Story Development and Execution Part 2: The Story Bible

Ciao, SEers. Happy Groundhog Day! I hope Punxsutawney Phil isn’t a disappointment to you.

While I considered doing a time-loop post and circling back to the beginning over and over, I decided against it. (You’re welcome.) The gimmick would be cute, but this topic deserves serious consideration.

Today is part two: the story bible. I was going to call this planning, but it’s not exactly that. And it’s different than outlining, too. Plus, I know that term would send many of you running for the hills. Please bear with me. (And if you’re looking for posts on outlining, read Craig’s take on storyboarding, my method for outlining for multiple POVs, and Mae’s plan to “plants” instead of plot or pants.)

Story Empire has discussed the story bible before. (See posts from me and Mae.) Today’s post looks at things a little differently.

We discussed ideation the last time. As long as you’ve found an idea that’s worth developing, you’re ready to move to this next step. This is when you start your story bible.

Things you’ll want to include:

  • Characters.
    Their names, descriptions, relationship with other characters, expected arc throughout the story.
  • Setting.
    This can be as broad as the city or town and as detailed as a room in a house or business. Include time of year so you can incorporate weather and (in individual scenes) time of day so you can set the mood.
  • Plot.
    This is where outliners breathe a sigh of relief and pantsers dig in their heels. I’m not suggesting you change your writing method. Do what works for you. I personally prefer to do this work upfront. If you’re a pantser, do it on the back end. Write one or two sentences describing every scene (as you write them) so you can see at a glance what happens where. If you need to rearrange things later, these sentences will save you a ton of time. Instead of reading chapters trying to find a key moment, you can scan your scene list and find it right away.
  • Character-Driven.
    Outlining inherently sounds like it’s plot-driven. That’s probably why pantsers hate to outline. They feel a plan takes the spontaneity and joy from their process. Consider the story bible to be character-driven instead. Focus on what the characters’ feelings and motivations are in each scene. That will result in plot freedom while putting the emphasis on your characters, which usually makes for more satisfying stories, anyway.
  • Objectives.
    Whether you write these scene cards first or last, you should have an objective for every scene. Jot those down. And when you write and/or reread for revision, make sure you achieved your goals. Leave yourself notes for what you need to make the scene work (atmospheric scene, character’s feelings, etc.) and afterward, things that need changing.
  • Suspense.
    It doesn’t matter what genre you write in, you need an element of suspense to make the reader turn the page. Make sure each scene has that.
  • Chunks.
    Create your story bible in small chunks, character by character, setting by setting, scene by scene. When you try to conceive of everything all at once, it can become overwhelming. Think small so the discrete chunks are easy to manage.
  • Living Document.
    Remember, this isn’t a one-and-done. Your story bible should always be growing and changing. If you keep it up to date, you’ll never be confused and you shouldn’t make continuity errors. (This is especially helpful for series work.)
  • Perspective and Expectations.
    The pre-writing stage is the perfect place to experiment. If you have a concept for a scene that isn’t sitting right with you, consider changing the POV character or taking the scene in a different direction than you planned to. Subvert the reader’s expectations to see if it makes the scene work better.
  • Planned Routes and Detours.
    Think of your story bible as a roadmap. Maps have a ton of details on them, but you don’t usually get mired down in most of them. Usually, you’re just looking for the best route from point A to point B. The nice thing about maps is that you can take a detour to explore something wonderful, and the map will always help you find your way back to the main route (and therefore, your intended destination). And if you decide halfway that you’d rather go somewhere else, your map can help you get there, too. That’s why it’s a good idea to keep it updated.

To summarize what should be in your story bible:

  • Characters.
  • Setting.
  • Plot.
  • Scene Objectives.
  • Suspense.

To summarize how to structure these things:

  • Keep it character-driven.
  • Build in suspense.
  • Work in small chunks.
  • Play with perspective and expectations.
  • Document your detours.
  • Keep the story bible updated.

Next time, we’ll discuss character in more detail. Until then, I’d love to know more about what you put in your story bibles and how you structure them. Please leave a comment below. Grazie!

