Posted in writing

Story Bibles

If you’re a writer and you’re in the midst of editing, or even writing a series, you probably want a place to keep track of all the details of your story. It’s incredibly useful, especially if you want to write a series. Bonus points: if you do a lot of roleplaying and need or want to write your own campaign, having a story bible set up for your in-world conflicts, NPCs and lore makes it easier to keep your campaign more or less on track (sorry, but I can’t promise the same of your players).

A story bible is essentially a document or several documents that keeps the details of your story or stories together. This prevents things like character details changing unexpectedly halfway through the story. It also helps keep worldbuilding and relevant setting details in one place so you don’t have to go hunting for particular details.

There’s several ways you can keep a story bible. If you’d prefer a hardcopy, a binder or multi-subject notebook is a good option. This way you can section your bible off as necessary. Digital options include things like Microsoft OneNote or Evernote, or even something like World Anvil or Notebook.ai to keep your bible sorted and on track. Depending on your preference and how you work best, you may find one option better than the other. I personally prefer to keep a digital copy of my notes in OneNote because of the search function.

Although your story bible should work for you, there’s a few sections you may find helpful to keep in it.

Character Notes. This is a good place to keep things like detailed descriptions, character sketches, backstories and family trees. I usually create a small section for each character so I can keep track of their character arc during edits.

Setting Notes. Depending on the genre you’re working in, this can easily become a massive portion of your story bible. Everything from notes on legal systems to lore can be placed in your setting notes. For speculative writers, this spreads to include bestiaries, cultural analysis, maps and even engineering schematics as necessary.

Story Notes. Editing and writing in general tends to create a multitude of different notes—outlines, and even thematic notations. Having a story-specific section makes it easier to keep all your editing tools in one place. A lot of my plotting notes end up here, but I also try to keep a list of any flash pieces relevant to the story, world or characters here.  This way if I need to reference something for a flashback or thematic reason, I can easily reference back to the original piece.

What are some of the things you keep in your story bibles? How do you prefer to keep them?

Posted in writing

Character vs. Plot Driven

When it comes to moving your story forward there are usually two driving forces: plot and character. Because each one drives the events in a story a little differently, this gives us plot-driven and character driven stories.

With plot-driven stories, the events drive each other forward. High taxes from the king cause a famine in the kingdom, which leads to bandits stealing from the rich nobles to help feed the poor. Cause and effect directly affect what happens next.  Often, plot-driven stories have a predictable outcome. The murder is solved, the couple gets married, etc.

Plot-driven stories often feature static characters.  Arguably if you replaced any of the characters in The Lord of the Rings you’d have largely the same story. The ring would still be destroyed, Aragorn (or his replacement) would still take the throne. This is because the events happening are more important than the character development.

With character-driven stories, the reactions to each event drive each other forward. The high taxes cause anger which causes riots, which causes a civil war, which leads to the division of the country. In this case, emotions and motivations push events forward. Endings can be a little harder to predict because they’re often focused on internal goals instead of external conflicts.

Because the focus on character-driven stories is heavier, they rely heavily on character arcs and development. In The Hobbit, replacing any of the characters gets a little trickier.  Replacing Bilbo leads to a few less questionable incidents (the trolls, anyone?). Replacing Thorin probably avoids the fight over the Arkenstone.

The main difference between character- and plot-driven stories is where the focus is. A story focused on external conflict lends itself more to a plot-driven structure. The conflict must be resolved in some manner, and as a result, events push forward to that inevitable resolution.  A character-driven story is less about the end goal and more about the changes a character goes through during the course of a story.

If you’re wondering which one is better, the answer is neither. As a writer you may find yourself preferring one style over the other, but neither character- nor plot-driven stands firm as a ‘better’ option. Nor are they mutually exclusive. Going back to The Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit you can see that a character-driven story like the Hobbit gives way to a plot-driven story such as the Lord of the Rings.  If Bilbo never steals the ring, then the ring never needs destroying. And, as above, with high taxes and a famine sweeping the land from our plot-driven example, it makes sense for a motivated Robin Hood to start stealing to help his community.

