A Writer's Guide to Fanfiction

by Spiletta42

Disclaimer: Ha. Paramount doesn't own this at all!


A Writer's Guide to Fanfiction

So you've decided to write fanfiction. Perhaps you've already written a few stories, and maybe even entered one or two in a contest. You posted the result of your blood, sweat and tears to a fanfiction list, or set up a website. Anxiously, you checked your email thirty times a day for feedback, but all you got was silence, or perhaps a polite but insincere "nice job" or two.

Why was your story not received as a masterpiece? Well, first off, everyone's first story usually stinks. If the readers could tell that you wrote the thing in the English language, you did fine. It was a first story. Save it. Don't change it. Don't play with it. You'll want to look at it in a year or two. Many of the best fanfiction writers have their first story proudly (or not so proudly) displayed on their site. "Warning," says the Disclaimer. "This was my first story and it really sucks."

Usually, they are right. The thing does have some merit; from it, you can see how this person has grown as a writer. It proves that fanfiction is good practice.

So tuck away your first horrible effort and save it until you've got a thick enough skin that you can display it with your other work. If you put it out too soon, it will be just too tempting to edit it, and that isn't a good idea. (If you have self control, and understand the purpose of the thing, then go ahead and put it up. Just don't touch it!)

Now, review the basic rules of grammar. There's the simple stuff, like knowing the difference between "there" and "their" (and of course "they're") and using complete sentences. Then there are the harder to spot problems, which even many of your readers won't notice, like hanging prepositions. Finally, there's the little things that contribute to the smoothness of the story as a whole, such as proper use of beats, speaker attributes, and dependent clauses. It is those I wish to discuss. I'm not rewriting your sixth grade English book, I have better things to do.

I can hear some of you now, complaining about the grammar issue.

"But this is fanfiction! The story is what's important, not the grammar!"

Exactly right. So why let the bad grammar pull the reader's attention away from the story? Anything that distracts the audience from the story has to go. There are things that are allowable in fanfiction that wouldn't be acceptable in an original work. I know that. But bad grammar doesn't belong in any sort of fiction at all.

In fanfiction, there are several exceptions to the established rules of fiction. Warming up with two pages of interior monologue is a deadly way to start a story, but you can often get away with it in fanfiction. The reader already knows your character and cares what he or she is thinking. In a piece of original fiction, you would lose your audience quickly, but in fanfiction the result can be the opposite, if it's well done.

Episode additions are often almost purely interior monologue, without much action at all. Then again, episode additions aren't really meant as stand alone stories; they assume the reader has seen the episode.

Starting the action with the very first sentence is usually the best strategy. Descriptions of the scenery can wait until the reader is hooked regardless of genre, the fanfiction reader is unlikely to require too much background information, and the fiction reader doesn't want it.

As for descriptions of the scenery, keep them brief. They are almost always boring. Don't spend a page and a half explaining exactly why the setting looks just like central Indiana. Just say that it does, if you must. Or you could just tell us that we're in a grassy field on an M class planet, because it's likely that we don't care anyhow.

A beach is a beach. An icy glacier is an icy glacier. Mention the six moons or the two suns, if you must, but briefly. The reader is there for the characters. Show them the characters. This goes for both original fiction and fanfiction.

One of the biggest mistakes you can make in fiction is to use real people in your story; fanfiction has an entire category for that sort of thing. There is an audience for Mary Sue stories within the realm of fanfiction, so go ahead. Just remember to keep it out of your original fiction if you ever expect to sell anything. Real people are boring, and so are thinly disguised versions of the author.

Nothing is more boring than a wimpy character, regardless of genre, but this especially important in fanfiction. These aren't your characters, and it's highly unlikely that they are wimps. Don't write them that way. Captain Janeway is not going to sit still and let stuff happen around her; she is going to act. She is going to find a solution to any problem that comes her way; if she fails to solve a problem it will be because she made an error, not because she failed to act.

Strong fiction characters are rarely indecisive and almost never inactive. They have goals. They are driven. They do stuff. They fight injustice, strive for goals large and small, fight those who oppose them, and defend those they love.

Good stories involve conflict. Happy, contented characters are boring. In fanfiction, however, the reader already loves the characters, has seen them experience plenty of conflict, and may very well appreciate a bit of fluff. Fluff about unknown characters is boring; fluff in fanfiction is entertaining.

Never, in any genre, have events happen for no reason. Everything in your story serves a purpose. Preferably, it moves the plot forward. Possibly, it deepens characterization. If it's short, it might just add a touch of humor or authenticity. But make sure every action, every sentence, even every word, serves a purpose.

Cause and effect are important in any story. Don't have one without the other. Don't have things happen by coincidence. Give characters motivation for their actions. Unbelievable character motivation can ruin any story, and might go so far as to make a fanfiction reader angry. "He/she just wouldn't DO that."

Be honest with yourself about out of character behavior. Don't just say "but this is fanfiction, so what if..." No. If you want that character to behave in that way, give him sufficient motivation. The motivation might even have to be quite over the top, but it will still be more believable than unexplained out of character behavior.

If your story requires a strong character to act like a wuss, and you really want to tell that story, then you'd better make sure the poor character is brainwashed using alien technology or at least heavily drugged.

If you want a loyal character to abandon those he loves, you'd better knock him over the head and drag him out of the story. If you want to set up make up sex, make the fight believable. Any emotion you want to convey needs to have a cause.

