Writing Excuses 5.34: Story Bibles

Let’s talk about bibles. Specifically, story bibles. What are they, why do we use them, why might we NOT use them, and what tools are working for us?

Howard again plugs wikidpad, which he converted Brandon to, and which Dan Wells just couldn’t bring himself to love. Dan uses several different Open Office files. The important thing, though, is that when we need to store information about the book in someplace besides the book itself, we write it down in our story bibles.

Dan talks about his new project, how important the story bible was for that, and what sorts of things absolutely have to go in there. Howard talks about the sorts of Schlock-tech that often end up

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Freakonomics, by Steven D. Leavitt and Stephen J. Dubner, narrated by Stephen J. Dubner.

Writing Prompt: Someone is a were-animal. Pick an animal that hasn’t been done. Were-banana-slug, perhaps?

9:40 through 10:10: Yes, we went kind of quiet there. Somebody kicked a cable, maybe?

This episode of Writing Excuses has been brought to you by Audible.
Visit http://AudiblePodcast.com/excuse for a free trial membership*.
*Note: From the Audible website, here are the terms of the free membership. Read the fine print, please!

Audible® Free Trial Details
Get your first 14 days of the AudibleListener® Gold membership plan free, which includes one audiobook credit. After your 14 day trial, your membership will renew each month for just $14.95 per month so you can continue to receive one audiobook credit per month plus members-only discounts on all audio purchases. A very small number of titles are more than one credit. Cancel your membership before your free trial period is up and you will not be charged. Thereafter, cancel anytime, effective the next billing cycle. Any unused audiobook credits will be lost at cancellation.


60 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 5.34: Story Bibles”

  1. I heard (and seen) several writers use spreadsheets. I tried it but didn’t work for me. Two projects of mine need bibles, specially the second which is a sprawling sci-fi space opera work.

    Lots of characters.
    Lots of (back) History)
    Lots of Tech (ships, weapons, communications, etc)
    Lots of Historical References (lots and lots and lots and….)
    And everything else.

  2. I just downloaded wikidPad and I cannot for the life of me figure out how to make a page and put stuff on it (pathetic, I know). Anyone willing to offer a tutorial for a baseline beginner like me?

  3. One area I’ve found spreadsheets great is when building up the beat sheet level of my outlines. Both feels easier to move sections around, plus I color code backgrounds based on what the primary plot thread being dealt with in that scene is, so I can see at a glance if I have them intermingled to the degree I want, or if some particular subplot is dominating a particular chunk of the story unnecessarily.

  4. @Klimpaloon: I remember having that problem. I think the solution lies in the fact that the default mode for Wikidpad is “read the Wiki,” and you want to be editing in order to create pages.

    No, I can’t remember how to change modes. I haven’t switched to “read” mode in years. Hopefully this points you in the right direction, though.

  5. @Klimpaloon — assuming you’ve started wikidpad? Click on Wiki (upper left corner) and then New. After you name it and tell wikidpad where you want to put it and what kind of storage to use, you’ll get a blank page with ++ and the name of the pad, and a link to WikiSettings. This is the top page of your new wiki. Click in it, and start typing.

    Then, to make a new page, put something in square brackets [LikeThis] If you double-click on that, you’ll be on the new page. Purists will tell you that all you need is a camel case word LikeThis, but I like using the square brackets to make it obvious.

    That’s about it. After that, it’s all refinements (check the help pages).

    @Rafael — if I wanted to do that, I’d probably set up a google site.

  6. I’ve played around with WikiDpad (I say it like Howard says it, and I’ve done it for a while, so it’s burned in my head that way), but I actually haven’t used it to make a story bible yet, so I’ll try it sometime and see how it works for me. I use a hyperlinking tool in another program (Liquid Story Binder) that functions in a similar way.

    I’m realizing one of my past WIPs would probably benefit from this, because it has a lot of world building and it occurs along a vast timeline. I tried discovery writing it and while it worked for a while, it became a lot bigger than I realized. And this podcast actually made me think about how important using Story Bibles are in general.

    As for spreadsheets – I know writers who use them as well, and I think it just depends on what your routine/planning requires. As long as you’re using the tool in the way that works for you and not letting the tool ‘use’ you, that makes you more productive.

  7. Have any of you guys heard of Scrivener? It’s a program for Macs, though they have a Windows version now, too, which is amazing for pretty much everything. I think it would be especially useful for Dan…I outline and map things the same way he does, mostly, except that Scrivener lets me have all those documents as seperate parts of one document. I can arrange things in the binder along the side and even import photos, videos, music, or whatever if I want. It’s not quite as “epic in scope” as wikidpad, but if you’re not writing a huge epic series, it’s awesome.

  8. I FINALLY figured it out: I was apparently trying to make a new wiki where the Help file was and it wouldn’t let me change anything. Thanks Mike and Howard! You rock my socks!

