It’s easier than you think
This may be an anticlimactic start to the article, but there aren’t that many specialized techniques to writing fanfiction than anything else. From a technical point of view, the same craft that creates good original prose also apply to fanfic. Rules that make dialogue between The Doctor and Rose Tyler engaging may also work between The Doctor and Indiana Jones. Plot points that make clever use of dramatic tension between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker could also work between Darth Vader and Batman. There’s no real distinction here. Good writing is good writing.
I would say that a proper application of skillful writing technique will enhance any media, including fanfiction. But there are some things you can do to make your fanfics stand above the rest. I’m specifically not going to be going over any part of writing fanfic that isn’t also a part of good writing craft in general. This includes dialogue, plot, pacing, characterization, etc. If you want more on those you can check the other articles and videos I’ve produced. You can also check out the resources at the bottom of this article. What I want to talk about are the specific things you can do to improve your fanfiction.
It’s about community
I’ve discussed this in two of my other articles. The best reason for a new or teen writer to engage in fanfiction is because of the community. At this point in the game there are two things you need in abundance. Practice and encouragement. And fanfic gives you plenty of both, including encouragement.
Fanfic communities tend to be closely knit and supportive groups. If you post your fic, you can be sure that someone will offer a critique with some valuable advice. And these critiques often come with a fair degree of encouragement as well. But it’s important to remember that community is a two-way street.
It’s not enough to post your work of obvious perfection to the world and await a platoon of adoring fans to form on the horizon. You need to read and engage with other creators as well. Follow their work. Offer encouragement and advice of your own. Become a critique partner or do some beta reading. If you do, they will very likely reply and sub to your work as well.
And don’t forget about your own readers. It only takes a moment to engage with a fan and they love it. Your fans will become your biggest cheerleaders. Before long your modest following of 20 may swell to 200. And then 2000.
This can be a challenge to the introverted, but we need to get over it. I count myself in that statement. I’m a career hermit and that’s how I like it. But contrary to popular belief, and my own personal preference, writing fanfic is a social game. We can’t just deuce out a manuscript and wait for people to shower us with praise. We need to connect with other authors and the readers. It wouldn’t be wrong to think of our work as something of a collaboration between us, other writers in the community, and even the readers.
The important thing to pull away from this is that more engagement on whatever platform you choose can only help you.
Know your fandom
The old adage, “Write what you know,” applies here. It all comes back to just write for fun and write what you love. If you can’t stand Harry Potter, why would you write an alternate universe fanfic where Harry joins forces with Voldemort? The only reason I could think of would be to cash in on the Harry Potter gravy train and suck in some of those tasty Potter fandom readers. All you’ll produce for your efforts will be a work that’s derivative and patronizing. The fans aren’t stupid. They’ll pick up on this and you’ll alienate more people than you attract. Just write what you love, steep in the lore of your fandom and everything will be aces.
That doesn’t mean you need to have a university degree in Nerdology with a major in the Lucas Arts to craft a good Star Wars fic. A casual interest is good enough if the subject inspires you. There’s no need to mine through decades of fandom lore for a 10 page fanfic. The main thing to remember is to respect canon. When in doubt, Mr. Google is always there to help.
I have an unfinished fic called, “Indiana Jones and the Eternal Crypt.” It’s a crossover between Indiana Jones and Dr. Who. I like Indiana Jones. But my walls aren’t adorned with replicas, posters, and obscure props from the shooting of the films. I like Dr. Who, but I’m by no means a Whovian. I didn’t watch every episode and soak in the lore of the show going back to the 1960’s in preparation to write. I liked the characters and I thought it would be fun to put them together, so I did. I was familiar enough with the lore of the properties to be true to canon and merge the two canons successfully. And when I had a problem, I raised my hand and asked Mr. Google for help.
Include Easter Eggs
If you’re a fan of the property then show it. Include any obscure information you know or inside jokes that non-fans might not. Don’t worry about losing people. Remember, the only people who will be reading your Alternate Universe Draco, Hermione, Luna Lovegood love triangle are already invested and familiar with the fandom. Anyone who doesn’t like Harry Potter enough to actively search for fanfiction won’t be looking up Potter fics in the first place, so forget about them.
