How and Why To Use a Series Bible as a Writer
Why your long-term series needs a series bible that can be referenced at any time.
You’ve got this awesome idea for a fantasy series. It’s going to be twelve books long, in a brand new world full of magic and monsters, with intense political intrigue revolving around feuding families that have been at each other’s throats for centuries. It’s an epic saga with hundreds of characters and individual storylines that all converge at the very end.
That sounds so cool! So…how exactly do you go about keeping track of all of that information?
You create a series bible to make sure that long-running idea stays as amazing in the end cover as it looks in your head right now.
What is a series bible?
So, generally speaking, the Bible (capital B) is the collected standard for the rules and history of Christianity, right? A series bible (lowercase b) is much the same thing, but for a fictional world rather than a real religion.
Execs, screenwriters, and filmmakers in the entertainment industry refer to a series / show bible as a collection of notes and descriptions they use to ensure that their stories are consistent across multiple installments, whether that’s books, TV shows, or movies. This collection is intensive, covering everything from general worldbuilding to specific profiles for people and places. It’s also normally organized into sections that help creators easily find and reference information when they need it. If you’d like to see TV bible examples from the industry, Screencraft has links to series and pitch bibles for Battlestar Galactica, Scrubs, Grey’s Anatomy, New Girl, Fargo, Star Trek: Voyager, The Wire, True Detective, and more.
While the term has its origins in film and television, it has also come into broad use with writers as a term for the store of all their worldbuilding notes on a project.
Series bibles for screen versus page
The biggest difference between a series bible for television or movies and a series bible for books is that a film series bible is usually first intended for use as part of the “pitch deck” - the suit of materials that writers and agents use with a pilot script to pitch television series or movies to production studios and networks.
A film series bible is going to contain the elevator pitch for the entire series, then a detailed synopsis of the pilot episode and episode summaries for the rest of (at least) the first season’s episodes and arcs. It’s designed to show the people in charge that the show does have both planning and appeal past a flashy introduction; with television especially, staying power is incredibly important.
Once the show is in production, the series bible for film pieces gets a lot closer in purpose to the series bible for literature. It’s used to maintain continuity and consistency across a season and between seasons.
On the other hand, a literary series bible is often not included in the initial book proposal submitted to publishers, though there will usually be a section that describes the overall plot of the series. The detailed series bible is most often for the benefit of those in the process of a book series that has already been picked up by a publisher; it’s used by the author, yes, but also by the editors, illustrators, cover designer, and possibly the marketing team to ensure that the branding of the series is consistent throughout its release.
Examples of great series bibles
Here are some great series bibles to look into to help you see what I’m talking about.
- Adventure Time (2010-2018) by Pendleton Ward has a silly, comic-book feel that exactly represents what the show should look, feel, and sound like from page one. It’s got full-page renderings of many of the major characters, their stories, and how they relate to each other, as well as concept art for the Land of Ooo and its major regions and a synopsis for each of the first four episodes.
- Lost (2004-2010) by JJ Abrams and Damon Lindelof has a series bible with images from the already-shot pilot that portray the dark, tense tone the series would take on as it aired. This document includes a Q&A format section covering what the actual show format is and how it works, the general “shape” of the first season and its episodes, the strange mythology of the island and its monsters, how that island can be shot practically, and how the cast of characters can be balanced. It also includes a detailed overview of the main cast as well as 30 story synopses to help show the potential of the series.
- Stranger Things (2016-Present) by Matt and Ross Duffer, in this original document called “Montauk,” gets a highly-stylized document meant to look like something straight out of the 80s - exactly capturing the setting and tone of the show as an homage to classic scifi and scifi-horror. It includes a range of color photos from various genre hits like E.T. and Close Encounters, as well as a detailed three-act structure overview and profiles for the individual characters and the first season’s story. It’s gripping and dramatic with immediate suggestions for casting, filming, and location strategies.
- Brandon Sanderson plans his Cosmere books using a personal wiki, in which he keeps track of the books’ major themes for setting and characters as well as how magic and politics run in his massive series.
- Piers Anthony, writer of the brilliant comic fantasy Xanth series, keeps his series bible as a section of his website, where he has a complete database of characters (including a separate family tree document) and timelines for how the books work together as a history of the magical land he’s created.
What goes into a series bible?
While the exact information you may choose to include in your series bible will vary depending on the kind of series that you’re writing, there are a few things that should be at least discussed as part of it.
Settings, backstory, and timelines
One of the first things you’re going to want to do in your series bible is flesh out the world your characters are living in. Create a section for the settings that your story is going to take place in, both in terms of physical locations and time periods. Is your story set in a pseudo-Medieval kind-of-Europe fantasy setting? Is it modern-day New York City? Will your characters travel? Note down key locations and why they’re important. It may be a good idea to keep a visual map in your series bible for ease of reference.
Once you’ve got that settled, you’ll want to track the progress of your story through time. Having a detailed timeline and knowledge of the general history of the world can help you figure out where to put the focus of your writing and when; unless you’ve got a very good reason for doing so, you usually don’t want to spend two-thirds of the book in one month only to suddenly cover a decade in the last 100 pages. Timelines are also great for keeping you organized and consistent when you’re working with time travel stories, whether that’s working in flashbacks, flash-forwards, or actual time travel as a mechanic.
