Writing In Existing Worlds: In Defence of Fan Fic

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Welcome to 2016! I hope you all had very nice, relaxing holiday breaks filled with waaaay too much food and presents you genuinely liked. Before we get into the meaty stuff (warning: there are phrases like ‘chiastic structure’ on the horizon), I thought I’d start the year with something a little lighter. And also a confession:

My name is everwalker and I write fan fiction.

There was a time not so long ago when I might have been embarrassed to admit that. During the holiday, I had this conversation with a friend and prefaced it with ‘I don’t broadcast that I do this’. Then I began to wonder why not. Fan fic may have stigmas attached but it’s been an incredibly useful arena for learning and honing techniques. So much so that I went on to use some of them in my final submission for last year’s university module. I only started playing with fan fic last year, as a useful way to dump-write when I had an idea that wasn’t relevant to my current book (or just needed a break), and there’s a bunch of things I’ve learned in the process that are particularly worth noting. So I figured, what the hell, let’s talk about them. Because, on a blog about writing techniques, they’re totally relevant.

1. RUE (Resist the Urge to Explain)

The characters and setting are already well known. You don’t need to open your story by setting the scene or explaining personal histories because it’s understood that the readers already know all that jazz. You can get straight to the action, and this is an incredibly good habit to get into. In original fiction, maybe a tiny bit of scene setting is necessary but really you should be getting straight on with it. Back-plot can come later. The urge to explain at the start is very strong and writing fan fic has really helped me RUE.

2. Hey, That’s My Line!

Quite often in fan fic you’re using chunks of dialogue from the original book/film/TV series/anime/ancient Roman mosaic. The technique (and yes, it’s a legitimate technique) lies in expanding the script, putting a different slant on it without changing what the characters actually say (via body language, inner monologue, etc), or going deeper into an unusual POV. This really comes in handy when developing your own original scenes, because you’re then used to thinking about what the characters are saying in addition to what comes out of their mouths.

For the final assessment of the last university module, this was exactly the assignment I was given: rewrite a passage of dialogue from a play, using descriptive text, to give it a whole new meaning without changing the actual conversation.  The assignment tips said ‘you might consider issues such as when and how details of setting are given to the reader; whether every piece of dialogue from the script should be directly quoted; whether access is given to the thoughts of the characters – as cannot happen in a realistic modern play; whether the ‘fictional’ version is written from a particular character’s point of view – and which character that should be.’ I aced this assignment, and I did it on the experience of writing fan fiction.

3. Getting Under the Skin

This brings me onto the most important point: POV and characterisation. In certain storytelling media – such as film and TV – we generally can’t see inside a character’s head (except under unusual and often drug-fuelled circumstances). There is no inner monologue. We have to rely on body language and dialogue to interpret what’s going on and what the the characters are actually feeling. There is, in effect, no ‘voice‘ and thus we are a stage removed from the intimacy of the story.

In fan fic, however, we have the chance to go deeper into the characters and give them an inner monologue. Actually, it’s more than a chance – it’s an imperative. The readers have already seen the body language and heard the dialogue on screen. If you want them to spend time reading your story, you need to give them something new. So writing fan fic becomes all about really deep character interpretation, very close POV, intimate inner monologue.

This has been an incredibly valuable exercise. I tend by nature to be a primarily visual writer, putting down on paper what the mind’s eye sees but not necessarily conveying a feeling of personality. I am now learning how to write characters from the bones out, and it’s revolutionary. Well, it is to me.

4. It’s Not About Size, It’s What You Do With It

There’s a general perception that the majority of fan fic is basically porn. And that’s fair. But here’s the thing – to write effective porn, you must use words to really immerse your reader into the scene, to the extent where they don’t see ink and paper, they see what’s actually happening. Now, take away the sex and apply that principle to writing in general. Isn’t that what you want to do with the whole of your story? Immerse your readers so deeply that they feel what’s happening at a personal level? It’s not easy but there are techniques to it. Sentence structure plays very heavily into this, especially alternating between short, choppy declarations and long, rambling, conversational phrases. So does really honing your deep POV skills. The reason fan fic is useful for this is because it’s aiming for a very specific, very measurable emotional response. If it elicits it, well done – you’ve achieved immersive writing. If it doesn’t, you need to improve.

Here’s the other thing – a lot of the time, it’s not really about sex. It’s about building relationships on a page, often with a myriad of complications thrown in. Again, isn’t that what you want to do with your own characters? Maybe without the physical gymnastics but enough that your readers will cheer for them, cry for them, even rage at them for being so damn stupid. Above all, emotionally engage with them. If you get the techniques for that right, fan fic readers will tell you. And if you don’t, they’ll also tell you. It’s a very feedback-centric arena.

So, there you have it – I write fan fic and find it a useful training ground. Next week: what Homer, the Bible and JK Rowling have in common!

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3 responses »

  1. I’m actually using fanfic to relearn my writing process at the moment. I need to learn the version where you Sit Down and Write Stuff, instead of waiting for inspiration to strike out of the blue like I always used to. I’ll be doing this year’s NaNoWriMo with some ongoing fanfic projects. I very much agree that it’s a superb sandbox to learn in.

    One thing I see going round in fanfic writers’ conversations a lot is the observation that sex scenes are essentially just action scenes and writing them is very similar in the technical sense. Any thoughts on that based on your experience?

    • I think that’s an error. If you do that it’s easy to fall into the trap of ‘this happened then this happened then this happened’. For me they are about character development and thought process rather than action. But then, I tend to write very close 1POV so that’s when I go deepest into the narrator’s head. If you’re taking a more omniscient approach, I guess they are action scenes!

      • Mmm. It isn’t something I’ve sworn by myself in writing them, but then when I really get into my flow when writing I pretty much get an all-five-senses video playing in my head, and I’m just trying to channel that into the prose as much as possible. So I guess the thoughts and reactions of the characters spring from that.

        I’d have to actually go back and look at my stuff to figure out exactly what POV I’m using… it’s sometimes first but more usually third, in both cases not as deep as it could be but not entirely detached either, I think. Probably a good exercise to try to be more conscious of/in control of that.

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