Ah, fanfiction. The controversial format of (usually) unprofessional, unsponsored fans writing stories directly based on their favorite fiction. Sometimes erroneously labeled as a genre, fanfiction has as wide a variety as original fiction.
However, there are some guidelines one must follow to create well-received fanfiction. This guide won't concern itself with how to write decent stories in and of themselves, but don't think that writing decently in and of itself is not important. One should read one of the other guides involving the genre they're going to write as well as this guide.
This guide will be broken down into some steps.
Before anything else of course you choose your Work of Fiction. If you look for example at FanFiction.Net, you will find that people have written fanfics for any genre, any medium, from William Shakespeare's works to the Thief series to Bridget Jones to The Transformers.
Don't be shy to choose what you like. If you write about less known works, there will usually be at least a handful of fellow admirers who will appreciate finding it.
If you choose a spectacularly popular work, you will find yourself writing in a continuum. Thousands and thousands of works exploring the main couple's relationship and just as many about the hero and his best friend. Hundreds of that one guy who is much cooler than the hero anyway saving the day as he deserves to do. There can be certain stories or writers who are well known, who might have left a mark on an entire style or genre in that fandom. There are certain sub groups, well known terms, interpretations of canon and characters, plots that are used frequently. Luckily there are always a lot more casual fans than hardcore ones and you can ignore fannish culture entirely if you wish. On the other hand, once you are familiar with it, you can try to play around with its conventions.
You can also do a Crossover of two or more works (see Write a Crossover for some specific advice on writing these). You can even show your take on real events and people living or dead. (But be warned - if you choose reality, your work is going to be discussed controversely.)
Step one: Determine your canon relationFanfiction has a couple broad categories in how it deals with existing canon. While there can be quite a bit of overlap, one should determine which of the following they are aiming for:
- Adaptation: Taking an already existing story and adapting it to text. Generally works best with plot-thin Video Games (where some extrapolation to fill holes is fine), it can be done with other visual formats to decent success. If you want to adapt stories that are already text-based you should make sure to examine the events and characters of the original from a new angle. This is very often done by changing the perspective. What did the villain feel in the end, during her crushing defeat? What did the Innocent Bystander witnessing the event, make of it?
- Continuation: A story that takes the existing canon and goes further in its same style. This could include filling in details that weren't shown in the original work (e.g. an off-screen character's struggles that were only alluded to on-screen). This is one's best bet for a wide audience, but it requires a decent understanding of the entire work.
- Divergence: Taking an existing story and asking "what if?" on a crucial detail. What if the antagonist was right all along? What if the protagonist's parents didn't die? What if one or more of the characters was gender flipped? This format can offer a much better understanding of the canon as a whole by showing how a single change would alter the dynamic.
- Elsewhere Fic: Using the setting minus the main cast of characters as a backdrop for some new characters and their adventures. Video games, Tabletop Games, and especially MMORPGs lend themselves very well towards this. Many games like Dungeons & Dragons, Warhammer 40,000, and City of Heroes are almost exclusively designed just for this purpose. One still has to follow the established rules of the universe, though.
- Alternate Universe: The inverse of Elsewhere, this involves taking existing characters and casting them in entirely different roles and often a whole different setting. Different from Divergence in that it completely discards the main plot in the process. This is a fairly controversial format due to the tendency of the characters being In Name-Only. If writing an AU fic, remember to stay true to the characters' personalities and gimmicks despite their new setting.
All of these are valid formats and each one presents its own challenges. A beginner is best off doing some Adaptation with some small bits of Continuation to get a feel for writing within the canon. Don't be afraid to cultivate your own style; while it should feel like it belongs within the canon, it will not stand out if there isn't some personal flourish to it one can call their own.
Step two: Determine your genreThe next part is to determine the genre of the story. Genres within fanfiction are as numerous and unlimited as those outside of it, but there are a couple that are worth talking about in particular.
- More Of The Same: Telling a complete story in the existing canon with the same general subject matter, style, pacing, etc. as an installment of the original work. These stories don't usually include any major changes to the situation; instead, they merely attempt to create further adventures in a favorite series. The stories may take place after the end of the series, in between canon events, or at an unspecified time. This format is usually applied to series that are highly episodic, with each story or episode having a self-contained plot that is wrapped up by the end.
- Romance: Focusing on the relationships of the canon characters in ways the main plot does not address. Easily the most common genre within fanfiction these days, it has received a lot of flak for often missing the point. Most of these have very little connection to their canons. This is not to say that it is an invalid genre, but aiming exclusively for romance does not distinguish oneself too far.
- Versus: Sometimes, you just want to explore what would happen if Character A were to square off against Character B. This could be a crossover, or they might be two characters from the same canon who never got to throw down (to your satisfaction, anyway.) Some readers will be satisfied with nothing but a contest where their favored character dominates, but a good Versus fic ought to present a good reason for A and B to have their duel/mecha battle/cooking contest/card game/whatever, come up with a plausible outcome and show the results of their contact. Does it change the course of the story? How do they feel about the outcome? If the characters are from different canons, will they stay in contact? You'll find that even something as simple as "A vs B" raises a lot of questions.
- Day In The Lime Light: Maybe you aren't interested in writing more about the hero, and would rather explore the motivations of the Ensemble Dark Horse, or the wacky escapades of the resident Terrible Trio. If so, go ahead and give them their own story; even the Alpha Bitch has some fans, and a little Character Development never hurt anyone. For the daring, you could even try separating them from the main cast, and replace them with an Original Generation supporting cast. The biggest problem though, is that if you like your character too much, they may be at risk of becoming a Possession Sue, especially if they end up gaining superpowers or something. And even if you avoid that, your Alternate Character Interpretation may rub some readers the wrong way if it's too divergent from Canon.
