Embarrassing admission of the day: I read fanfiction. It’s hard to tell over the Internet, but that word “read” is in the present tense. I read fanfiction. Today.
But only sometimes! Once or twice a year – at most, I swear! – I indulge in what I admit is a very guilty pleasure. Some of you watch Gossip Girl; some of you unironically enjoy The Chronicles of Riddick. Me, I read amateur versions of anime and children’s books.
99% of fanfiction is terrible, of course. 95% of anything is terrible, and I added 4% because this is the Internet we’re talking about. But every so often I find a fanfic I can’t keep my eyes off. It might capture the feeling of the original source, or attack the premise from an interesting and new point of view. I get to see my favorite characters come back to life through the power of words. The puppeteer might be different, but, in the best fics, anyway, my beloved puppets are back and better than ever.
Before you sneer, I should probably remind you that many great pieces of “real” literature are just glorified fanfics. Every other year the Pulitzer or Man Booker Prize goes to a retelling of a some old text; the only difference is that they use stuff in the public domain so they can’t get sued. Fanfic isn’t new, either. See anything by Shakespeare, anything by the any of the Ancient Greeks, and the entire New Testament, for instance, and you’ll understand what I mean. Although the New Testament did get the character of “God” all wrong and also was a little too G-rated in comparison to the original text. Still, points for using the postmodern techniques of using “found documents” and not one but four unreliable narrators. That’s a good fanfic.
The trouble is that it is very difficult to find good fanfic. Sometimes I go dumpster diving at Fanfiction.net, but it just takes too long. Why in the world doesn’t that site have a “sort by rating” feature or “sort by number of reviews” feature, anyway? Seeing as I am too lazy to wade through the slush, as those in the publishing world like to say, I’m just going to have to make every fanfiction writer on the Internet better. That means you. In my spare time away from this blog I teach writing, so I do this more out of habit than anything else. And, yes, I’m going to make the assumption that stories that meet my personal tastes are objectively better stories than those that don’t.
You guys better step it up.
A list of five thou shalt nots and five thou shalts below. While some of these tips will be about writing in general, most are specifically about writing fanfiction, a form with its own quirks and issues. And even if you don’t write fanfiction yourself, maybe you’ll enjoy reading a deconstruction of the medium.
1. I will not read your fanfic if nothing happens on the first screen.
But, really, I will not read your fanfic if nothing happens in the first paragraph. Maybe even the first sentence if I’m feeling ungenerous.
Listen: I’m not one of those crazy “how to write books” people who claims you have to have a murder on the first page to get my attention. However, do realize that many readers have very little time to find and read fanfiction, so you need to grab them as quickly as you can.
Again, this does not mean you need to start with a dead body. If you’re writing a murder mystery, then maybe you do, but, otherwise, not so much.
But you probably shouldn’t start with three paragraphs worth
of description. I see that a lot on FF.net. The funny thing about writing that I’ve recently learned is that a tiny bit of description goes a long, long way. I recently finished writing an almost 400 page novel which contained maybe less than two sentences of description of my main character but everyone who read it knew exactly what he looked like. My boyfriend was even able to draw a picture of him that perfectly matched my image of him. Less is more, especially on your first page. (Note: This doesn’t mean no description! It just means you should use it sparingly – to illuminate character. And do it a little later, when readers already know who the characters are. If your last name is Steinbeck, ignore this advice. Your descriptions are awesome.)
Other ways you probably shouldn’t start. I will probably not read your story if it starts with a character’s angsty inner monologue. A little inner monologue is fine. I’ll even go so far as to say that a little angst is fine, too. Maybe even great. But you need to lead up to it. It hits harder if your story builds up to angst. But if your entire first chapter consists of angsty inner monologue – well, god help you. Someone else might like it, but not me.
2. I will not read your fic if early on a character does something he or she would never ever do.
Let’s say you’re writing a fic based on a show in which the male and female leads spent the entire series yelling at each other. And they never got together even though the subtext was so there. So you say to yourself, I’m going to fix this situation. Those two characters are getting together, whether they like it or not.
