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How much metadata?

Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is a famously deep and backstoried tale. The material created to support it was posthumously published in six volumes; likely, there was more. So, more metadata than final story.

My question: how much metadata do you create for your works? What form does it take? Backstory? Plot maps? Theme maps? Something else?

Do you create a story wiki? What tools do you use? Do the answers differ between a short story, a stand-alone book, and a series?

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Replies (30)
    • Rick,

      I am using Scrivener in my new project and I have downloaded the K.M. Weiland template which is loaded with info and menu items from her book on story structure.  Her template is amazing. You can find it at:


      There is SO much in here it would take too long to describe. But it is a goldmine. She also has some free books on story structure that are great.   (At the same link.)

      In my modified template, I have at least 100 tabs that collapse into about 20 main tabs, with plotting points, character sketches, notes on archaeology, weather, plot points, dialogue, character reactions, conflicts, lies, secrets, personality traits, key events, on and on—tons of research.

      I wrote some drafts and filed them in folders for draft one and two. Now I am on three. I feel I have hit my stride and have the wind in my sails after 300 pages of drafts.

      Now I am taking 4-5 pages in some places and condensing them to one page or even one paragraph. I love how this is happening.

      I don’t feel anything has gone to waste—the drafts were research on style and mood.

      By analogy, I feel I am not trying to make beer here, I am trying to make single malt scotch, so I am patient enough to watch it drip—and enjoying the process.  There is more than enough beer out there.


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      • Thanks David. I tried Scrivener a couple of years ago - the concept seemed fine but the implementation inept: all that metadata, but not actually linked to the story. And it stored everything as RTF (which, back in the '90s, might have been forgivable, but not this millennium). Maybe it's changing in v3, but that's not available for another two months.

        I'm thinking of this from the perspective of do people keep an active tracker, for example, of CRSs (character-relationship-states - these being a character's relationship with another character, a need, a place, an object, etc. at various points in the story)? Or scene-level want-need-get states.

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      • Rick,

        I do indeed make notes and have rough drafts involving all the stuff you outlined, so my answer would be yes to all. I gather this metadata and more, in numerous areas of plotting and character development.

        I suppose the main point I was trying to make was on what you keep and what you throw away, and what the value of rough drafts might be.

        This may be an easy way to explain it:

        Ernest Hemingway said his writing was like an iceberg: you saw the tip, but what was under the iceberg that you never saw gave the writing its strength.

        I find I can write a ten-page draft scene with many details of character and motivation and so forth that I may decide is way too long. But, I am not upset I wrote this—what I discovered in the process will give more weight and gravitas to the one paragraph that remains in the final draft, if that is all I have.   If you don’t write drafts as a “work effort” to explore your characters, then you don’t know them, and so your writing will be weak, I think. What is not left on the page in the final draft is the submerged part of the iceberg.  So, writing is not just the finished words on the page, it is the process, research and thinking too.

        This is difficult to explain but I hope it makes some sense! Yes to  metadata man!


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        • I absolutely agree, David.

          I was looking to see how prevalent the practice is. And if anyone else, like me, is frustrated with the tools that fail to link it meaningfully. (Or if any tools do a good job of connecting the dots.)

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        • I don' really know what metadata is TBH, so I'm probably missing something important. I'll get my coat.

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          • One part of metadata it as a structural analysis of the story.

            You have a scene where two characters talk. Yes, there is dialogue. But why? What does that dialogue convey? How does it change the characters? What do they learn? What does the reader learn about their inner charcter? How does the conversation advance the plot?

            Other metadata may be background information you, as author, don't bother revealing but that you need to be consistent about: what's the weather like outside for the scene that's happening indoors? What's the train schedule? What's the layout of your location? Why do so many people in this town have gaelic names? What's the relationship between secondary characters who don't actually meet in your story (but may know each other from before it)? Etc.

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          • For my first novel I could have told you a character's history going back 100 generations! But it was all in my head.  I had great fun coming up with items for one scene where the character needed to have treasures that shouldn't exist: Pharos lighthouse blueprints, functioning Antikythera mechanism...

            For my later offerings the background is a lot less developed. I think that's because I've learnt to be less invested in characters as protection against rejection in the whole subbing process - a weakness perhaps.

            I seem to remember Harry Bingham saying about his detective novels, that he didn't necessary know all the right police procedures, but he wrote the scene with conviction so the reader wouldn't question the methods. A matter of grabbing your reader and pulling them along, as long as you don't make any obvious consistency errors.

            I suppose in high fantasy and sci-fi it's more important to have the world carefully mapped out to make it believable. Also useful to have beta feedback - if they're scratching their heads you know you've not got enough detail.