When I wrote “The Eternal Crypt,” I set the story just before the start of World War II. I had one scene where the Doctor was explaining to Indy how the war would be one, in part, using the atom bomb. I included this exchange between the two. The exchange also includes an original character I created named Vranea. You’ll read more of her later.
“Oh, quick tip,” the doctor said. “If you ever find yourself trapped in a nuclear blast, just find the nearest fridge.”
“Yes, a refrigerator. The casing will shield you from most of the radiation and shelter you as you’re thrown clear of the blast.”
A moment of silence passed as Indy considered his “quick tip,” a look of extreme incredulity strewn about his face.
“That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard,” he said as he continued following Vranea around a corner.
“Yes, it is,” the Doctor agreed. “But it works like a charm.”
I wrote this before I started my self education in the literary arts, so there are certain issues of craft in this passage. Maybe I’ll go back and fix them someday. Maybe not. But that’s not the point. The point is that I included an in joke here for anyone who knows the lore of Indiana Jones.
In the fourth film (you know, the bad one) there’s a scene where Indy escapes an atomic bomb blast by doing just this. He hides in a refrigerator, gets thrown clear of the blast and bounces off to safety. By most everyone who saw the movie, it’s agreed that this was one of the dumbest parts of the whole film. So dumb that I even had Indy acknowledge its stupidity. But I just thought it would be funny to have the Doctor plant that little seed in his head. Then, some 20 years later, Indy remembers the advice in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and hops in a fridge to save himself.
This is a detail that anyone who’s seen the films will appreciate and hopefully get a chuckle out of. And those who haven’t seen the film? People who aren’t fans of Indiana Jones won’t be looking for Indy fanfics anyway, so who cares? And as long as you don’t make it too obscure even casuals should be able to get the gist of the joke anyway.
Know the tropes
Tropes have taken a bit of a bad rap. When most people think of tropes, they are really thinking of cliches. A trope is nothing more than a figurative or metaphorical use of an idea. A cliché, on the other hand, is an expression of an idea that is overused and lacking in original thought. Or, in other words, a cliché is an overused trope. But, taken by themselves, there’s nothing wrong with tropes. You actually can’t even have fiction at all, fanfic or not, without them.
Every genre, even down to each individual book, TV show, game or movie, have tropes. In romantic comedies we have the “meet cute,” where the two would be lovers meet in some comically unlikely way. In horror movies the young coed who ventures into the woods by herself is guaranteed to die in ways she did not deserve. Every disaster movie has the obligatory “cut the rope” scene, where an unexpected hero sacrifices himself for the good of the group. We’ve come to expect them and content without some form of these tropes seems somehow incomplete to us.
The problem isn’t the trope. The problem is when the trope is used in a lazy or patronizing way. I’ll discuss how not to do that in the next section. But if you are going to write fanfiction, you should be well versed in some of the tropes of the genre. Here are some I’ve been able to find:
- Enemies to lovers. Two polar opposites who are heads of rival clans, families, companies, whatever, are forced together for common cause and find that they have something in common. Soon they develop feelings and become star crossed lovers. If that sounds Shakespearian, it is. That’s basically the plot of “Romeo and Juliet.” Was Shakespear a secret fanfic writer? Do you think The Bard had Chaucer fanfic in his closet?
- Unexpected Royalty. There’s something satisfying about imagining our favorite hero as the leader of a future army.
- A misunderstood character. It’s all about character depth. Fans love finding a character they can hate only to discover a hidden depth of tenderness and humanity that entirely reframes the character. Professor Snape is a good example of this.
- Sharing a bed. Nothing pervy here. Just up the physical tension a bit by making your favorite lovers or pair of frenemies share a bed or some other necessary close quarters. Even an escape pod on a starship will do.
- Crazy plots and pairings. I once read a Star Trek fanfic about Dr. McCoy meeting an alien that communicated through… vigorous kanoodling. It was an entire series, actually. There are some things you can’t unsee. I have regrets.
