The Story Bible: What It Is and Why You Need One


The following is an excerpt from Write-a-Thon: Write Your Book in 26 Days (And Live to Tell About It) by Rochelle Melander, now available from Writer’s Digest Books.

In writing a series of stories about the same characters, plan the whole series in advance in some detail, to avoid contradictions and inconsistencies.

—L. Sprague de Camp

Writers who want to pitch a TV series create a show bible. The bible contains the concept, location, bios of the characters, full episodes, synopses of potential episodes, and possibly even a pilot episode. Once the TV series is launched, the show bible is used to keep track of details about the setting and characters to preserve continuity. The show bible reminds writers about pertinent but minute facts. No doubt the writers for the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer needed to know the characteristics of each demon that Buffy fought as well as the names of her high school classmates who turned out to be vampires. It would be confusing if a student who was supposedly a vampire one season were suddenly able to see her reflection during the next season.

As novelists, we can borrow the show bible tool and create a story bible for our project.

A story bible is a place to hold all of our planning for the novel. Everything we create for the book can go into the story bible: concept, setting, character descriptions, potential plot conflicts, and developing scenes. The story bible can hold all of the tiny pieces of information we want to include in our novel such as dialogue fragments, phrases, and cultural references. Man Booker Prize-winning novelist Kazuo Ishiguro “compiles folders of notes and flow charts that lay out not just the plot but also more subtle aspects of the narrative, such as a characters emotions or memories. He collects his notes in binders and writes a first draft by hand.”

Especially during National Novel Writing Month, the story bible can be a helpful tool for recording and remembering information. What color and model of car did our protagonist drive in chapter one? How did she take her coffee? And what was the name of that dead pet hamster she buried in chapter three? When we want the protagonist to get into her car, we don’t have to skim through one hundred pages of text to find out what kind of a car it was. We can turn to our story bible.

During the editing process, the story bible helps us add depth and texture to the book. If we have collected pieces of dialogue, we can weave them into the narrative. If we have been gathering descriptive bits, we can drop those in to create mood. We can also use the story bible to check our book for continuity. What may seem like meaningless details to us—who cares if the protagonist takes her coffee black in the beginning of the book and with sugar at the end?—can annoy readers.

Choosing a Format

A story bible can take many forms. Some writers prefer their story bible to be an electronic file on their computer. New services allow writers to store and share their work online, so they can access their story bible from any computer or wireless device. Writers can leave the story bible open while they work on their novel and fill it in as they write.

Other writers like the feel and security of a physical story bible. A three-ring binder with pocket page dividers for each section works well for this. Writers can develop and add visual collages for their setting and character, mind maps of scene development, and ideas on sticky notes and index cards. The bible can be kept at the writer’s desk for easy reference and transported just about anywhere for brainstorming sessions.

A third option takes the information for the story bible and lays it out on white boards, walls, and bulletin boards. Novelist Hilary Mantel takes her notes and tacks them to a “seven-foot-tall bulletin board in her kitchen; they remain there until Ms. Mantel finds a place for them in her narrative.”

Another writer works with a long piece of butcher-block paper taped up along one wall of her office. On it she includes the time line for her books and index cards filled with specific characters and their traits. These visual tools allow the writer to have everything visible while writing. The writer doesn’t need to wonder if the protagonist has blue eyes or brown eyes. She can look up at the wall and see her character sketch.

If none of these options seems quite right, feel free to combine them. While my story bible is in a three-ring binder, I also use an open document on my computer to jot down ideas and information while I am writing. That way, I stay focused on the story and continue writing while also honoring the ideas that are flying rapidly into my brain. You will find your own magic combination of electronic, print, and posted story bible.

The Good-Enough Story Bible

In software and systems, designers talk about the principle of good enough (POGE). According to the POGE, the quick-and-simple design is better than the more complicated or elaborate system. A quick-and-simple design can be released, used, and then upgraded based on the experience and needs of consumers. Apply the principle of good enough to your story bible. Creating the story bible should never become more important than writing your book. Create your story bible and plan your novel as quickly and simply as you can. As you work on your novel, you will adapt and expand the story bible according to your needs and not someone else’s idea of what your preparation should look like. Do what works for you.

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