Characters and connections
You’ll want to have at least a brief list of your major characters in your series bible. I like to make detailed character breakdowns for mine, including their physical and personality traits as well as their general role in the story, but you don’t have to include that much detail as long as you can remember who’s who.
It’s also a good idea to write down how they’re connected to each other, as this can help you if you forget that you made So-and-so this guy’s cousin three books ago but now they don’t seem to know each other. Creating family trees, organization rosters, and hierarchy charts can help you figure out how your characters should be interacting with each other on a societal level.
You may also wish to jot down high-level character arcs for your main characters, as a reminder of the trajectory they should be traveling across books. A mage who is hasty and impulsive on the first page of the series might grow into a wise, methodical mentor by the time everything is done.
Systems, societies, and magic
Speaking of hierarchies, how does your society work? What kind of country, nation, or general land are your characters working in? Is there an organized society at all? Who’s in charge, and why? These are all important questions you should answer in your series bible.
While you might mark the different nations on your map, if you’re creating your own world from scratch, it’s a good idea to have a separate section that goes into more detail about how these societies came to be and how they operate on a legislative, cultural, and logistical level. This is also the place where you’ll want to write out your economic system, especially if you’re writing scifi or fantasy, where those systems tend to differ wildly from the real world.
If you have a magic system, you’ll want to write about it in this section. While covering how to build one of those from scratch would take way more room than I have here, here are some basic questions you can ask to get a feel for how your system might work:
- What is magic, as your characters see it? A celestial or divine power? A natural force? An extension of science?
- What can magic do?
- What can magic definitely not do?
- Where does the magic come from?
- How did it become a part of this world? Has it always been here, or is it relatively new?
- Who can use magic, and why?
- What is the cost of using magic?
As a note, your magic doesn’t have to actually be magic. Your “magic” system could cover mutations, supernatural beings, scientific enhancements, telekinetic powers, or anything else outside the range of “normal” abilities as we see them in our world.
Key beats and items
You may have already covered this in your timeline, but if your story needs to hit certain beats to progress, it’s a good idea to have those things included in your series bible. This doesn’t have to be super detailed; just writing out a one-page pitch of the major story events for the series can work just fine as long as it helps you remember what you’re building toward when you write. Are there long term series arcs you need to keep track of, such as a war? If so, map out their general trajectory.
You might also want to write down any important McGuffins and cursed do-dads in this section, as knowing what important items are in the world, where they are, what they do, and who has them is a good way of avoiding readers pointing out that the Holy Sword of Demon Smiting was right next to the demon king for the entire fight with the hero.
Now comes the slightly boring part; you have to include non-story elements in your series bible for the sake of consistency across not only your own writing, but across the entire process of publishing your series. Think about it like this: your books are a major subset of your brand, and when you’re building an author brand, you make a style guide for what you want it to look like. Shouldn’t this major subset have its own guide to help your audience recognize it as quickly as possible?
So, include the details of your series’ stylistic elements such as:
- Whether you’re following an established style guide (MLA, APA, Chicago, etc.)
- The fonts you’re using and where they’re being used (typeface, chapter titles, quotes, etc.)
- How your chapters are labeled (do they have titles? Just a number? Is the word “chapter” written out or abbreviated?)
- How quotes are inserted, if they’re inserted at all (are they italicized? Are they bold? Are they large or small on the page? Are they in the main text or the sidebar?)
- How your sources are cited (this is typically useful for nonfiction, but if you’re making specific references in fiction, it’s a good idea to include a source list somewhere as well)
- The colors associated with your story
- Any major symbols or images associated with your story
- The general tone of the work (cutesy, horror, high-fantasy, noir, etc.)
You may choose to include things like images or pieces of other works that inspired you in this section.
These kinds of details are especially important if you’re writing in a shared story world with other authors, to create a unified series presentation. Readers may not like books in the same universe looking radically different and inconsistent from each other.
How to create your series bible
A document of this magnitude can seem incredibly daunting, especially if you’ve never created one before or if you’re new to the genre you’re writing a series bible for. Luckily, there are a few things you can do to make creating a series bible significantly easier.
Brainstorm before you organize
Before you set anything down in stone, grab a ton of sticky notes and a cork board or a massive Google Doc and start brainstorming. Don’t worry about rhyme or reason yet - this is the part where you get to get messy, make mistakes, and enjoy the creative process. Hop in a call with your friends online, hit record, and start making things up, or throw together a Pinterest board or Spotify playlist for your characters, setting, or general series vibe.
The point of brainstorming is to get you creatively excited and get the wheels turning, so don’t worry if nothing makes sense yet. All you need to worry about is making sure you can reassess this brain dump later.
Pick a template or system
Now that you’re excited, it’s time to pick a system. You’ve got two main categories to choose from: physical and digital.
