Creating a Story Bible: The Basics

Writing a novel isn't easy. Tracking your world, your characters, and other important events can save you time and save you from plot holes before you even write them into existence. Writing all of that information down isn't just scary — it can be a true nightmare!

So, what can you do to keep track of all of the really important information? I use a story bible. This is a journal that is dedicated the details of the world I'm creating and the characters living within it.

Important Note: You are not me. I am not you. This is my method of creating a story bible. You're welcome to try my method, but ultimately, you must find a way that works for you and your style of writing. This is advice, nothing more and nothing less.

Alskoran Map Requiem for the Rift King - SmallBy popular request, this is a step-by-step guide on how I create a story bible. The type of journal and the method of storage is up to you to decide. I use a pocket Moleskine Journal: The Hobbit Limited Edition, Lined. The original story bible for my Storm without End world is a pleather-bound Cambridge City journal. The first journal I will discuss in this post is from my novel The Eye of God. That journal cost $2.00 from the local ‘dollar' store. Dollar store journals are my go-to journals when I need to conceptualize something without investing $20-30 in a Moleskine journal.

If you have never approached writing a story bible before, I recommend acquiring a three-ring binder and notebook paper or one of those dollar store journals. You'll likely want to transfer the information to a higher-quality journal after you've gotten used to writing the information down, but notebook paper might save you ruining an expensive journal as you're learning.

Please write in pencil. Pencil can be erased. Ink is not so forgiving. I use ink when I am confident of the information I am putting down or it is in a journal I intend on recopying at a later point.

Misc 011This image (click for larger version) is of the opening page of the The Eye of God's story bible. Instead of an index, I used post-it flags of various colors to help me navigate through the book. I wrote labels onto the post-it flags to help me find specific sections easier.

This is a good method to start your journal without having to worry about whether or not your text will fit a pre-constructed index.

I used a synopsis / blurb format for The Eye of God's journal. This journal was created as I was planning and developing the novel, so I needed more thorough notes as reminders for things I had not written yet.

I find that my notes are much more Misc 012disjointed and serve as reminders if I have already written the scenes the note is created to remind me of. The same applies to characters.

You need to find a recording method that works for you. After all, I could tell you it is a good idea to kiss a rabid badger… that doesn't mean you should do it.

Please do not kiss a rabid badger.

Character Legend - ReadableThis image is part of my current, updated Storm without End journal–specifically, the character legends page, defining how I take notes. Many sections in my story bibles include things of this nature. I like writing shorthand in my story bible, as it lets me focus on what I feel is important.

This is the heart and soul of my story bible efforts. In addition to these legends, I have a table of contents I use to keep track of what is in the story bible.

When you build your story bible, track what YOU need to keep the story straight in your head–this is just how I like to do things.

Story Bibles 004Here is an easy-to-read point-by-point list of the subjects I cover in Index I:

  • World Information: Continents and Countries
  • Countries by Government Type
  • Trade Information
  • Notable Treaties (Covenant of the Six)
  • Magic Systems: Arcane and Divine
  • Specifics of Countries: Important Notables
  • Creature Information
  • Legend and Lore

Index II Contains:

  • Character Legend (Abbreviations, etc)
  • Character Listings

I decided to divide the book into two parts because I reference character information a lot more frequently than I do world building information. However, World Building index comes first. Why? Without a world, my characters can't exist. The inclusions in the World Building section are the foundation for all of my characters.

Consider this: How can you create a rounded character if you do not know the society they were born into? You may have a concept of a character you want to create, but that concept must be supported by a realistic society they grew up within. Characters are the products of their society and their history, so you must create that world first.

That's why World Building is Index I and Characters are Index II.

That said, I usually start with a character concept, a motivation, and a major conflict when I start creating a novel. After I have that, I consider the type of world that is required for all of those pieces to fall together. I write everything down as I think about it, discard what I don't think will work, keep what I think will, and keep building from there.

Your story bible is just like an onion. You will build it layer by later.

Writing Down the Facts:

  • Every time you give a character a trait (eye color, personality type, build, skills, and so on) write it down.
  • Every time you describe a specific aspect of society, write it down.
  • Every time you introduce a religion or important culture tidbit, write it down.
  • Every time you introduce a major world event, write it down. (Include the date, what happened, and why it was that important in your ‘Legends and Lore' type section.
  • Every time you introduce something you suspect you will need to refer to again, that is not a plot line or character development element, write it down.

Your story bible is a place for facts and important information, not for the story of your character's life or your plot. If you want a journal for that, use a second one. You want facts and tangibles in this journal. This journal is to ensure consistency in your world and facts.

Plots (and character metaphysical information) change. Hard facts, such as physical descriptions and general personality traits shouldn't. 

These are the basics of a general story bible. This is Part I of a longer series relating to story bibles and their creation. The next edition will be on the World Building and writing down the important information into the journal.