            As for The Lord of the Rings, if ever I'm having trouble getting to sleep, I just need to open a page. Much too much metadata for me. (Ducks and covers in preparation of being shot down in flames for that opinion!)

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            • I write Rom Coms so I probably don't need to bother with that much metadata thingies...

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              • Hello Rick,

                That's a tough question, and one I"m still working on. At first I used index cards, which worked a bit but were very time consuming - at times I was spending more time filling out the cards than I was actually writing. It also felt artificial, as I was filling them out thinking, OK, what's his favorite color, his favorite song? What is the chidhood trauma that he's hiding, and all the other questions you're supposed to ask yourself to "Know Your Character".

                I made a major card for each character of the book: even those that just popped in for several lines. I used them for a bit to remember eye color and everything else that I could potetially mix up later on.

                What happened, character wise, was that over time and drafts I built, and rebuilt, the characters in my head. They went from being outlines to being real people. At that point my index cards were no longer needed.

                Then I started having plotting issues, and used post-its (Julie Cohen's course on that at York is amazing). That system helps me switch chapters around, see where things are getting long, and if the key moments aren't too clumped together.

                For geography (fantasy writer here) I made myself a bunch of maps. I can't draw worth beans but I love my little maps.

                On top of index cards (no longer used), Post-its, and maps, I'm a great believer of notebooks, in which I keep track of everything: ideas, changes I've made, things to add, things to remove, and a daily writing diary (a sentence or two, telling myself what the day's aims are). I have one notebook per project, to keep ideas seperate.

                I keep telling myself that I should to use Scrivner as a means of keeping all my ideas in one place, but I (deeply) fear the Scrivner learning curve. If anyone has good ressources for learning Scrivner in a jiffy, please don't hesitate to send them my way. ;-)

                In the end, I think you'll find as many types of organisation as there are writers.

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                • Giselle,

                  I downloaded the K.M. Weiland Scrivener Template in April, and have never looked back.  (I bought Scrivener just to use her template because I love her writing books, especially those on structure.)

                  I was in love with it all in twenty minutes, because she has set the whole thing up. The research and character development files are already there, with their own little icons.

                  You see the manuscript folder and you just started typing.

                  Don't like draft 1? Fine. Duplicate the manuscript folder, move that folder up top for storage, and start over. Decide you liked chapter five from draft one after all? Fine. Go to that folder and grab it.

                  SO easy.  There is a corkboard feature on every file and folder that allows you to make electronic index cards.  So cool.

                  I am like you though--once I have written several drafts using all the notes, it starts to kick in and the characters go on auto-pilot--they have a life of their own.

                  However, I don't think they would come to life without all of the effort and the earlier notes that will never see the light of day, but somehow made it to the subconscious, where all  life is created.



                  Earlier post:

                  I am using Scrivener in my new project and I have downloaded the K.M. Weiland template which is loaded with info and menu items from her book on story structure.  Her template is amazing. You can find it at:


                  There is SO much in here it would take too long to describe. But it is a goldmine. She also has some free books on story structure that are great.   (At the same link.)

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                  • For getting organised I use Evernote which has a handy mobile version too for capturing ideas on the move. There are a number of useful templates for it as well to help structure your ideas and character development. Apart from that, I use MS Word for the MS and I create a new version of the doc each day that I write.

                    One thing I did for my latest WIP was to write character interviews with each of my main players. This helped me to "hear" their voice, understand their backstories, how they interacted with each other and how they personally experienced with the world/time in which the story is set.  This ran into several thousand words. The big benefit was that as I wrote, there was no hesitation about how the character said something or how they viewed the world or each other.

                    Discarded chapters and drafts can give you the same confidence and so should never be seen as a waste of time or effort. I've deleted the first five chapters of a novel where I was simply writing my way into the book with a whole load of background stuff. I think the adage Arrive late, leave early is so true. The book benefitted from not having those chapters; I benefitted from the background knowledge they provided. 

                    Finally a book suggestion. The emotional wound thesaurus - Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. If you want to understand how someone might behave following all manner of emotional experiences this book offers a huge amount of help in building a character. If for example, you want to understand how someone who'd been involved in a toxic relationship might behave or react in or to a particular situation, it's all there. I've got almost the entire series of these books but this one is by far the best.

                    Great topic Rick and some interesting replies illustrating there's no single approach to our art.

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                    • Gosh - this all sounds incredibly complicated. Do you not find that all this organisation gets in the way of the actual writing? I've got quite a simple brain (perhaps I'm just simple) and if I did all these things I'm not sure I'd actually get any writing done. I suppose my issue is that I don't get much time to write, full time demanding job (which really means long hours for not huge money) young kids and a wife that works 12 hours shifts in a hospital.