  9. Here’s a question for all you space opera writers: how do you create a three dimensional map for the various star systems and celestial objects in your universe? This is by far the biggest hangup for me; I’ve got several books set in the same universe, but I’m always getting lost whenever I need to remember distances, travel times, and obstacles to my FTL system. Is there some program like Celestia that I could use, or a hack for Celestia that wouldn’t completely suck up all my time and energy?

  10. @Andre

    I’ve been using Scrivener for about half a year now, and I’m equally impressed by it. I’m continually surprised by it’s flexibility. If you want a very structured approach to writing, Scrivener works very well for that. Yet it’s also been very, very useful for my “middle-of-the-road” discovery/outlining crossbreed that I’ve apparently developed.

    Even so, I can tell that Scrivener’s use is limited. As several of my projects continue to grow larger and larger, I have a feeling that the easily-referenced, codified organization of WikiDPad will be necessary for keeping track of large, sprawling worlds/works.

    *shrug* I don’t know. We’ll see. Glad someone mentioned Scrivener, though. It really is a great program.

  11. Oh, and for Dan (Wells).

    How does one outline in a spreadsheet? I use OpenOffice a lot as well, but I’ve never used the spreadsheet for anything other than keeping track of word counts. I can’t imagine the formatting nightmare that I’d have to go through to make outlining in a spreadsheet workable.

    Maybe it’s just not for me, but I was really interested in hearing you explain how that worked for you… before you cut yourself off. (Please, please, please do an outlining episode soon!)

  12. Prepare yourself for the mind-boggling, impossible genetics of the Were-Clone!

    That’ll freak your nomics.

    Seriously though, another episode on outlining would be really appreciated. I’m the kind of writer that writes an outline and has to re-write it four times as the chapters are written and I discover more about the world.

  13. @Andre – Scrivener is awesome.

    @All – if you’re writing multi-volume epic fantasy (or infinite-volumed epic graphic space opera) with a huge cast of characters, then needing a bible or a spreadsheet makes sense. I tried to write a short story once that ended up being so complicated that I needed a spreadsheet to keep track of what was going on. If your 10k word story is so complex that you need a spreadsheet, I doubt that any reader will be able to follow it. I guess I’m just chiming in with Dan that you don’t always need a spreadsheet or wiki for a story, especially if it’s something smaller and self-contained.

  14. I LOVE WikiDpad. Ever since I heard the podcast where Mr. Tayler said he used it, I’ve downloaded it onto my laptop. It is very user friendly. Well to me anyway. If anyone likes using a computer over a pad, use WikiDpad.

  15. @Andre: Scrivener is an excellent program, and you can add me to the list of supporters. The windows version is still in beta though as far as I know, but they’re working on it.

  16. @Mike

    I get that, but all I want is to share the files, not publish them on the net. Besides, I used goggle blogger and prefer wordpress.

    But that’s just me.

  17. Hey Guys, I am using TiddlyWiki for my “story bible” and absolutely love it. Its a free download from tiddlywiki.com and you don’t need any special software. Its actually an html file so all you need to open it is a web browser (can only edit in IE or Firefox though for whatever reason). The coolest thing is I can even open it on my Android phone (Blackberry and iPhone works too). There is even an android app to edit it on my droid. Its also VERY easy to use. All you need is the most basic of HTML experience and even if you don’t have that, just a couple minutes in the help section will teach you more than enough to get going. Its also open source so there are all kinds of plug-ins etc, though I haven’t messed with any of those yet. Another cool tip is I use DropBox to sync my tiddlywiki between my computer and my phone. Also being an HTML file, it is a pretty small filesize. Way under 1MB. Anyways, I thought I’d share this gem that has made my worldbuilding/outlining/etc life so much easier! The only think I probably won’t use TiddlyWiki for is the actual text of the book. I’ll probably just use a word processor for that. Cheers!

  18. “So, um ,what are you again?”
    “I’m a werebat.”
    “So….a vampire.”
    “No, dude, I’m a werebat. It really bends my fangs when somebody calls me a vampire.”
    “okaaaay. What’s the difference?”
    “Vampire’s suck. Duh. Supposedly when you get bitten by a were-thing, you turn into a were-whatever-matches-your-personality. You’d definitely be a were-jackass.”

  19. Thanks as always. :-) How will sending fine cheeses to Howard will make Brandon feel better? And I had no problem with the firehose – I thought it was awesome. I thought Schlock’s reaction about being bested by a tiny human female was even more awesome.

    I like spreadsheets as well, though more for the outline than the bible – I like to be able to see everything in front of me at once. It’s a great way to keep track, not only of the plot events, but of each character’s actions and what scenes they appear in. I have columns for each plotline, for each named character, even a column for mundane things like setting, time of day and the weather. It’s been a big help for watching character arcs in particular. (Plus it’s fun to see the English majors freak out when you say the word “spreadsheet.” ^_^) Though I’m filling it out more with the revised draft – I had only a loose outline for the first draft.