Leave a Comment:

23 comments
Creating a Story Bible: World Building | On Writing, Life, and Everything says January 9, 2013

[…] the previous edition of Creating a Story Bible, I talked about the journal and a little bit of how and why I use them for my novel projects. Now […]

Reply
Amy Knepper says January 9, 2013

“Your story bible is like an onion.” Yes, it will probably make me cry. 😛 Thanks for this awesome post, Rebecca! I think I’m actually at a point of starting one of these for the novel I am editing. I have all these great little chunks of information, but not in any easy-to-reference form. I like how you’ve done yours. I’ll have to play with the format and see if I can get one that works for my odd brain. 🙂

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Journals as Story Bibles | Aisling.net says January 10, 2013

[…] Creating a Story Bible: The Basics […]

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Len Berry says January 10, 2013

I’ve been thinking about similar elements for my latest fantasy novel recently. I have a lot of information compiled within my Scrivener file, but it’s not quite the same as having a story bible.

For many of my works, I put together a notebook full of various references, world building notes, character ideas, and potential plot lines. I find having something like that lets me process the ideas and the setting so I can write about a more complete world, even if I’m just throwing stuff out there at first.

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I finished a novel, no big deal | Bacon and Whiskey says January 24, 2013

[…] want to read a great guide on building a story bible, RJ Blain has a tutorial in three blog posts: The Basics, World-Building, Characters), as well as cementing a timeline for events not only in this book but […]

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Lorene Holderfield says January 25, 2013

Ooo! This is a most intriguing approach on keeping one’s story organized and keep one in check. Trying to keep it all organized in my head is proving to be a bit overwhelming (my memory is worsening), with every new addition I add to my story. I shalt try out this different approach! Thank you for sharing this. 🙂 It looks like an amazing, intriguing story, from the screen-shots.

Reply
Will Phillips says April 13, 2013

“However, World Building index comes first. Why? Without a world, my characters can’t exist. The inclusions in the World Building section are the foundation for all of my characters.”

I think you really nailed it on the head there! That’s why I am spending so much time on my own setting bible before I flesh too much or too many characters out.

Reply
Journals as Story Bibles - Aisling's Diary says October 21, 2013

[…] Creating a Story Bible: The Basics […]

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I just finished a novel, no big deal | Amoeba Kat Musings says November 21, 2013

[…] want to read a great guide on building a story bible, RJ Blain has a tutorial in three blog posts: The Basics, World-Building, Characters), as well as cementing a timeline for events not only in this book but […]

Reply
Planning your Novel through Outlines & Other Methods | Strictly Genre: Ithaca Fiction Critique Group says December 18, 2013

[…] Creating a Story Bible: The Basics (RJ Blain) […]

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Planning your Novel (Outlines & Other Methods) | Strictly Genre: Ithaca Fiction Critique Group says December 18, 2013

[…] Creating a Story Bible: The Basics (RJ Blain) […]

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World-Building | Rex Barbarorum says January 20, 2014

[…] decided “to change all that”). I recently discovered an organizational tool called a Story Bible, which I’m going to try to use to whip my world into shape. I’ll be working on it bit […]

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It’s a Complicated World You’ve Built… | catherinekanewrites says June 12, 2014

[…] Creating a Story Bible: the Basics […]

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jjhartly says July 6, 2014

Have you ever thought of setting up a Digital Notebook like this?
I use Evernote and was just wondering how you would set it up if you used it instead of a paper notebook.

Reply
    RJBlain says July 6, 2014

    I have evernote (the free edition), I just never get around to actually _using_ it — I also have one note from Microsoft (which is actually a really convenient little program too.)

    I’d probably use evernote a lot more if I got the subscription for it and the moleskine journals. As for organization, I’d have to think on that. I’d probably organize it very similarly to how I do the paper versions… except more streamline.

    Since I got the circa journals, my story bibles have been much more organized, which is really nice.

    I should probably find a way to use evernote in conjunction with my handwritten notes… that’s quite the earworm for my creativity. I’ll have to think on it 🙂

    Reply
Creating a Story Bible: World Building | On Writing says February 14, 2015

[…] the previous edition of Creating a Story Bible, I talked about the journal and a little bit of how and why I use them for my novel projects. Now […]

Reply
Winning NaNoWriMo: Tips and Tricks - Not So Lost In Translation says October 30, 2015

[…] my last writing holiday was hindered by lack of internet, I also keep a backup analog Book Bible.  My Book Bible is also where I place the random scribbles of ideas that I get at the grocery […]

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The Story Bible: Needs, Wants, Must-Haves | The Lady Nerds™ says November 4, 2015

[…] On Writing has a great in-depth post about creating a story bible WITH PICTURES! […]

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NaNo Day #18: | Nevermoreland says November 18, 2015

[…] like a movie unspooling in my head. (Thus my need for soundtracks! 😉 )  I highly recommend creating a world “bible” if you’re going  to be writing a multi- book series. It helps you keep continuity with your […]

Reply
Geh! – Rin-Rin wrote: says March 17, 2016

[…] I’ve used information from here as a base http://www.rjblain.com/2013/01/creating-a-story-bible-the-basics/ […]

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Outlining | E.M.Whittaker says May 2, 2016

[…] if you like journaling on paper. Others use computer solely. (Seriously, go look at R.J.’s method. It helped encourage my current method as a stepping […]

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NaNoWriMo 2016: Conceptualizing and creating a Story Bible or Concept Journal – On Writing says September 29, 2016

[…] have written about creating story bibles before, with an emphasis on characters and world building. This post is going to expand on this, […]

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