There’s a common adage that a story is like an iceberg. What the reader sees is only ninety percent of what the writer knows. While that is more a rule of thumb than an absolute rule of writing, there is a fair amount of truth to it too. Not everything you dream up is going to make it into the story, or at least, it shouldn’t. I know I certainly don’t want to read three hundred pages of backstory to let me know the current political climate of your world. There’s a good chance I wouldn’t be interested in three pages of political backstory unless you can make it interesting and important to the story.
But you as the writer, need that information. And no matter how much you claim you won’t forget it, you will forget certain details. That is why it is important to write down what you want to remember. I can’t count how many times I’ve looked through old notes of stories of mine and been, ‘Huh, I had forgotten I planned that.’ Sometimes it was semi-absorbed anyway, sometimes it wasn’t.
That is what a story bible is for. What is a story bible? Essentially, it’s your notes. All the work that goes into your story. This is where you keep the master record of everything from how you spell a character’s name, to their bios, to maps, and how the world works. All the info you came up with, and what you need to know to write your story. What your research has found, and maybe where you got it from. A bible is particularly necessary if you are writing a series, a television series, and/or writing a collaboration with others.
Why should you keep a story bible? Isn’t is a lot of unnecessary work? It’s not like anyone else will read it anyway, right? It is work, I won’t lie. But I argue that it is both useful and necessary work. I tend to brainstorm while making notes. I come up with ideas on where to take the story, and how to give the story more depth. Re-reading through notes can sometimes help with writer’s block. It’s also useful to double-check small details like eye color, hair color, etc. without having to search through your story. Particularly if you are writing a follow up book or story.
Will anyone else read it? Well, that’s up to you. If you become popular enough, people might actually be interested in your notes. And while you probably won’t share your bible wholesale, you can put some of your notes and snippets on your website or Facebook page. Maybe even Twitter. It could be a useful bonus for your fans, or a way to get people interested in your works.
What format should this bible take? Should each story or series have its own bible? What about short stories? How long should they be?
That is very much up to you. I’m very disorganized, and frequently just open a new word document and start freewriting. Sometimes I write in notebooks or journals. (I strongly recommend making a point of carrying around a notebook. I have a nice pocket sized one.) But that’s why I’ll find my notes years later and be surprised at the differences. It’s something I need to work on especially since I have times I have to check multiple files to find the information I’m looking for. Other people are much more organized and have sections for characters, plot, world, etc.
Length? As long as it needs to be to work for you. While it isn’t uncommon for a comprehensive bible to be longer than the book it is for, that also isn’t necessary. Though the further your story is from reality, the more notes you’ll need, and the longer your bible is likely to be. Longer stories will require more extensive notes than shorter ones. While you may not wish to make separate bibles for each work, I do recommend separating stories into different sections unless they are connected.
However you take your notes, be they electronic or paper, make certain to safeguard them. Have backups. Some years ago, my computer was stolen from me. Due to various computer problems, I had gotten into the habit of emailing my completed stories to myself. But I lost all my notes. Well over a hundred pages of it. It was a severe blow, and I still haven’t made up for it
I’m almost reluctant to include this, but I feel it’s only fair. When searching for a link to a good definition for story bible, I found this blog post which covers this topic, probably better than I did. In my defense, I did write this post before I found the one I just linked to.