  20. In my ultra-reductionist mode: Dan, why have 2 separate documents for possible character names, and for used characters? Why not have 1 document, with possible names at the top (or bottom), and move them to the “defined characters” bit when used?

    Howard, the current Schlock storyline is a bit distracting because of the terrible security awareness of Schlock et al, supposedly all professionals. Going off by themselves, especially in a known hostile environment? No sentries or all-round defence? Constantly being surprised by stuff? They would all have been dead many years ago.

  21. @Rafael — you can actually control access, from individual to group to world. I have sites set up all three ways. Just simple to use for nearly everyone.

  22. Blast! I already wrote a short parody of twilight with a teenage were-banana slug and a vampire raccoon. Now, if it ever gets published, it’ll look as if I got the story idea from Dan…

  23. I want to jump on the Scrivener bandwagon. I’ve been using Scrivener for Windows, and while it *is* a beta program, it is a very solid beta. I will never go back to writing anything longer than a cover letter in Word. The binder on the left side of the screen is infinitely customizable and gives me everything that Word’s document map does plus so much more. Well worth the $45 price tag.

    For more info see:
    http://www.literatureandlatte.com/ (mac)
    http://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivenerforwindows/ (PC)

    Disclaimer: I have no affiliation with scrivener or literature and latte.. I just love the program.

  24. I’m using Tomboy Notes for recording my outline and notes for my current novel, plus ideas for future stories. Lighter weight than a wiki, though you can link to other notes. Killer feature for me is that I use it on Ubuntu and it sychronizes to Ubuntu One, a service much like Dropbox. I run Tomboy Notes on computers in multiple locations, keep them synced via Ubuntu one. That way I can work from more than one place, and have offsite backup.

  25. @eric – I am another supporter of TiddlyWiki. I have found that the portable-ness of a single file wiki is extremely valuable. I throw it onto a thumb drive and can work on my outlines and research anywhere weather at home on the desktop, laptop, or even at work on my lunch break.

    Also, were-fainting-goats really think about it.

  26. Just thinking about fine cheeses makes me feel better…

    @Joe — giant Lego or K’nex model? I once used transparencies for floor plan when I needed to know exactly where something was above something else — you might be able to do something similar, with each layer of transparencies (I used cut-up page protectors) representing X # of lightyears…okay, I’m super low-tech. Probably why I write a lot of fantasy.

  27. Thank you for an excuse to finally write that noir detective wereshark story I’ve been threatening to pen!

  28. Ed:
    I use two files because it’s easier to navigate; instead of scrolling through one list to get to the other, I just click to a new window and there it is. Your mileage may vary, of course, but that’s the easiest for me.

  29. Hi,
    I had sent you guys an email at your listener mail but got no response so I figured I’d comment here. I don’t have high-speed internet access at my house, so I used to download the world’s greatest podcast (Writing Excuses), when I would go to a wi-fi hotspot. But recently I have been missing out on the world’s greatest podcast (Writing Excuses), because the download button just takes me to the player in a separate tab. I really do hope you fix this, because I love your podcast and it has helped me grow as a writer in so many ways.

  30. I have spent the last couple of weeks working on a website in Drupal that is hosted on my laptop. It’s been working really well for me in that it allows me to connect events with characters, make a timeline, create outlines for my book, etc.

    Sa-weet. And I can completely customize it as I see fit.

  31. You can link in Scrivener, internally as well. Just sayin’. So it could do what Wikidpad does and more. Such as pick up web pages, docs, links, references, etc. As well as the internal linking and you have a file list to the side plus a search. (Refined by document). So if you did take a little time there can be internal linking.

    I’m using Scrivener right now for my current project because I have four real live cultures to track. And being able to drag-drop and insert webpages/images is really useful when you want to get things right. It also means I can track a source as well so people say, “Well, that’s wrong” and I can point to the original.

    On the other side, I have used wikis for mostly other people’s amusement–and online. The good old fashioned media wiki. I input privacy tags with the help of a programmer to hide stuff from the general public I want to keep track of. I would think that solution would be great for group projects and also promotional incentives for your website.

    BTW, not to out anyone, but JK Rowling, the author of something very small called “Harry Potter”, huge outliner by A&E admission, released something that looked like a scribbled spreadsheet. Dan’s not alone in doing it in that method.

  32. Rather than Wikidpad, I use Zim Wiki on both my Windows 7 and Ubuntu Linux computers, and I sync my files between computers and back them up online (with versioning) with Dropbox. Zim Wiki is for my serious notetaking, brainstorming, world-building, etc. I use Springpad in Google Chrome to take quick notes and snippets of pages when I’m surfing the web.

