Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Story Bible

Unless it’s a short story with characters that are vivid in the writer’s head, every story needs a story bible. A story bible is simply the sum of all notes and research done for that story. You need the story bible to keep all the details of the story straight. The details include information on all the characters – physical descriptions, what cars they drive (or horses they ride for a fantasy or western story), background, flaws, talents, attitudes towards other characters, politics. Some TV shows use story bibles, and they are generally called show bibles.

You need these details for all but the shortest stories. Suppose you are writing a private detective story and your hero shows up on the scene of a crime in chapter 1. The police detective he works with is a minor character at this point, and you toss off a physical description. But then in chapter 3, the police detective pops up again. And then again in chapter 5 your hero (or heroine-I’m too lazy to type out protagonist) stubbornly starts flirting with the detective and they start dating. You didn’t really plan this, but then realize it’s a great subplot that resolves some plot holes. You can have the police detective offer some help in chapter 12, maybe kill them off in chapter 17 as a pre-climax major disaster. So you quite fighting it and let your protagonist date the police detective. Quick, what color are the detective’s eyes? Hair - long, short, color? What kind of body? You mentioned all these details in chapter one. If the police detective is now a major character maybe they need some major character flaws, a background, hobbies, skills. With a story bible, you have at least some information in a central place, and can go back and add more when needed.

The story bible contains other information such as ideas for story scenes, plot arcs, research, notes on locations. Continuing on the mystery theme, you can keep track that Lincoln county as politically appointed coroners that may stink on forensics, but nearby Brown County uses paid medical examiners. Whether Lincoln and Brown counties are fictional or not, you want to make sure the system stays the same throughout the novel – unless that’s a plot point, but then you still don’t want the system to magically change from one chapter to the next. Maybe the hero is stalking the killer in a large warehouse or industrial complex. A quick sketch of the location can flesh out the details in your mind, and keep everybody involved honest when it comes to any actions scenes. You don’t suddenly want to add explosives or industrial equipment to a garment warehouse unless you have a good reason too. So I hope you get the idea of the need for a story bible.

What does a story bible look like? They have many forms and every writer has to work out a system for themselves. The low tech approach is paper and pen style. This could be as simple as a big spiral notebook you can get for a quarter at the back to school sales. Number all the pages for reference, then add some tabs –store bought or home made. The tabs divide the notebook into sections- Plot, Character, Locations, Research, etc. You can spend a little more and use three ring binders , or those expandible file folders that can hold your spiral notebook, index cards, magazine articles etc.

The major advantage of low tech methods are cost and ease of use. A spiral notebook for a quarter is almost the cheapest tool you’ll buy as a writer. You don’t need a computer or internet connection. Many people are better at brainstorming and general creativity when using paper and pen. The major disadvantage is they aren’t computer searchable, and of course if you lose it, you are in deep trouble. It’s difficult to make backups of hand written copies. You may have trouble adding to it as well. That police detective from chapter one may have gotten ½ page allotted to them at first, and now they need three or four pages by chapter 5. Page numbers can help keep things referenced, and an index you build as you go also helps, but will quickly get out of alphabetical order.

The high tech approach brings the computer into the equation. Most of us –unless your name is Berry or Stephenson- write on a computer. So although they are expensive, we obviously already have one.

How do we use the computer to make the story bible? You can simply have a big document with multiple sections, like the spiral notebook. Another option is a spreadsheet program like Excel. Each novel would have its own spreadsheet, then you could setup separate worksheets with titles like Character, Location, Plot, and so on. Each character could be an entry in a table with columns for physical description, flaws, background, etc.

Users of MS Office may have a program called OneNote on their machines. This is a somewhat unique application for gathering all your information- notes, documents, presentations, hyperlinks, pictures, pdf files into one locations. If you have a tablet PC, OneNote allows you to write hand written notes and then converts the notes to searchable text. (I had classmates with the entire vet school curriculum, including all their class notes contained in One Note, cross referenced, and computer searchable. Me, jealous? Never.)

The next stage up is the creative writing software. These packages include specific windows or panels for entering characters details, research, location notes, general plot notes. and so on. They have outliners to keep track of your scenes, and make notes on them. You can re-order you scenes by 'drag and drop' in the outline view. (Try that with a big Word document.) Many of them allow you to color code scenes by character, theme or subplot. Some have word processors, so you don’t have to keep a separate application handy. Many automatically will format your document for printing in a different format than written. You write in 10 pt Cambria, but East Coast Publishing house wants manuscripts in 12 pt Times New Roman, but West Coast Mysteries wants them in 11 pt Arial? No problem, just a few clicks and out pops the manuscript. Other packages automatically generate title pages and other ancillary pages. Most offer word counts and approximate page counts.

So who makes these packages? Most creative writing software is written in small shops, sometimes only one programmer. They can cost between nothing and several hundred dollars. From my experience, you can get a great package for only $40 - $80. For Apple users, the name Scrivener pops up over and over. I’m not even sure the Macintosh police will let you write a novel without using Scrivener! For Window’s users, there is a beta version of Scrivener available. Other packages include WriteItNow, WriteWayPro, Liquid Storybinder, yWriter, Snowflake Pro, Storybook, Writer’s Cafe and RoughDraft. Most offer some sort of free demo version. Note that yWriter and Storybook are free. I don't believe Snowflake Pro has a free demo, but check for yourself. You must try them to seach which ones you like. I tried Scrivener for windows (beta), WriteWayPro and Writer’s CafĂ©, and finally picked WriteWayPro, with Scrivener a close second. (see this blog's first post). For linux users, the Scrivener for windows has a linux version available. You can also try the Windows packages in emulator mode.

Edit 1/8/2017: Scrivener is available for Windows and has been for sometime. After years of waiting for an upgraded version, I abandoned WritewayPro and am now using Scrivener.

I haven’t touched on screenwriting or stageplay software. Similar capibilities and a bit more specialized. Its out there, and I’m sure Google can find it for you.

The advantages of using a computer are the better organization, the ability to quickly change or add new information and the ease of backing up. Backup techniques include portable hard drives, flash drives (even only 2 GB should be enough for your text files, but please don’t quote me like Bill Gates gets quoted), emailing your files to your gmail/yahoo/hotmail etc account, other applications like DropBox or Mosy and so on. Disadvantages obviously are the need for a computer. You still can’t use most laptops outside, even in the shade. And laptops seem to have have a frustrating 2-3 hr battery limit. (Some netbooks and the MacBook are pushing five to six hours, so some hope exists for the battery limit problem.)

You have decisions to make. Whether, low-tech or high tech, you have to figure out what works for you. You might get the idea I’m sold on creative writing software. Definitely. My experience is that the proper tool can make a job so much easier. Sure you can use a three foot carpenter’s level to hang your new kitchen cabinets, but a laser level makes the whole job a hundred times easier. For me, creative writing software is that proper tool. I still have a paper notebook for hand sketches though. Sometimes curling up on the couch with notebook and pen is more creative. Still can’t afford a tablet PC- sigh.

Some can’t afford anything more than a spiral notebook. Another tried their friend's MacBook with Scrivener and can’t have anything less. You may try all the Windows packages and work out a system of index cards with an OneNote file for character notes. The other thing to remember is you can’t be a writer without writing. I am not published because I get absorbed playing computer games, watching all ten seasons of Stargate: SG1, or writing blog posts that keep going round in my head. Evaluate the software packages by actually trying to use them, but don't get absorbed with fancy features. Always keep writing.

*** This topic on Jim Butcher's forum provided much information for this post.