Separating Concerns

Posted on Sun 25 September 2016 in Articles • 4 min read

On Thursday (15th) I tweeted the question asking whether your story's world building source files should be stored in Scrivener or outside of it. By source files, I mean our character sheets, location descriptions and the other myriad of information writers collect and draft as part of the discovery and worldbuilding phases.

For 99% of Scrivener uses, I'd suggest that storing them directly in Scrivener is the way to go. Scrivener, after all, excels in research management and offers you the ability to dump in almost any type of file you like. With Scrivener now available on iOS, you have the added bonus of taking your material on the go. It works and it works well.

So with Scrivener's obvious strengths, it does beggar the question of what's the advantage of storing this material elsewhere?

There's no simple answer because there's a lot of variables at play, not least your personal preferences and what you're writing.

Where preferences are concerned, you may prefer to use a different set of tools for world building, for example: databases, spreadsheets, wikis or free-form notes apps like OneNote or a service such as Evernote. Then there's also tasks that can't be done in Scrivener like creating timelines, mindmaps and graphics.

What your writing also makes a difference. If your writing a self-contained story, then keeping your research within Scrivener makes a lot of sense. However, if you are writing a multi-volume epic then odds on your world building elements are going to turn up in different stories either directly or in passing.

Technically there's nothing to stop you using Scrivener for this purpose too. Scrivener imposes very few limitations and its possible to store an entire saga, including all manuscripts and research, in a single project. If that works for you, then great.

To go back to my original question and I've been wondering if it's better to store your world building material elsewhere and create a story-specific snapshot within Scrivener.

Why would you want to do this?

Well, lets look at characters. Characters can, and should change, as part of their journey through a story. Follow a character across a trilogy or beyond and you need a means of understanding, tracking and preserving these changes between stories. This is true not only of the events and interactions experienced by the character over time, but also their inner transformation.

Granted this only applies to characters who span multiple works, but these figures are a staple of many forms of genre fiction and not just sci-fi and fantasy, however there's plenty of examples of authors writing about characters who run across multiple volumes in other genres, for example:

  • Techno/thrillers: Tom Clancy, Matthew Riley, Dan Brown, Ian Flemming
  • Crime: Agatha Christie, Ruth Rendel, Lee Child
  • Historical: Ellis Peters, Ken Follet, Bernard Cornwell
  • Romance: (I'll need to ask my wife)

In fact it's pretty common; fiction went franchise a long time and its proved to a highly successful formula.

This kind of narrative compounds the writer's logistical challenges for obvious reasons: errors of continuity and characterisation. Not only do you have to remember the physical stuff but you also have to tracks the character's inner changes and build upon them so they are logically consistent. Put your hero through the ringer in book one and they're going to start off book two as a different person.

So with these challenges in mind, I suggest that for complex, multi-volume stories, it might be valuable to separate your concerns. Keep a master world building project and create story-specific snapshots for individual stories.

How you create your world bible is up to you. It could be another Scrivener project, one of the systems I listed above or stack of flat-file documents.

This has a number of advantages, for instance:

  • As noted it separates your concerns: your narrative (plot, chapters, scenes) and front/end matter (cover, title, colophon, foreword, appendices) from your world (places, organisations, people, historical events)
  • It's easier to work with multiple monitors or devices. Scrivener is a single-windowed application at present. Separating your concerns means you can have your novel in one monitor and your bible in another. You could even use a secondary device, such as a tablet.
  • It opens up other features not present in Scrivener such as those I mentioned above and more esoteric things like automation and version control.
  • It reduces the file size of your Scrivener project, its backups and reduces the bandwidth needed to sync your projects over DropBox and other cloud services.

For my own part, I've been separating my concerns for as long as I can remember. I write my narrative in Scrivener to take advantage of its excellent organisational tools. My world bible though is a collection of text files (mostly markdown) organised into a folder structure that makes sense to me.

I use text files because of their portability and how amenable they are to scripting. It's also trivial to turn them into HTML on the fly, and of late, this is how use them, displayed as a reference in a web browser in a secondary monitor, virtual desktop, split screen pane in El Capitan or on my iPad. I keep them in DropBox and can edit them on any device that supports Dropbox and Markdown, which is pretty much any modern operating system.

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