    I’m really happy that Scrivener is being developed for Windows and Linux now. I plan on using it for on-going projects and keeping Zim Wiki for pre-writing preparation and post-writing world encyclopedia.

    I’m a fan of OpenOffice (now LibreOffice) as well. I only use MS Office when I need to for work.

    For distraction-free writing, I’m liking FocusWriter (cross-platform on Windows and Linux).

  33. It feels like this is turning into a tool shootout.

    You can do everything mentioned in this thread with emacs. You can even edit the same file in multiple views at the same time (instead of more than one file). That’s free.

    All that matters is that you use something, and keep writing.

  34. Has anyone used Dramatic Pro? I was going to try Scrivener, but had read a couple of comparison’s and it seemed like reviews online pointed to Dramatica as the writing software to beat for quality, but its up there in price..

  35. Let me add another not for Scrivener. It definitely meets the needs of a one-two book series, and is far more flexible and powerful than the multi-doc approach discussed in the episode. Not having tried WikiDpad, I can’t say if it’s as powerful, but it does allow you to not only label sections by what kind of info (background, character, etc.) but easily allows you to write in blocks and rearrange those blocks.

    Very powerful stuff. Off to look at WikiDPad.

  36. I am a MacHead so I sue Scrivener for writing, MindNode Pro for “outlining”, but it is more of a mind mapping tool…so for it is more creative then outlining. Allows for exploration while you write AND have some structure of an outline.

    I use Scrivener for my bible as others have suggested here, but I am considering this WikiDPad, but I could not get it to work on my mac (even using some of the hacking techniques). I did find a Mac alternative called ZuluPad. So I will give this a go.

  37. @Manny? That’s probably a browser setting. For Firefox, go to tools, options, applications — there is a long list of file types and what to do with them. You want to set things to always ask, mostly (note: some applications helpfully reset your settings — I had to go to tools, add-ons, plugins and disable Quicktime because it insisted on resetting my settings, and opening things in the browser instead of letting me save them.)

  38. @KT: I don’t know anything about Dramatic Pro, but if you’re unsure about Scrivener, you might want to consider downloading the demo. It’s fully functional and will let you try the program for 30 days before spending any money on it – and they mean 30 days in which you actually use it, not 30 days from the time when you download it, which I think is awesome and is the way all trials should work. All the reviews in the world are no substitute for some hands-on experience to figure out how you actually feel using the program.

  39. I”ve been using Microsoft OneNote to do my story bibles. It has all the linking features and lets you organize items just as you would in a physical notebook. I like Scrivener too, and am using that to outline/draft my WIP, but I use OneNote for keeping track of all the random notes and thoughts related to my series.

  40. FYI, I don’t get silence at 9:40, I get mono. Only the left-hand speaker gives sound (and I forget whether that’s the left channel or right channel).

  41. I used to outline and “bible” in the same way Dan described until I got Scrivener. Feels the same but everything is technicially in one big document. Love it. I definitely recommend it. And I got mine 50% off as a prize for winning NaNoWriMo so if you are a cheapskate like me, go win NaNoWriMo and get a discount!

    Thanks for everything you do Writing Excuses Guys! Keep it up! Now I should be writing …

    – Heather

  42. I have played with the Scrivener beta for Windows and I have played with numerous wikis (wikis? come on guys, how last century) but I’m going to stick with yWriter.

    And it’s free (please leave a donation for Simon or buy one of his books).
    I have an iPad and use Evernote for writing on the train but as soon as there is a decent Windows based tablet I’m dumping the iPad so I can use yWriter when I’m mobile.

  43. Hey, why doesn’t WE have a forum? I use WE for Writing Excuses, but it’s pronounced as “we”. *lol* A lot of writing stuff can get done.

    Anyway – I wanted to download Wikidpad but I didn’t know what file to download.

    Do it like SW does it. In the front of the EU books, at least for the New Jedi Order, they have a star map. It’s pretty cool. and for some fan fic, I’ve used it for a reference.

  44. @cameron yWriter5 is a nice program as well. I used to use it a lot to plan some of my short stories.

    Reading this thread makes me realize just how many programs I’ve run through in terms of finding out what was best to build my stories in, he. And after taking a few days to play around with WikiDpad – it really is a good program to use, but I realize it doesn’t necessarily do all that I need with respect to my own planning, but I think it’s still neat and worth the mention.

    As I mentioned before – you could have all the tools at your disposal, use the most simple or complex method and/or programs that might be out there, but ultimately it’s up to the person who finds the method that works best for them. That does require playing around a bit, even with what’s out there, so I don’t necessarily think one person’s process is necessarily the best for another and I think it’s important for people to remember that. Ultimately I think every writer comes up with his/her own system as they move forward.

Comments are closed.