Which storytelling style do you prefer to write?

Posted in writing

Finding the Story Start

It’s no secret that the start of the story is one of the hardest to master. The opening scene is your best chance to catch your reader and to hook them into reading your story the rest of the way through. As the author, you already have a love and admiration for your characters. Your reader however, does not, and you may only have a few paragraphs to capture their attention long enough to get them to care.

The key part is to figure out where your story really starts.

Stories are all driven by conflict. Frequently your conflict will force the character to make a change into a new normal.  Although it might be tempting to start with a look at what their ‘old’ normal looks like, keep in mind that this is oftentimes largely unnecessary. You can usually rely on your audience to fill in some of the details—we all wake up in the morning and generally have a morning routine that involves getting dressed, eating breakfast and preparing for the day ahead.

Instead of starting with the old normal, ask yourself what moment is when the conflict first touches your character? At what point in their otherwise ordinary day does the conflict become personal?

Most people have goals. Characters should be no different. By looking at the point where their personal goals are threatened by the story’s conflict, you get closest to the start of the story. Not only do you give your character a reason to react to the conflict, you’re also giving your readers something to care about: The character’s goal is jeopardized. How will they still achieve their goals despite this threat?

It’s not uncommon to find stories that have started too far back. We’ve all heard the advice against starting with the character waking up and looking in the mirror and so on and so forth. There is a reason for this: It happens a lot. Often enough that it’s practically a trope. Although it’s more common in YA, there’s examples of it across all genres. Your story’s start should be strong enough to skip a boring introduction to your characters. Make us care first.

As an exercise: Take a look at your current manuscript and its opening scene. Typically you only have between 5-20 pages to catch a reader’s attention, so look at the first 10 pages (roughly the first 2000 words).  Read these and ask yourself where in those first ten pages the main conflict becomes personal? Where is your character threatened? If it’s not within the first 10 pages, remove them from your manuscript (I recommend putting those extra pages into another document or folder, in case you find a use for them later). Then look at the next 10 pages. Keep doing this until you find the point where the conflict affects your character.

Posted in Stories, writing

Short Story: Holiday Cheer

The one thing that pained him about Sadie was how expressive she was. Even without saying a word, Charles knew when his ten-year-old wasn’t enjoying the meal prep. It came across in the way she kept her head ducked and inspected her task with care before she actually started it.

“Why so glum?” he asked and she looked up from where she’d been carefully crimping a pie as instructed.

“What’s glum?”

He laughed. “It means you’re unhappy. Something bothering you Sadie-bug?”

She considered it while she turned the pie one last time. “We’re making a lot of food,” she said.

“Yes,” he said.

“But it’s just you and me,” she said and looked at him. There was trouble in her earth-toned gaze. “Not even Uncle Marshall this year.”

It surprised him. She was a social butterfly, as evidenced by the fact that at ten, her list of phone numbers was more than double his and her weekends were rarely ‘free’.

“Well, it’s a holiday for family.”

“Uncle Marshall is family,” Sadie said.

“Yes, but he has other family.” He had to be careful about that. She was by no means an unintelligent child and if she started asking how closely related they were to her ‘uncle’ she was going to uncover a whole other set of problems.

“Family we don’t have?”

Time to head off that conversation. “Honey, what’s going on with you? Why are you so concerned with it?”

She shrugged a little as he came to sit in the chair next to her. “It’s just, this is supposed to be for families, right? So…where’s the rest of my family? I don’t have grandparents or…or aunts or anything. Just you and Uncle Marshall.”

Expressive as her body language could be, getting actual information out of her verbally sometimes felt like panning for gold. It was all in the tiny things.

“What’s that ‘or anything’ you’re so concerned with?” Charles questioned. Sadie didn’t look at him. She’d finished crimping the pie, and the fork she’d been using showed him only a warped reflection when she turned away. “I can’t fix a problem if you don’t tell me about it.”

Another moment of silence. “Where’s my mom?”