One of the most common mistakes made in fanfiction involves point of view. It goes beyond choosing between first and third person. If you want to look inside the heads of multiple characters, you'll have a shifting third person POV. Make sure it doesn't shift mid-scene, however. Each time you move into a new head, so to speak, you have a new scene. It is not grammatically incorrect to have multiple third person viewpoints in a scene, but it can be confusing.

The best solution is to stick with a single character through the scene, or at least through the paragraph. If the POV jumps mid paragraph, reader confusion is guaranteed.

Another common error is misuse of beats. Beats are those little sentences used to break up dialogue. For it's own sake, dialogue doesn't need to be broken up. Beats are needed to clarify which character is speaking, and sometimes to pace the dialogue.

Only the speaker should perform actions within that beat. For example:


"I don't know." Mulder reached for his sunflower seeds. "I'll certainly try to find out."


The speaker is Mulder. If the speaker was supposed to be Scully, you have a problem.


"I don't know." Scully watched Mulder reach for his sunflower seeds. "I'll certainly try to find out."


It's awkward, but correct. Better, perhaps, to try this:


"I don't know. I'll certainly try to find out."

Mulder reached for his sunflower seeds before replying.


Bottom line: There should be only one speaker per paragraph, and only the speaker should have direct action within that paragraph. Else, instead of clarifying, the beat only serves to add confusion.

While on the dialogue subject, we should mention speaker attributes. You know, like "he said" and "she said." First of all, don't fear the word said. Said is barely a word. Said is punctuation. The reader doesn't notice it, so don't worry about repeating it. What the reader will notice is your desperate attempts to avoid using said.


"Blah," Dylan stated. "Blah blah."

"Blah blah blah," Becca replied.

"Blah!" Harper exclaimed.

"Blah? Blah blah," Trance whispered.


There are times when "asked" is more appropriate than said. The same can be said for replied. Characters do whisper, yell, and even choke out words. But only tell us that when necessary.

In a long dialogue scene with three or more characters, you have to use the word said quite a bit. Don't be afraid. Do it.

When two characters are talking, you can go for many lines without a speaker attribute. As long as it is clear who is speaking, don't clutter the dialogue. And don't assume the reader is too stupid to figure out who is saying what. Two pages of unlabeled dialogue will confuse them. Six or eight lines will not.

Another thing which many writers, of fanfiction or otherwise, tend to misuse is the dependent clause. These tend to pop up when the writer is trying to squeeze four or five actions into a couple of sentences. Usually, the reader could care less about three of those actions anyhow.


Janeway picked up her cup of coffee as she crossed the ready room. Taking a sip, she turned and looked out the viewport. Hearing the door chime, she took another sip as she crossed back to her desk again. She called for her visitor to enter as she took her seat.


Couldn't care less, could you? Would have skipped that paragraph entirely, I'd bet. I would have. And it is entirely possible that some tiny important thing is buried in a similar paragraph in the story, and will get missed because the reader is now skimming the story.

That paragraph had no grammatical errors, by the way. It was just cumbersome and unnecessary. Let's highlight the dependent clauses, which add to the ignorability of the paragraph:


Janeway picked up her cup of coffee as she crossed the ready room. Taking a sip, she turned and looked out the viewport. Hearing the door chime, she took another sip as she crossed back to her desk again. She called for her visitor to enter as she took her seat.


You can spot dependent clauses two ways. The most obvious variety contain "ing" verbs when the rest of the sentence is in the past tense. The less noticeable dependent clauses start with "as." In either case, they move a piece of the action out of the main portion of the sentence.

Here's the same paragraph, without any dependent clauses. It still contains way too much information about nothing at all, but it doesn't have the clauses.


Coffee in hand, Janeway crossed the ready room. She took a sip, turned, and looked out the viewport. The door chimed. Another sip, and she returned to her desk to take a seat. "Come."


A little better, but still bad. At least now the most important action, that of calling in her visitor, isn't buried in the middle of the paragraph.

Here it is again:


Coffee in hand, Janeway sat in her ready room with a stack of less than inspiring PADDs. Her door chimed.

"Come." She raised her head from the dull work.


Did we really miss anything because we didn't see her carrying that cup around? Probably not.

Now, dependent clauses aren't always bad. They are sometimes the best way to express something. It is nearly impossible to write a detailed love scene, for example, without them. Here's why.

In the detailed love scene (okay, smut) the reader really deeply cares about every little action. And there are many little actions happening all at once.

So pick and choose where to use those dependent clauses. They aren't an unpardonable sin, but frequent use looks amateurish, and often points to actions which we didn't need anyhow.

Repetition is bad. Saying the same thing over and over aggravates the reader. It will cause skimming. Anything which causes the reader to skim the story, instead of reading it, doesn't belong.

Okay, so Spike wants Buffy. We get it. Even if the whole reason we're reading the story is so that we can enjoy watching Spike want Buffy, we still don't want to be told that he does over and over again. Show us how much he wants her. Let us see what he is willing to sacrifice for her, how he is willing to change for her, etc, but don't repeat yourself.

Subtle things work best in these types of stories. We aren't going to remember reading "Spike realized that he loved Buffy. His feelings for her were more important than anything. He loved Buffy more than he had loved Dru...blah blah"

We will remember how he let Glory beat the hell out of him, but didn't betray Dawn. Actions speak louder than words, and that is very true of fiction as well. Show us how the character behaves, don't tell us about it.

Now one final piece of advice: Write. Don't make up excuses not to write, just do it. Your muse very well might have climbed into your laundry hamper. Well, good for your muse. Let it nap. Now use the peace and quiet to write!



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