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The Devil in the Details: The Right & Good Virtues of Making A World Bible

by Tracy Townsend

It is truth universally acknowledged that books are long. Even the short ones (from the ants-in-the-grass perspective of an author trying to crawl from chapter one to “the end”) are spindling, winding paths, easy to get lost within, full of details begging to be forgotten, continuities pleading to be turned into snarls of error. Try to solve the problem by stepping back to the Utopian vision of Pure Outline and you may be able to see the lay of the land in a superior perspective to the little lost ant, sure, but then it gets hard to keep track of other things: whose eyes are what color, what date the main character divorced their partner on, whether the ray gun is holstered on the right or left side of Space Corps cadets’ uniforms, and so on. Often, these details aren’t terribly important, but when they are, fumbling for them can take you out of your writing groove. Worse, flubbing them will take your reader out of the text.

The solution for juggling the details of large, complicated worlds sff authors have turned to is the world bible. Though we tend to associate these documents with genre novels, writers working in any lengthy format from a sequence of short stories set in the same world to a single novel or series sharing a world-space can benefit from writing one of these babies. (Is there a favorite fictional Kpop band in the shared universe of charming YA rom-coms you’re writing? Better make sure you remember their back catalog and member names, for your characters’ sake.) Now that we’ve all got some distance from our most recent NaNoWriMo and are perhaps looking down the barrel of revisions, it’s a good time to consider what you can do for yourself and your fiction through the power of a world bible.

The “bible” part of a “world bible” can feel deeply intimidating, especially if you start comparing what you might want for yourself with what others have done. George R.R. Martin’s world of Westeros is so vast, even he can’t remember all of it, relying instead on a Swedish fan with a photographic memory to be his living world bible. Other authors’ legions of fans band together on sites like Wikia to generate exhaustive, deeply spoilery catalogs of everything you need to know about a fandom’s treasured stories. But every book starts off as something only you know about. In its infancy, you’re in command of all its details, all its information. Finding a way to keep it all straight is a gift you can give to your writing process.

Enter world bible creation, an indispensable part of how I write. For reference, the pie chart for how I create a project might look something like this:

 

A somewhat arbitrary graph of the author’s writing process, for demonstration purposes.

 

Yep. I spend more time world bible-ing than I do actually brainstorming, planning, or outlining. I spend almost as much time on it as I spend editing and revising. The world bible for my Thieves of Fate series (when you combine notes from my copy editors and my own notes over time) is just over 40,000 words in length.

But here’s the thing.

You don’t have to do it that way. The function of a world bible is personal and specific. In my case, the world bible’s essential function is to help me develop an understanding of what I’m writing that’s deep enough; none of it has to actually appear on the page.

“Come again?” you say. “None of it’s on the page? Why even do it, then?”

Oh, it’s there. It’s just invisible, if I’m doing my job right.

A well-built story world will feel lived in and organic. It will have its own rules (literal and figurative), its own nuances and grace notes. The less time you have to spend explaining how your world works to your reader (not because they need to know how it works and characters are having an open conversation about it that passes the As You Know, Bob sniff test, but because you need to see the explanation for yourself to make the whole thing hang together) the better. I do that kind of explain-this-to-myself work in the Green Room of the world bible. It’s where the bodies are buried. In my world bible, like the world bibles of other sff writers, you can find:

  • Important historical dates, events, and timelines
  • Information about various races, species, and cultures
  • Geographical information
  • Political information
  • Names of important (often “off-screen”) characters

And so on. But the most precious content of my world bible is the stuff literally no one besides me will ever read. The story of how two characters met and fell in love (even though one of them is long dead at the start of the series). Three different, completely contradictory stories of how a character lost his finger, any of which could be true . . . but only one of them is, and the differences between them are important to understanding why this character lies about the finger in the first place. One character’s entire family tree. A description of a villain based entirely on movie quotes and screen shots from IMDb. Someone’s arrest record (and corresponding jailbreak record). And, of course, hair colors, eye colors, exact heights and weights. Even allergies. It’s all there.

So if none of this (or very close to none of it) is going to be discussed on the page, why write it at all? Why worry about creating continuity between parts of the narrative readers might never even see?

Because it creates continuity in my understanding of the world, its characters, and even its subtexts and themes. It gives me confidence in what I’m crafting, a sense that I can master all its fiddly bits and make them behave as I wish. By itself, that’s not enough to make drafting and revising some smooth and blissful process, but it gives me faith in my thoughtfulness as a creator.

So if you’re considering returning to a project left half-finished, consider the value of making a world bible to jump-start your process. If you’re a Scrivener user, this should be especially easy, given the software’s various clever planning boards and doodads. If, like me, you’re still living in the backwaters of MS Word/Google Docs, a simple list of entries like a homebrew encyclopedia would be fine. (N.B., I also vacation quite happily in AlphaSmart Town and recommend you get yourself one if the internet is as distracting to your galaxy brain as it is to mine.) World bibles work for all genres, of course. If you’re writing a series, they’re indispensable resources for keeping track of Past You in conversation with Present You. They can teach you a lot about what you really care about in your work and help you center that more clearly.

Best of all, they’re fun — or they should be. Your own private world of secrets and subterfuge, to be dispensed as generously or hoarded as greedily as you please.

Being master of a whole creative universe should have some perks, after all.

A bit about the columnist:

Tracy Townsend teaches creative writing and sf/f literature at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, a public boarding school for gifted students. She has two dogs and two children, but only one husband. If she's not teaching or writing, she's probably on Twitter (@TracyATownsend) being opinionated about books, comics, movies, and soup. Visit author page