Links to the Whole Series:

January 7: Idea Generation
February 2: Story Bible
February 28: Character
March 25: Dialogue
April 20: Plot
May 16: Constructing Chapters
June 10: Pacing/Tension/Suspense
July 6: Writing Suspense
August 1: Writing Action
August 26: Macro-Level Self-Editing
September 21: Mid-Level Self-Editing
October 17: Micro-Level Self-Editing
December 7: Planning a Series

Note: Links will only work on and after the date the post goes live.

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60 thoughts on “Story Development and Execution Part 2: The Story Bible

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  9. Very interesting and informative post, Staci, and I can tell you what I put in my Story Bible in one word: nothing. I know, I know, but I’ve never done one. Or an outline, either. The closest I come would be my character sheets where I write down everyone’s age, description, and the like. I now do a new one for each book in a series, because I found I was forgetting those little details. With them, I can at least update the ages as time moves along. BUT, I’m always willing to learn and improve, especially since my fall/concussion and two rounds with breakthrough COVID have given me brain fog to rival the streets of London on a very gray day. I think I’m going to give the idea a try with my new spinoff novella series. It can’t hurt to give it a go, and who knows? I may learn to love it! Thanks for the great tips! 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  10. This is pretty much how I “outline,” Staci, though I see now that my outline is more of a story bible. I build it on Excel as a workbook – one sheet for characters, one for scenes in rough sequence, one for settings, one for fantasy worldbuilding details. I especially like Excel because of the ability to insert lines and columns of information. I’m looking forward to the rest of the series!

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Never heard of a Story Bible before but it makes so much sense. My memory is shot and so I’ve recently taken to writing down characters’ details in an A4 notebook. It works, but it’s a bit unsatisfactory when things change – and once my characters have developed things rarely go the way I intended them to. Loved the map analogy! x

    Liked by 1 person

    • I find it easiest to brainstorm with paper and pen, but once I start to solidify my plans, I have to do it on the computer. Scrivener works so much better for me than the three to five documents I used to try to use when I wrote in Word. But whatever works for a writer is how the writer should work. (I’m like you… my memory would never be sufficient for all the details I need to remember in a book or series.) I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks, Alex.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. I do like my story bibles, and rely on them so much, especially when working on a series. I admit to being cheap on plot points, but most everything else is there, and I do have a smattering bare-bones outline of some scenes. I use my plantsing more as a springboard than a roadmap, but the rest of what’s in my bible helps me fill in the route from start to finish. And, of course, I’m always tweaking as the story grows and new characters are introduced who I didn’t expect.

    Story bibles are wonderful—even for pansters and plantsers!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I would be lost in series work without a story bible. I rely on them (heavily) for single titles. There’s nothing like getting to the climax and not remembering the name of a character that has to pop back up. Where do I find that name? Why didn’t I record it to begin with? What chapter/scene was he in, and what specifically happened to set up this ending? I admire people who can remember it all, but I sure can’t.

      Thanks, Mae.

      Liked by 2 people

  13. I started a journal when I began my Legends series. I jot down ideas, thoughts, notes, use it to brainstorm, etc. Guess that’s sort of a story bible. I also have a spreadsheet where I keep a list of characters. I know I can do that in Scrivener, but Excel just works better for me. Great series.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. This is a terrific outline of the must haves in a story bible. If you’re a journal addict like myself, you’ll love keeping a detailed bible. Thanks, Staci! Congratulations on your new release. I look forward to reading Romy’s story.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve tried journaling countless times, and I never stick with it. But my story bibles are pretty comprehensive. I love hearing how other people work. Thanks for sharing your process. And for the kind wishes about Pour it On.

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  17. Great post, Staci 🙂 I like the idea of a story bible and what to put into it. Have everything in one spot and work with it to move forward with the story.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Scrivener really changed my writing life. Before, I had spreadsheets of plot by POV and tables in Word with characters and traits. The outline usually developed in a notebook. Now, everything is in one document, and it updates so easily. It’s made a huge difference for me. Thanks, Denise.

      Liked by 1 person

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