. Hint: you’re probably not going to have a super cheerful person if their background has them having witnessed brutal murders and are being chased by the original killer. A character’s personality is the product of their background and experiences.
  3. Background/experiences: This is closely tied with personality. Often, I build these two side by side. Sometimes, I don’t need much. The character might come from a normal, happy home–in which case, there isn’t much of a background to put in. Depending on the type of story you’re creating, you may want to include important characters that have been in the character’s life. But if you’re like me, you may add to this as you write the book, because sometimes… new characters step into the book I didn’t anticipate, a tiny fragment of a character’s background. I’ll add these later as notes to the story bible. (This is also why I like CIRCA journals; it allows me to add extra pages to account for new information added as I write the book.)
  4. Skills: This is really important. What does the character know how to do? Borrowing from the Captive King, are they an archaeologist? If so, what branch? Do they have a speciality? How long were they studying? Did they have an internship? What has the character done to earn these skills? Once you understand a character’s capabilities, it’s easier to determine the type of person they’d need to be to have those skills. Someone who is dedicated enough to spend 12+ hours a day honing their skills to an art… probably isn’t going to have much tolerance for time wasters. Of course, having a talent can help make things easier, but those who have honed skills typically worked for them, and that should reflect in their personalities and basic abilities.
  5. Miscellaneous stuff: Whatever else you think you need to know regarding your characters. This can be lineage, birthday, etc, etc, etc. Whatever you need goes here.

Characters are the lifeblood of any book, so it’s okay to have large entries for the characters.

This is one of my more advanced character building outline legends for the Rift King series. It helps make sure I keep characters and their personality types straight. As I mentioned above, I have a lot of room here for details, and I use these details to keep my story consistent with itself.

In the case of some characters, their details may change. I make notes when, how, and why this happens. For example, a blue-eyed character may end up with yellow eyes due to magical influences. When this color change happens, it’s important I know when and why so I can keep it consistent within the books.

The most critical thing with this recording method is it must HELP you keep organized without preventing you from writing because you just want to take notes. Hint: the goal is to be efficient with these so you can get to writing or doing whatever it is that makes you a creative. If you aren’t being creative, you’re just taking notes.

So there is a point where you have to say, “Enough!” Then you must write. Otherwise, it’s useless procrastination. This is a tool to help you write better. Keep that in mind. (If you’re not writing, you’re just taking notes. Seriously.)

The Rift King series has many kingdoms, many religions, many cults, many social structures, and many people, and as a result, keeping track of everything became really complicated. This image is from a pocket-sized moleskine I was using as a cheat sheet reference for the series.

It’s mostly retired now, but I do still dig it out from time to time. (CIRCAs have replaced most of my other options, though I keep the old journals available for reference.)

Moving on. Characters need somewhere to stand, and that’s where world building comes into play.

On World Building

Including world building information in a story bible can be very complicated. The information you need will vary series to series, book to book–and sometimes vary from book to book within the same series. Yeah, that’s as bad as it sounds. So, what do you actually need to build a world?

If you’re writing urban fantasy, your job is going to be a lot easier than if you’re writing an epic fantasy on a brand new world. If you’re writing contemporary romance, you probably don’t need much of a world building section in your story bible–you just need any fictional businesses, employees, streets, and locations. So, this is the section with the most notes for me. I include a lot of things here, but my magic system is often the most important element of my fantasy world building.

This image is one of my most basic forms of kingdom summaries. The type of government (junta) is listed next to the kingdom name. Allies, enemies, and it’s official stance are listed. There’s a brief summary of how rulership is determined and a special note about how this kingdom views the two major player kingdoms in the story, Kelsh and Danar.

It’s important to note that

The type of magic I use often influences trade, religion, education, and so on and so forth. This isn’t really the time or the place to explain how to build a magic system for those of you who write fantasy, but when you’re preparing it for your story bible, you need to know how it works, the conditions for it working, who uses it, and the origin of character powers. (Are they born with it? Do they learn how to do it through rituals? Is it a disease? How does your magic work? Write that down for easy reference later.)

Trade is the economic elements of your story. How do goods move? Why is a city where it is? (Hint: the answer is always water. Water makes or breaks a civilization, and without it, a city cannot thrive. Even in modern times, cities are usually near large sources of water, be it the ocean, a river, or a lake.)