                      Maybe I should apply some of the above to my life in general....

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                      • Is it more complicated than writing the same book 20 times, shifting around huge chunks that don't want to fit together because you started writing without the detailed plan?

                        Think of it not as writing a book but as building a house. You would get planning permission, hire an architect, agonise over the plans. You wouldn't find a plot of land and start stacking bricks; the end result of which would be a structure that might not keep you very warm, and you certainly wouldn't trust to protect your family

                        Do you want to write a shack, or a palace?.

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                      • You're obviously a planner, Rick, but everyone writes in different ways. I don't think not having all that metadata necessarily means you'll end up with a shack, or planning in detail will guarantee a palace.

                        There are important elements and structure that a story needs which are always good to hold in your mind, but as for the rest of it, I'm definitely a pantser. My story and characters reveal themselves to me as I write. 

                        In the words of Terry Pratchett, 'Writing a novel is as if you are going off on a journey across a valley. The valley is full of mist, but you can see the top of a tree here and the top of another tree over there. And with any luck you can see the other side of the valley. But you cannot see down into the mist. Nevertheless, you head for the first tree.'

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                        • The writing is a voyage of discovery. It's not that I think juggling so much structure is too much work, I simply can't do it because I don't know what happens in the story when I start writing. I'm sure the thought of that horrifies you, but I have tried planning and I end up just sitting there and twiddling my thumbs. The only way for me to figure it out is to write it. It's what Stephen King swears by. He has a character in a situation and he just writes to find out what happens. 

                          Knowing the kind of structure that a book needs to works is probably vital, so when the midpoint reveals itself, that's great, because it gives me a goal to write towards, but after that I'm back in freefall. It can get quite scary not knowing if I'm going to work the story out, but I have to keep writing and not let the fear in.

                          You're right that it's probably a very inefficient way to do it. Voice is very patchy in my first drafts, the sentences don't sparkle and I leave notes that say 'Write a snappy description here'. First draft I'm just finding the story. But then I love to go back and edit in all the fancy stuff when I finally know what happens!

                          I couldn't do it your way and you couldn't do it mine. A fascinating comparison of techniques.

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                          • Well, the first book I wrote was very much "here's an opening scene - this is where it's got to get to; go". (Almost 30 yers ago. Yikes!)

                            In a sense, my planning approach is still that. Only, now, each pass is adding only a thin layer of detail: a sketch of a shape, a skeleton, some muscles, better muscles, skin, clothing, texture, lighting effects. I get to do my restructuring at the skeleton/muscle stages, rather than once the clothes are on.

                            Not that I'm quite as good at it as I want to be, but the idea is that each layer multiplies the detail by a factor of about five, having started with a 10-word sentence. Which, after six passes, gives me 150k words. The next two passes are more about phrasology than expanding.

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                            • I've got a few skeletons in my closet with legs sticking out their torsos and underpants on their heads!

                              I can't quite imagine the process of starting with ten words and building to 150k. Sounds a bit like constructing a synopsis but on a much grander scale. More organised than the spider diagrams I use when I get stuck.

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                            • Hi Kate,

                              I'm very much in your camp, my life is split into 3 distinct parts - my day job which pays the bills is a very structured, schedule driven existence with spreadsheets, appointments, meetings and tele-conferences.

                              My family life is (2 girls aged 10 & 7) and a wife that works 12 hour shifts in a hospital - usually when I'm not working - means this is quite structured too in a different way. This means that the 3rd bit, my writing is relegated to a tiny corner of my life. I'm lucky if I get 5 hours a week, and what I like about it is that I don't structure it that much (my life is too structured as it is.)

                              I have rough character sketches, and a spreadsheet with a very brief plot line and I just write. Occasionally I get 'in the zone' when everything I write is new and floats down onto the page in an order determined by the characters in my story not by a plan or blueprint which is amazing and I love it - this is the creative bit of my brain really getting in gear. If I stopped to think ' this isn't part of my plan/ structure/blueprint - I'd lose that spontaneity. It's creative, chaotic and occasionally something wonderful comes out of it.

                              Everybody works differently, I get that, but the story is more important than the structure, the characters are more important than the structure - you can build a structure around a great story and great characters but a great structure won't give you a great story or characters. Just my opinion but it works for me.

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                              • Hi Datco - I'm in the same position. Job, kids, challenged husband. Writing gets squeezed in, though I do try to find even just half an hour everyday.