Fair enough. But there are good ways of doing it and less good ways. Let’s say both characters are bitter, sarcastic characters who lash out at one another because they don’t know how to properly share their feelings. Or perhaps they’ve already lost someone and are afraid of losing someone again.
Does it make sense for these two adult adolescents to miraculously get over these hang-ups in a few pages, confess their love for one another in a straightforward way, and engage in loving intercourse? No. No, it does not make sense. I don’t care how much you want these two to bone. It will not happen this way.
All is not lost, though. They can still bone. But it’s trickier to achieve. Here’s a suggestion:
They fight. During the verbal sparring match, they both make fun of the other’s obvious crush. Sexual tension rises. They bone—but passionately. Like, hair ripping sex. But afterward, one of them just leaves. Silently. Or kicks the other out. Things are awkward between them for a while. They see other people. But then one almost gets killed by the bad guy. The other admits to him/herself that they have feelings for the other. They have a Talk. They agree maybe to be nicer to each other. Maybe they admit, in their own oblique way, that they have feelings for each other. Or maybe they just bone again, I dunno.
But they don’t get married! That would be crazy! Off the wall nuts!
Well, that doesn’t make it right.
Keep your characters in character. I don’t know about other readers, but I’ll stop reading a fic mid-sentence if a beloved character of mine does something uncharacteristic. Try to make your characters’ dialogue sound like them, too. If they curse, have them curse. If they don’t, don’t. And if they sometimes use certain words, use them (sparingly!).
3. I will not read your fic if has too much dialogue or too little dialogue.
This one is kind of personal, I think, and it has a lot to do with computer screens. When I open a fanfic on the Internet and find a huge block of text without a break for dialogue staring at me, I will run away scared. I know my eyes won’t be able to take it. If you have to have long expanses of narration without dialogue, put in paragraph breaks every so often. For my eyes.
Too much dialogue is a different problem. If a story is all dialogue and no narration, it’s a bad, weird sign. Your fic will come off like those comic strips where characters say stuff but there’s no background behind them. Except at least in the comic strips you can see what the characters look like and the expressions on their faces.
On the other hand, the Pulitzer Prize winning classic, A Confederacy of Dunces, is almost only dialogue. So who knows? Toole was pretty great with dialogue, and his dialogue was much more fun to read than his narration, so it makes sense that he wrote that way. He also killed himself, so maybe you shouldn’t copy everything he does.
4. If you overuse adverbs, I might read your fic, but I will soon become annoyed.
I complain about this “rule” constantly, because adverbs are actually wonderful. Writing teachers who claim that writers should never use adverbs never read The Great Gatsby, a gorgeous piece of writing despite the fact that almost every other word is an adverb. So I will never say “no adverbs.” In fact, this paragraph has several adverbs in it. In fact in fact, all of them were perfectly placed. Also, that use of the passive voice there was super-cool, too.
But I agree with those people who say not to put adverbs after dialogue tags. There is a good reason for that rule. Bad example I see too often in fanfics: “he asked questioningly.” The problem here isn’t the adverb. It’s the redundancy. Yeah, I’m pretty sure the word “asked” implied the word “questioningly.” And the question mark at the end of the dialogue probably implied the word “asked.”
Or: “he shouted angrily.” When someone shouts, she is probably angry. And, hopefully, you’ve already made it clear through the dialogue and narration that the character is angry. Don’t be redundant.
My other main problem with adverbs has nothing to do with a bias against them as a part of speech. It has to do with repetition. Because most of them end with “ly,” adverbs tend to sound the same. Use them too much and your story will kind of rhyme. You don’t want that. Unless you do. In which case, ignore my opinion.
5. I will probably not read your fanfic if you tell me in the blurb who is going to get together in the fic.
Everyone else in the world is probably against me on this one. I’m going to say it anyway. Why would I, your reader, want to read a fic when you’ve already told me the ending in your blurb? What happened to surprise, Internet? Can’t I learn while reading your fic that Luke and Han are going to have hot sex? Why do you have to spoil it before I even start reading?