That was a blow and Charles had to inhale a little. He’d been hoping she wouldn’t ask, even while he knew eventually Sadie would. Explaining what had happened with her mother was an involved tale.

Even for a ten-year-old that could and did pick up on things she shouldn’t have.

Especially for a ten-year-old that had told him before which kids in her class weren’t getting enough lunch and which ones were being hurt at home.

He must have taken too long to respond because she sighed. “You’re not going to tell me, are you?”

“Hold on, a minute,” he said. “You surprised me, that’s all. Come on, turn and face me.”

Sadie obliged but he could tell by her face she wasn’t happy about something.

“You’re smart enough and old enough to know that sometimes moms and dads don’t stay together,” he said. “And sometimes when that sort of thing happens, there’s a lot of nastiness involved.”

“They get divorced,” Sadie replied, almost matter-of-fact. There was an underlying question in her tone that indicated she wasn’t sure where this was going.

“That’s only when they get married,” Charles said. “I…I never married your mom. I asked her a couple of times, and we were going to, but we ended up not.”

“Then where is she now?”

“Well,” Charles said and had to pause before he exhaled slowly. This was the one thing he hadn’t ever wanted to tell Sadie. “The truth of it is honey, your mom fell in love with someone else, and she decided he was a little more important to her than you were,” Charles said.

He could tell she was processing it, but the look of shock on her face broke his heart. “She didn’t want me?”

“She…no. She decided she didn’t.”

Sadie was silent for a long moment. “I’m going go play in my room,” she said.

“Okay.”

His heart squeezed, painted as she wandered towards her room and closed the door softly. He couldn’t do anything to alleviate the pain of knowing that at least one parent had abandoned her.

Reminded of the whole mess, Charles sighed and looked over the dishes still in the middle of prepping. He knew there were others in the fridge, waiting for tomorrow when they would start cooking. These were the ones he wanted prepped ahead of time—the cheesecake, and the pies, mostly, but also Sadie’s favorite cheesy potatoes.

He took time putting everything up. The pies were stacked on wire racks, repurposed from their usual cookie-cooling days so he could more on the shelf. The casserole sat on the shelf below that, covered in tinfoil already. The turkey and the ham were similarly ready, though both still packaged up and waiting to be prepped for tomorrow.

There was plenty of other items—fruits and veggies to be displayed as snacking foods, potatoes for more mashed. Eggs, cooling from this morning and waiting to be deviled or mashed into egg salad.

In fact, the only thing they seemed to be missing for tomorrow’s feast, was ice cream to top the pie.

Ice cream, he decided, and maybe something to cheer up Sadie. It wasn’t much, but maybe she’d perk up once she was able to look over the holiday decorations.

“Sadie?” He knocked on her door softly and it took her a moment to open it. He could tell she was still upset and smiled. “We forgot something when we did the shopping.”

“Like what?”

“Can’t have apple pie without vanilla ice cream on top, now can we?”

It was such a tiny smile. “I need to get my shoes.”

The drive was a short one, and with a holiday station turned on, Charles was glad to see a little more cheer as it spread over Sadie.

Finding the ice cream wasn’t hard to do, and Sadie ranged down the aisle a little while Charles lingered near the ice cream bars. He knew they really did have enough food at home for the rest of the week, but an ice cream sandwich sounded like a perfect reward for all the work they’d put in to prepping today.

From the corner of one eye, he saw Sadie as she opened a freezer door to reach up for the ice cream. It must have been farther back on the shelf and he saw her step back, the door slapping shut in defeat.

Time to go rescue her from a too-high shelf, he decided.

Someone else had seen her plight though. He couldn’t have been more than fourteen, but grinned as he opened the door and fetched it down. “That the one you need?”

“Yes. Thank you!”

“Alec, I already told you no.”

He knew that voice and turned, startled to see someone he was certain wouldn’t have been in town: Marshall’s sister.

“Hi, Lila,” he said.

Lila blinked and looked at him before she laughed. “Hi! I didn’t even recognize you for a minute. I see I’m not the only one leaving the holiday shopping to the last minute.”