Physical series bibles
When it comes to physical series bibles, your best bet is probably to have a massive ringed binder to work with or something with similar modularity; you want to be able to take out, replace, and rearrange pages whenever you need to, so having loose-leaf paper in a binder is going to be far more convenient than having a single notebook for most people. That being said, if you do have a notebook, you can always just leave yourself plenty of extra room to expand and change your series.
Whatever physical medium you choose, make sure that you’ve got a method for dividing and subdividing. Folders and ring-compatible dividers are great for this, as are page-marking notes and sticky notes. You’ll also probably want to keep at least one pen or pencil, highlighter, and method for erasing with your series bible so that you always have a way to make changes or corrections.
You don’t have to create everything for a physical series bible from scratch, by the way - there are lots of excellent templates available online that can help you with everything from world-building to character tracking and more! Simply print or copy them out and insert them into the appropriate section.
Digital series bibles
Digital series bibles tend to be significantly easy to find things in as they allow for indexing and real-time search. They’re also relatively easy to update, as you can simply go into the file and edit the words rather than having to manually rewrite entire pages. Also, Find-and-Replace is a godsend for writers who like to write first and name things later (me).
To make a digital series bible, you need to pick a platform:
- Word processors like Google Docs and Microsoft Word can be great for a basic, low-maintenance series bible. They allow for indexing and searching through appropriate headings, are incredibly customizable, and are completely private unless you choose to share a link or copy of the document. That being said, flipping between sections can be frustrating and can make quick referencing and changing things harder. You’re also locked to minimal devices with word processors - opening the file on your phone or tablet might be more challenging.
- Note-organizing software like OneNote and EverNote are cloud-based programs that let you sort your notes into different files, tabs, and categories, which is awesome if you’re working on an elaborate world that requires lots of research and creative system plotting. Note that you won’t have one centralized document for this, though; the compartmentalizing of your work means it’s possible to lose things if they aren’t properly labeled, which can mean time-consuming searching. This option does give you slightly more range when it comes to devices, so you can have it open on your phone while you write from a computer.
- Private wikis are an awesome way to keep a series bible, especially if you’re a long-time internet user familiar with the Wikipedia system. There are lots of programs at your disposal for creating a private wiki system for your work, both free and paid, so you’re bound to find something that works for you. Keep in mind that these wiki builders are often designed for creating public-facing wiki pages, which can be a problem if you’re looking for a “your eyes only” documentation space (ie, avoiding spoiling your readers).
- World-building software like World Anvil and Campfire are designed to act as series bibles for TTRPG runners, writers, and other creatives. These programs are usually buy-what-you-need based rather than being one-size-fits-all subscription services, and they often have generous free programs that will be more than enough to create at least a rough skeleton of your series to use as a reference. They also tend to have options for writing your manuscript directly in the software, which is awesome for easy reference! That being said, the free programs do have limits, so if you want to make big expansions on your lore or track a lot of different details, you will have to pay for certain services. It’s also another often public-facing platform, so you’ll have to be careful to set everything to private if you don’t want to spoil readers.
Organize and categorize
Once you’ve selected a platform, it’s time to take that big brain dump from earlier and turn it into usable reference material. Start by sorting your information - you can do this by working from broad categories (Setting, Characters, Series Progression, Style Guide, etc.) to smaller subcategories (in Setting, you might have Maps and Major Locations, Historical Timeline, Series Timeline, etc.), then into individual pages or sections.
Make sure that you’ve set up your large categories in a way that makes sense to you; some stories have a single small setting but a big cast, a sprawling setting with a small core cast, and so on. The point is to make sure you can easily find anything you need to reference quickly without wasting time trying to remember what section you put it in.
For example, in my current WIP series bible, my categories are:
- Magic System
I’ve created my series bible on Campfire, so it’s automatically separated for me, which is nice.
Once you’ve got your ideas organized, it’s time to interconnect them. Work through your major entries - the main map locations, the main characters, the major beats of the story - and connect them to each other, either through notes and citations (for example, “[Character] is from this region - page 25”) or internal linking, if you’re working digitally. This will make reference work a lot easier, as you’ll already have everything you need connected to the page you’re working on.
Update as you write
The most important thing to remember with a series bible is that it’s a living document. This means that you’ll need to update it as you write to ensure that it stays as relevant, up-to-date, and useful as possible throughout the writing and publishing process. Lots of things change from your initial outline to the first and subsequent drafts of your work - make sure that you’re recording those changes so you don’t accidentally contradict yourself later on.
Whenever you start a writing session, be sure to have your series bible open beside you, whether you think you’re going to use it or not. If you introduce a new character, place, or concept that you don’t already have in your notes, make time - either in the moment or at the end of your session - to note it down in the series bible in the appropriate location. Then flesh out the details of that entry as you write more about it. That way, if it comes up again, you have something more detailed and concrete to reference other than strictly what you put in the text however many hours, days, weeks, or months ago.
Creating a series bible can be a fun exercise on its own; I highly recommend fiddling around with the concept even if you don’t intend to actually write out an entire book series, TV show, or tabletop game campaign. If you do intend to create a big series like that, though, a series bible can be the perfect tool for holding yourself accountable and being knowledgeable about the worlds you create.