And when the pairings aren’t surprising, then it’s even more ridiculous. I was just sifting through the 4000+ Avatar fics on FF.net (don’t ask) and was appalled to see blurbs reading “Sukka!!1!” That foreign word apparently means that the fic featured a Suki-Sokka pairing.
For Sokka’s sake, I’m going to ratchet up the sarcasm here. Sarcasm: “Wow, really? Suki and Sokka – together?! Thank God you told me in the summary! If you hadn’t warned me, I might have keeled over from shock while reading your awesome fic. You know. Since they weren’t a couple IN THE SERIES.”
Grumble. It’s like someone writing a fic based on Romeo and Juliet and saying “Rom/Jul” in the blurb. THANKS FOR THE WARNING.
Here’s the exception, though. I WILL read your fic, or at least skim it, if your summary has an absurd pairing in it. “Ron/Herm” won’t do it. “Snape/Herm” won’t do it. “Snape/Draco Malfoy” definitely won’t do it.
What? It makes me laugh.
To prove that I’m not naïve, yes, I understand that people scan blurbs for pairings so they can jerk off to their favorite fanship with ease. You Internet folks are strange.
6. I will not read your fic if there is a Mary Sue in it.
You’ve heard this rule before. Let me first tell you what I don’t mean. I don’t mean no original characters. I don’t mean no female original characters.
But I’ll be suspicious if your original character is the main character of the fic. Especially if it’s in the first person. And if the character is a teenage girl. Who is so great the hero falls in love with her.
But you’ve heard this all before. Just… avoid it, will you? Only put in an original character if there needs to be one, and make sure he or she fits into the world you’re hijacking.
7. I will probably not read your fic if it’s a crossover; I definitely won’t read it if it crosses over too many canons.
Although I personally don’t like crossover fics, I understand why others might. That’s fine. The trouble is when I read blurbs that say Death Note x DBZ x Buffy x Star Trek: TNG x Dragnet x Entourage x Gilligan’s Island. Who in the world has seen all of those shows and is familiar enough with all of them to get your references? You are limiting your audience to very very few people. It’s the problem with in jokes. If only a few people get your in-joke, each of those few people will enjoy it A LOT. But only those few people. Everyone else will make a “buh-wha??!” face and click the back button on their web browser.
Hey! Let’s be positive. There are some wonderful fics out there. How can you write one? Here are some tips, in backwards order of importance.
5. Run your story through a spell check before you put it up on the Internet for everyone else to see. Unless your fic is in the form of some text message or AIM chat, in which case I will shoot you with a gun.
4. Try to “hear” your story to make sure it sounds right. Try not to be too choppy or too repetitive, unless that’s what you’re going for. In some fanfics I’ve read, every sentence starts with “he” or “she.” That can get boring to the ear very quickly. Avoid it… unless that’s what you were going for.
3. The best fanfiction has the feel of the original source or its own style that nonetheless works well with the canon characters. Example: A fic based on the Terminator series will probably be best if it is dark and full of action, like the Terminator movies and TV show. But a clever writer could maybe do it as a dark romance (similar to the subplot of the first Terminator film) or futuristic noir, a la Blade Runner, or a war story set in The Future. A Terminator fic probably wouldn’t work as a light romantic comedy set at a high school slumber party. Unless it was really, really, really funny. Really.
2. The best fics say something new about the characters. Why should I read your story about these characters I already know? A decent answer is, “Because the show/book/series is over and you want to see more of them.” A better answer is, “Because I show something about them the original text didn’t show.”
Like what Christopher Nolan did in Batman Begins, which isn’t a fanfic but in some ways is. Every Batman story before that one harped on one big point: Batman became Batman because he was upset his parents died. Batman Begins started like that, too, of course. But it was when Ras al Ghul said, “It wasn’t your fault. It was your father’s. He acted like a real dumbass” that I sat up and took notice. Although that reading of Batman’s origin story may have been done before, I hadn’t heard of it, and neither did Brucey in that scene. That line instantly made the tried and true plot more complex and interesting. It put Batman’s dad and Batman himself in a new light.
Also, that movie depicted Batman as a ninja, which was sweet.
