Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Why You Should Keep Track of Your Story Details

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

As a fantasy writer, I’ve long understood the importance of keeping a story bible. A created world has a lot of details to keep track of, from city names, to characters, to rules of magic. Even non-genre writers use story bibles to remember details and characters in a long-running series. But keeping track of details has another use, and one we might not always consider in a first draft.

We don’t always remember the little details that slip in while we’re drafting, and often, those details are pretty darn cool.

I’m not talking about the big details we plan for and write down, but the organic details that emerge as we write a scene. Even the most dedicated outliner is bound to have details spontaneously appear as they write (it is a creative process after all), and these details can be pure gold—as long as we remember to use them or do something with them.

For every manuscript, I have a file in my OneNote folder (a great program for keeping track of details and outlines, by the way) called “Stuff to Remember.” This is separate from my story bible (that’s another folder) and contains details that are important to keep consistent for theme, world building, or characterization within the book.

(Here’s more on why OneNote is wonderful for writers)

For example, I currently have notes to remember to:
  • Have a chime ring whenever my heir to the throne character leaves or arrives in public
  • Make sure there are no rugs, only woven mats
  • Use an established knock pattern whenever servants knock on a door
Tiny details like this are scattered throughout the entire manuscript, but they’re not all appropriate for a story bible. They’re elements I want to keep consistent to bring the world to life, but let’s be honest—there’s a good chance most readers won’t notice if I have a rug in a few rooms instead of a mat, or a servant who knocks without the pattern. But these details are important because:
  • The chime is a constant reminder that my heir is always watched, always noticed, which he can’t stand.
  • The mats instead of rugs is a world-building detail that provides authenticity to the culture I’ve built.
  • The knock shows another example of the rules the servants must follow, and repeats the theme of status = pattern that’s also part of this culture.
Even if they don’t consciously notice every detail, readers will feel more immersed in my world and story, because things will feel layered and developed.

Keeping these details consistent and making them a part of the story allows me to use them in interesting ways as well. I might decide to let someone use the servants’ knock to trick someone into opening a locked door. Or a chime could ring at an inopportune time. Even if I have no plans to use a particular detail, once they’ve been established and ingrained in the world, they tend to slip in subconsciously in wonderful ways.

For example:
  • A major clue can hide in plain site because it’s part of the world and no one looks at it twice.
  • An established rule can be turned against the people who made it.
  • A tiny detail can be exactly what’s needed to get a character out of a jam after you’ve written yourself into a corner (and we’ve all done this, right?).
Keeping track of details as well as important character, world, or series information gives you easier access to your story and what you’ve already written. Using what you’ve already created in different ways gives the story more depth, and makes it read as though you planned those sublime connections and clues all along.

(Here’s more on creating twists and leaving clues in your story)

Why Use a Story Bible at all?

It saves us time, and keeps us writing. We make up so many details and reference so many things in a draft, that it's not always easy to remember them when we need them. What color were Bob's eyes again? Was that scar on his left or right cheek? Did he grow up by Rockville Park or Rockville Creek? If we don’t remember, we have to stop writing and search through the pages until we find the answer. In many cases, we lose our momentum and it takes time to regain it.

It’s much easier to add a note that reminds us to check the detail later, such as: She drew her finger along the scar on his left (check) cheek. This lets me know I need to double check this detail, but it doesn’t kill my momentum. I like parentheses, but you could use brackets or even asterisks. It’s your call, as long as it’s something you can easily search for.

(Here's more on creating a story bible and what to track)

What Should You Put Into a Story Bible?

Anything you want to keep track of. Most folks have pages or files for things such as:

Characters: Vital statistics, role in the story, background, motives, relationships, traits, etc.

Setting: World building details, names and locations of places the characters go, rules or laws unique to the story, etc.

History: Events of the past that apply or affect the present, things referenced in the tale that need to be consistent, landmarks and their significance, etc.

Continuity: When characters first met, who was where at what time (important to mysteries), what people said that appears in later flashbacks or memories, when critical information was revealed, where red herrings appeared, etc.
  • If you're writing mysteries, you can set up your time line so you know when key clues happened and who was around to find them.
  • If you're writing thrillers, you can track the bad guys actions so they line up correctly with what the good guys are doing.
  • If you're writing science fiction or fantasy, you can keep your world-building details handy.
You can track whatever you need to. Having details on-hand can even help you flesh out your story world, because if you have a handy list of local foods, when you edit that dinner scene, you'll add a real detail and not just say "he ordered the chicken" or something equally generic. You can throw in those spicy peppers or Skyline chili unique to your setting.

You took the time to create backgrounds and world details (genre or real world ones), so why not organize them in a way that makes them easy to use? Your story will feel deeper and richer because it’ll be consistent to itself, and details will have purpose in the story. It’ll also make revisions easier, and you’ll have less work to do if the story turns into a series.

Do you track your story details? Keep a story bible? What types of things to you track?

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Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. I have notes on my characters, settings, and scenes. I haven't thought about having notes for history or continuity though. This could be why I'm stalled.

    1. Also try looking at your goals or motivations. When I stall, it's almost always because I don't know what (or why) the protagonist needs to do/act.

  2. Thanks for this! I really enjoyed this article, and it was a timely reminder for me personally. Not only do I need to keep a story bible now as I write, but I wish I had some for previous books. OneNote doesn't seem to be the right tool for me personally --- are there other programs/apps/methods that could be used to organize character and setting details, or story notes? Thanks again.

    1. Sorry for relying late (I hope you subscribed to the comments)

      EverNote is popular, and some use a basic Excel spreadsheet. Scrivener has ways to take and save notes as well. And you can always just use a Word doc and separate everything with the document map.

  3. The other day I realized I "forgot" about a character for several pages. I had that outlined (I use jotterpad for continuity notes), but I forgot to check before writing the scenes. When I started writing the next scene, 30 pages later, "where the hell is she? OMG I forgot her in prison". Checking your notes before writing would be my advice lol.

    1. LOL I think I've done that, too. What! What happened to Soandso?

  4. I've really gotten into Scrivener. I have a folder called "random crap" (yes, really :)) for the little things. The nice thing about Scrivener is that it specifically has character tabs, and you can insert a photo if you have a certain person in mind when you're writing, or a certain place. I tend to be a bit disorganized--this is the first program/process that's helped to keep me on track. And you can use it to its fullest potential or just for the amount of things you need. I am positive there is more to it than what I've been utilizing.

    1. I have folder titles just like that :) Scrivener has a lot of really nice features.

  5. For historical fiction (especially when your story runs over several decades), parallel timelines come in handy too. In general, I keep a file where I follow where each character is in a given year, as well as the most important events that happened in the world (close to the characters' geography at least) at that time. As I tend to move people around countries, it really helps to keep everything aligned, and to make sure that the characters meet each other when they should!

    1. Good tip! There's a lot more you guys have to track.