This is ironic… but you know all those history classes you probably hated? They’re really useful here, because history is a very good indicator of how societies actually work. A few hours with the old History Channel documentaries (before the History Channel started sucking) can teach you a great deal about the rise and fall of nations. Using this to help model your civilizations will really help make them feel more authentic–and give you an idea of the rulership, the type of figures you need in your society, and the basic structure of your people from the poorest to the richest.

Writing down the system of governance will likely make your life easier down the road.

So, to lightly touch on this, here’s a quick list of things you might want to note down for a singular kingdom:

  1. Population
  2. Government type (Republic, democratic, monarchy, oligarchy, theocracy, etc.)
  3. Rulership (King, president, high priest, etc.)
  4. Caste system (if used.)
  5. Trade goods (What is their primary source of income?)
  6. Taxation policies
  7. Legal policies (What are their typical laws? What is taboo? Why?)
  8. Religions (What religions are practiced here? How much of a role does religion play in the government’s operation?)
  9. Terrain (Plains? Hills? Mountains? River shed? Desert? Your trade will be closely tied to the terrain!)
  10. Water supplies, food supplies (These are both critical, as if the people run out, they die.)
  11. Medical elements (Do only the rich get access to medical care? Is their magical healers available? What keeps the society healthy?)
  12. Hygiene. (This is closely tied with the medical elements, but is an important setting factor. If people live in filth, this needs to be known!)
  13. Events of historical importance, local myths, legends, etc. (This is a broad category and may be many categories depending on how you’re writing your book.)
  14. Magical races. (What their abilities are, breeding practices, appearances, relationships, society structure, etc.)

There are more elements I use, but this is a good starting point for what I do to create a world.

Yes, these topics can be vast, taking up multiple pages.

It really helps to make a checklist if you need to track a lot of information and you’re not sure if you’ve gotten it all.

This has already been a fairly lengthy post, but I’m going to take a few minutes to go into a question list. Above, I mentioned that unless you’re writing, you’re just taking notes, so if you want an idea of if you’ll need the notes you’re taking, use this list to help. Hint: If you’re answering no, you’re probably wasting your time.

  1. Will this character appear in more than one scene? Yes / No. If No, ask yourself if knowing more than their name and location in the book is important? By important… it becomes important to characters later in the story. In cases like this, I really recommend just listing their name and their location and referring to the book for information on them. This is something I view as a potential waste of time. Knowing where they are is useful. I keep a list of secondary characters for that purpose. Spending time building them, however, is just procrastination.
  2. Will the society be mentioned repeatedly/a major player? Yes / No. If Yes, do a complete build for future reference. If No, mark where the society is mentioned for future reference.

Ask this question for each and every small element of your story possible. Your main characters and your primary secondary characters should be listed thoroughly; these are people you’ll reference often, so knowing about them is important. If you’re a pantser, as you unveil more of the character, write a note down so you can add it to your story bible. If you’re a plotter, do it ahead of time so you’re consistent and update as you go.

Yes, it’s time consuming.

Yes, it’s often frustrating.

But four, five, or six books down the road, with years separating you from the first words, a story bible can become invaluable as it helps you remember all those little details you didn’t mean to forget but did.

Outlines are also good for that, and since I’ve been talking so much about the CIRCA system, here is a peek at the outline for Memento Mori, a project I’ve been working on for a few years. I have very little time to dedicate to this project, as it’s highly experimental for me, and honestly, not sure if I can afford the financial risk of publishing right now, but I adore the project anyway. It also has my most thorough deadline and note-taking, as I know I only get to work on it every rare now and again.

I initially made the outline, then I adjusted it as I changed things. Adjustments are those little notes adding details and information, plus things scribbled out and replaced as I wrote, changed my mind, and adjusted things. This will happen on every page in the outline, and some will be more extensive than others.

In one arc, I had to add extra pages because I went on an unexpected field trip from the planned book, which was great! It added a lot to the story. But I outlined it in after with extra pages and some notes on the original outline page.

This is why I love the CIRCA system so much. It lets me do this without ruining the entire journal.

And, should an outline fail, all I need to do is rip out the page(s) and try again.

For me, that’s freedom to be true to what I want for a story and having the ability to take notes and plot.

Everything can change, one removed (or added) sheet at a time.

I hope this glimpse into my story bible process helps you find a method of making your own!