If you just end up saying the same thing about the character that’s already been said, it can get quite boring. Since I was fourteen I’ve been in love with the anime, Cowboy Bebop, and when the show ended I was happy to learn a movie was in the works. Although the series had amazingly well-developed characters, there were still many mysteries left unrevealed. Back-stories in the show were sketched in at best, enough to give viewers a decent idea about characters’ pasts but vague enough that fanfic writers could go crazy filling in the details later. The end of the show also ended on a purposefully ambiguous note, leaving many characters’ problems unresolved.
But the movie disappointed me. It just showed me the characters doing the same things they always did. The protag, Spike, got character development scenes that showed us that he saw the world as a waking dream and acted recklessly because of his nihilistic worldview. Those scenes would have been great… if we hadn’t already learned that in the TV show. In the end, what was the point of watching the movie at all if it wasn’t going to say something new?
A cool way of achieving this goal of saying something new about old characters is to tell the story from a side character’s point of view. That’s the trick of Grendel, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and Wide Sargasso Sea. Probably Jean Rhys was reading a Vision of Escaflowne fic from the POV of Dilandau when she went, “Jackpot!” Yeah, fanfics are that powerful.
Again, your versions of the characters should make sense. If I were your English teacher and said, “Show me in the original text where you got this ridiculous idea from!” would you be able to? Jean Rhys would be able to say, “Yes, I can show you in Jane Eyre that Rochester is shunting Bertha into the attic because he is afraid of her Creole ways.” And her teacher would give her an A, even though some parts of her book were annoyingly didactic and over the top. In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Tom Stoppard even went as far as having the characters saying lines from the original play. Naturally, they took on a different tone in the new context of the new play. You don’t have to quote lines from your original source in your fic, but it is cool to have some sort of continuity and allow the characters to reference events and dialogue that happened in the original story. That’s also fun because it’s a kind of nod or in-joke for your readers who remember those details.
1. Have a plot. I don’t care how interesting the characters are; if they aren’t doing anything interesting, readers won’t watch them. Give one or more of your characters a goal and an obstacle (aka a plot). Ideally, this plot will make sense in the universe of the original piece you’re ripping off of. I was about to make a rule that said “no bringing dead characters back to life plots,” but the fact is that I’ve liked – even adored – some fic that did just that. The difference was that it made sense in the context of the original piece. In a superhero series, resurrection is par for the course. If the character’s death in the original piece was ambiguous, why not have him or her miraculously survive? Just make it make sense.
But how to come up with a plot? When you write a fanfic, half the work is done for you, because the characters are there already. Pick one character and figure out what his or her main issue is. It can be an issue he or she explored in the series but never completely fixed, a new issue that would arise after the series ended, or, if you’re writing a prequel, an issue he would have faced back then. Once you know what his problem is, come up with a situation that dramatizes that problem.
Back to Batman, since it’s a shared text for most of us. Let’s say you decided to write a fanfic about Alfred. Why not? Alfred’s pretty great.
What’s Alfred’s problem? Well, his main goal is to help Batman save Gotham. That’s his thing. I guess he also buttles from time to time.
But there are other unspoken things. Alfred doesn’t have his own family, friends, or anything. He forsook all that stuff… for Batman.
Let’s dramatize it. What if an old flame came into Alfred’s life again? And she turned out to be working for the mob? And Alfred had to choose between helping her and helping Batman stop her? And she ended up taking Morgan Freeman hostage and Alfred had to choose whether or not to kill her?
Silly? Possibly. But it illuminates the dramatic potential of Alfred’s character. This way, your readers don’t have to just read an angsty poem by Alfred about his feelings. They can see his feelings in action.
And that’s it! OK. Now you’re ready to write me some fanfic. I will be grading your work, so make sure you follow these guidelines to the letter, unless they don’t work for your particular story, in which case you should ignore them completely. But I expect to see better fics from now on, people!
Cue Rocky music.
PS: Here are 57 pages of fanfics based on BEING IN MARCHING BAND. I’m not quite sure that fanfic based on real life can actually be considered fanfic… Anyway, enjoy.