                                My stories are definitely character driven too, but I have discovered after much reading that there is a rough structure that every book needs (according to the structure books I've read anyway!) so I do have that at the back of my mind as I head off on the flight of fancy. It is amazing when the magic happens. I have a bracelet and book that I put in at the beginning of my current WIP as a way to reveal some character traits, and they both turned out to be vitally important to the story. But how did my story and characters know that I needed them? That is the magic of pantsing. 

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                              • I have to admit that at the start of this thread I tweaked the curtain aside, peered in, looked around, judged myself utterly inadequate and tiptoed away again. So I am quite glad to see a few fellow pantsers declaring themselves.

                                I was quite shocked when my characters starting misbehaving in my first WIP. My second was even "worse" when a bit part character refused to stay that way and ended up a surrogate father to my protagonist.

                                My third WIP was meticulously planned and I do actually have some metadata for it. As in a couple of character outline sheets I have not looked at for yonks, and a heck of a lot of research into 1950s prices. And it has stalled. Completely. My characters simply cannot be arsed to go where I tell them. I can't now decide whether I even have the right narrator. Or the right protagonist. It is such a dog's breakfast that I am writing WIP number four (pantsing, of course) and will attack WIP 3 at some point in the future.

                                All that said, I have failed miserably in my quest for an agent. I am not quite sure what that says about my pants, but I don't suppose it's complimentary!

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                                • Hi Bella - my characters are equally badly behaved, but I wouldn't have it any other way. I do find it fascinating the way they tell you what the story needs to be, and equally interesting that your third WIP stalled. Obviously a panster through and through! I have tried planning, but the ideas just won't come. I can see Rick, head in hands, groaning at our helter-skelter approach.

                                  I'm still knocking on agents doors and getting turned away too. Not giving up yet though!

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                                  • Aww Bella,

                                    That sounds like most of my first drafts to be honest - I also have about 3 or 4 stalled projects sitting in folders festering BUT BUT BUT, festering files are fabulous for dipping into and pulling stuff out of - I did that with my most recent Manuscript - I didn't like my heroines - (sorry don't like protagonist - see other threads) - mother so I binned her and pulled an old mother out of one of my festering files and she was perfect!!

                                    Writing is not easy it's hard work and there are lost of false starts along the way. Don't worry about agents until you have something polished. I got an agent once and she didn't manage to sell my story so we parted ways - c'est la vie....more her decision than mine but with hindsight we weren't a good partnership. I now fly solo and feel better for it.

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                                    • I'm loving this thread! I regularly pants my way through the first draft, then start getting more organized with the subsequent edits. I can't be too organized, because as soon as I tell myself that X needs to do that for this result, I end up sitting and looking at the screen, with X solidly refusing to comply. Damn those characters.

                                      David Snyder , thank you for the Scrivner boost which makes it seem a bit less daunting. Maybe for the next book, when I'm starting from scratch. ;-)

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                                      • This is joyous. I can't believe that I have only just found this wonderful site (and all the courses and masterclasses) and now this forum with actual writers who feel and do the same as me!  I am not a planner, I hate spreadsheets - but Scrivener saved me. I don't know all of it, but enough to cobble together a few scenes and make a first draft I outline the story very roughly, make up the characters have the idea/needs/wants etc and then go in. I always write the end first then practice scenes between the main characters. I write 1st person which I feel is easier to bond and get to know your characters. I do have to live it through them. I talk to them, ask them why they are doing things and imagine them in the room with me - telling me why. Editing is harder and I have had to send second or third drafts to be critiqued. But Scrivener and scenes, then chapters is how I do it and I will be looking into this wonderful template some of you are praising. Sounds a great idea. Thanks everyone for all your hints. 

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                                        • Great thread! Having started writing as a 'pantser' (3 novels ago) I am now beginning to appreciate the joys and benefits of 'planning' more and more. I have used Scrivener from the word go and love it (to include research, drafts, notes etc.) I write everything by hand in a notebook first before typing it up, it seems to give my mind more creative freedom, and more of a sense of intimate connection with the writing process. 

                                          Now on my 4th novel I started with a synopsis, character outlines, scene sketches etc. following the 'Snowflake method' and found it very enlightening. I also use index cards for time lines and draw maps by hand to keep track of time and space... I haven't looked at K.M. Weiland's Scrivener template yet but it following your endorsement, David, I'm going to test it out. As I learn and experiment, I find there is a place for both, planning and 'pantsing'. 

                                          I understand that writers who have very structured lives preferably 'pants' their way through a story. It seems 'more creative' that way. But I fully agree with Rick that writing lots of metadata is not 'more work' than all those rewrites... Planning can also be a very creative process and open new doors in the mind. Why limit myself to one tool if I can use both?

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