He laughed as Sadie came over, her prize in hand. “Yes and no. We got most of it done the last couple of days, but needed just a couple odds and ends.”

“Who’s this?” Sadie asked and Lila laughed.

“I’m Lila. I helped Charles with the landscaping for the restaurant.”

“You’re the one who put in the gardenias! Hi! I’m Sadie.”

Charles laughed as the boy sauntered over to half-glare at Charles. “This is my girl.”

Lila beamed. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Sadie. This is Alec.”

The boy responded with a faint nod. “’Sup?” It earned him a faint sigh from Lila and Charles laughed.

“Thank you for helping Sadie, Alec,” he said.

“No problem.” He said and half-smiled at Sadie. “She almost had it. Just needs another inch or so.”

She beamed and looked at Charles. “How long is going to take for me to grow an inch?”

“With my luck? You’ll grow an inch the week after we get you a new jacket for winter,” he said.

Lila laughed. “That’s how it always works,” she said. “We’ve got just a few things left to get, so we’ll get out of your hair.”

He noted the shopping list in the front of the cart, how short it was. A tight budget, perhaps? Or just a very small celebration. His gaze traveled to her hands, noting the lack of a wedding band.

“You know,” he said and glanced at Sadie. “Sadie and I are doing the holiday with just the two of us. You guys are welcome to join us.”

“Please do,” Sadie said. “Daddy made four pies and both turkey and ham.”

Lila laughed and glanced at Alec, who shrugged. “I like pie,” he said noncommittally.

“Then…I think we’d love to,” Lila said. “If you’re certain. It’s just Alec and I this year as well, but we don’t want to impose.”

“You’re not imposing. You’re invited,” Charles promised and glanced at Sadie. “Besides. Sadie’s right. I may have gone a little overboard on cooking.”

Lila laughed. “We can probably help with that.”

Maybe it wasn’t her mom, but Charles smiled as Sadie grinned, immediately launching into a detailed accounting of everything they already had and asking how Alec liked his turkey—what kind of gravy did he prefer? Did Lila like apple pie or cherry?

No, he couldn’t replace her mother. But maybe, just maybe, he could prove to Sadie that there were more people who wanted her around than the one who’d abandoned them both.

_________

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this short story you can find more over on my short stories page. Alternately, you can get exclusive stories and early access by supporting me on Patreon. 

Happy Holidays!

Posted in Exercises, writing

Editing Worksheets

Editing is probably one of the hardest parts of the entire writing process. Once you’re through the effort of writing a rough draft, you then have to pick it apart to find the parts that aren’t working and to make them better. It might be hard to do that, especially when you’re still in the honeymoon phase of just having finished a rough draft. To celebrate the end of NaNoWriMo, I’m including some of the worksheets I use when starting my editing process. Hopefully one of these gives you a good place to start and helps you through the next step of the journey!

Keep in mind that writing—including editing—is a hugely personal and diverse process for each writer. What works for your favorite author may not work for you. Conversely, stories can also throw  Try lots of different things.

Worldbuilding Questions Packet. I’ll often use this as way to help flesh out and kickstart any necessary worldbuilding when my setting feels flat. You don’t necessarily need to answer every question, but having a general idea can help find places where I need to spend a little more time developing the setting, or can highlight interesting conflicts I haven’t explored yet.

The Main Plot. Based off the classic pyramid plot structure, this gives a good overview of the main plot points and tensions in the draft. It can be a good starting point before getting into a more detailed outline, especially when I have a story that needs heavy restructuring in the plot.

Conflict and Event. Similar to the above, Conflict and Event can be used to see how the main and subplot(s) are playing off each other. I have it set up for three conflicts (a main and two subplots) but you can ignore the third if you only need two.

Character Motivations. I’m firmly in the camp of ‘characters make the story’. Character actions and reactions create a plot, and the reason behind their actions and reactions all comes down to motivation. This helps get beyond long-term and short-term goals and into their core values.

Where will you start your editing?

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Psst! Patrons also get an additional three worksheets, one for character arcs, one for subplots and one for more worldbuilding. Check out my Patreon to find these!