- The Crossover. There’s something fun about taking two completely unrelated characters, throwing them together and seeing what happens.
- Temporary Amnesia. It’s a guilty pleasure, but there’s something satisfying about watching people need to rediscover themselves after losing their memories in an unfortunate accident.
- The Coffee Shop Plot. Still cheesed off that Hermione never got with Draco? That Harry never paired up with Cho? Or that Luke never… ugh. Gross! Never mind. Just take your favorite ignored pairings, put them in a coffee shop or some other suitably romantic setting and let the sparks fly!
Now that you know the expectations, let’s subvert the hell out of ‘em! I like to use the Power Rangers for my example of subverting expectations because it’s highly formulaic. The more formulaic a piece of content tends to be, the easier it will be for you to subvert that formula. Let’s examine the formula for the average Power Rangers episode.
- The Rangers face some moral dilemma at the beginning of the show.
- The villain of the show sends their minions to attack [INSERT NAME OF SLEEPY, GENERIC TOWN HERE].
- The Rangers defeat the villains minions.
- The villain sends a monster to challenge the Rangers. The Monster usually exacerbates the dilemma facing the Rangers at the start of the program.
- The Rangers defeat the monster who grows to the size of a building. Because… Japan.
- The Rangers transform into their Zord phase and fight the monster.
- The Rangers defeat the monster, which somehow resolves their moral dilemma, and achieve catharsis.
So, how can we subvert any of these points? Maybe, instead of the villain attacking, the Rangers plan a pre-emptive strike against the villains compound? Or the villain attacks a larger target and the Rangers need to team up with the military to take them out. What if the villain loses control of their monster and teams up with the rangers to stop it? Or the Zords break down and the Rangers need to take down a 50 story monster on foot. Every story doesn’t need to have a happy ending, does it? What if, instead of resolving the dilemma at the start of the story, the defeat of the monster fractures the team?
A thought on crossovers
Since crossovers are my jam, I thought I should give some extra advice I’ve found helpful for them.
First, if you’re having trouble creating conflict between your crossed characters, try introducing an original character to stir the pot a little. This is a little controversial and some fanfic authors will tell you different. But I don’t have a problem with it and I’ve never had anyone criticize my work negatively for it. I would say that, if you include original characters in your fics, just be intentional about it. They shouldn’t be there as a way of inserting yourself or some Mary Sue into the plot. They should have a reason to exist in that universe.
In “The Eternal Crypt” that’s what I did with the character of Vranea. Her main job was to both lubricate interactions between Indy and the Doctor and to act as a source of conflict between Indy and the Doctor. I think it led to some interesting moments between the two.
Second, you can have as many characters in a crossover as you like. But try focusing on one primary character. In all the episodes of Dr. Who that I watched, the ones that resonated with me the most weren’t the ones where the Doctor was the main character. The ones that I enjoyed the most were the ones that focused on the Doctors companion. The Doctor acted as their enigmatic guide through the story. So, in “The Eternal Crypt,” I focused the story on Indy as the companion and the Doctor as his enigmatic guide. They are both the stars and they both have their moments, but Indy is the focus even though it’s essentially a Dr. Who story.
Lastly, choose one primary world to be the setting. Just as you choose one character to be the focus, choose one primary world to be the set. If you’re doing a Potter-Star Wars crossover, either have Harry on Tatooine or Luke at Hogwarts. I would have the story set in the host characters world, but that’s just my taste. There’s also something to be said for setting the story in the secondary characters world. The best stories are about thrusting your characters into the unknown, after all.
That’s it. Like I said at the start, most of the same rules that go in to making good original prose also go into making good fanfiction. I intentionally didn’t cover those here. You can find more on the craft of writing from my other videos, articles from my website and the resources I recommend below. I think the advice I gave above should help in your fanfic.
In my next article, I’m going to be going over some of the worst tropes and choices you can make in your fanfiction. I’ll see you there.
Thanks for reading.
Good writing and Calamus Gladio Fortior!