- Something Completely Different: Sometimes, you just want to use the characters as a Commedia dell'Arte troupe, or have something that doesn't fit in any other area. Stories like this usually take an idea or concept in the series proper and averts, subverts, inverts or just plain messes with it. Either that, or it takes the established characters/world as very loose guidelines. Very closely linked to the Alternate Universe or Divergence methods of fic writing, but can conceivably work in any style. Some fic tend to break down into this on the way to Dead Fic territory as well. This is the hardest one to pull off, as it requires breaking of certain literary/characterization/canon rules. However, if you want to play with the story and its characters; this can take you to great heights (or at the very least, get you some interesting reviews).
Step three: Determine your medium.
- Written: This is the most common medium that fanfic creators choose for their work, and is in many ways the most prevalent. This one places heavy emphasis on good writing ability and storytelling.
- Fan Web Comics: For those with a more artistic bent, this medium may be for you. Knowledge of sequential art is required for this medium, as well as good artistic skills. Note also that your storytelling needs to be good as well — no amount of pretty pictures will save a bad story. Since you will likely be distributing your work on the web as well, please refer to So You Want To Write A Webcomic for other major things you'll need to know.
- Fan Film: Knowledge of filmmaking and special effects are required for this particular medium, as well as good acting ability for those you choose to bring aboard with you. As you will likely be nowhere near the level of money required for a big-budget production, you'll want to go on Youtube and check out the many ways to achieve special effects on a low budget. Also be aware of the risks of using copyrighted music, especially if you release the film on Youtube.
- Web Animation: This one requires knowledge of Flash or other animation programs, knowledge of animation in general, and as always, good storytelling ability. The same major caveats on using copyrighted music in fanfilms also apply here.
- Visual Novel: This one is a lesser-known medium, but which has produced some good works in general. For full details, see So You Want To Make A Visual Novel.
- ROM Hack: Popular in video game fandoms, this format uses source code modification to create your story.
- Really, any medium you can create a story in is usable to make a fanfic.
Step four: Determine your style.
- Original Flavor: Are you sticking as closely to the tone and mood of the original work as possible?
- Darker and Edgier: Or are you taking a decidedly more cynical look at the world? Showing the seedy underbelly of a happy fairytale kingdom? Or, if the work is aimed at children, simply the POV of an adult and adjusting the world accordingly? Now, be careful. There's a difference between taking an honestly deeper and more cynical version of the world and characters, and just ramping up the violence and bringing sexy back where it wasn't wanted in the first place.
- Lighter and Fluffier: Or are you going to give your favorite characters a break from all their angst? More humor, a gentler look at life, and solutions to problems abound. See also WAFF (acronym: Warm And Fuzzy Feelings.) This might be charming and delightful, but it is in as much danger of pitfalls as Darker and Edgier.
- Earn Your Happy Ending: Or, heck, are you doing a little of both? Fights are harder, the risk of death is real, all of the conflict is more gray or technicolor, and yet the moment of glory is just that much sweeter for it all? Of course, there's also the risk of Mood Whiplash and Mood Dissonance tossing the reader right out of the story if it isn't done well, just like with making it darker or lighter.
Do's and Don'tsThough good fanfiction does exist on the net, it is hard to come by. Try to avoid these common mistakes in your fan fic.
- Mary Sue: If you decide to use an OC in your fan fic, please try and flesh him/her out as much as possible. If you plan to write a Self-Insert Fic, that's fine, just don't overpower your insert character. And even if you have a favorite character, don't ruin him by making him the center of everything.
- Out of Character: Make sure you keep true to the personalities of the cast. Even if something about the starring character is being changed, it should be changed accordingly. Anti Heroes don't become sweet and nice just because they're your Draco in Leather Pants.
- Fandom-Specific Plot: If a certain pairing in your chosen fandom has hundreds of Hurt Comfort Fics with Character A and Character B, try something other than Hurt/Comfort when writing that pairing.
- Dead Fic: 90% or so of multi-chapter fanfics will fail to finish. The key to making sure yours doesn't is to understand the leading causes of Dead Fic. Before you begin writing, answering these questions may help you gain an understanding of your fic's potential lifespan:
- "Am I writing primarily to receive reader feedback? If I don't receive the level of feedback I desire, how will I take that?"
- "Do I enjoy the series/game as much as I used to? How interested in the series am I at the moment? Will I lose interest anytime soon?"
- "Do I have time in my life to commit to this? Or, am I standing at a crossroads where I may soon find fanfiction writing (especially for this series) unimportant?"
- "How confident am I in my writing ability?"
- "Do I have a plan for my story, or do I want to start it just to see where it goes?"
- Strangled by the Red String: Remember, two old friends who recognize there is more to their relationship than friendship will act differently from a Stalker with a Crush and someone who returns their interest, who will in turn act differently from enemies overcome by mutual lust. Before you write for a pairing, figure out their dynamic.
- Planning: Perhaps the biggest pitfall in fanfics at the moment is lack of planning. Many fanfics are conceived from an inspiration for a central plot twist or a really good ending. Unfortunately, the audience will never see that twist or that ending because the author never considered how they would get there, and doing so becomes a long, tedious, boring journey for both the reader and the author, resulting in the author losing interest and the fic becoming dead. To prevent "plot fatigue" from happening, try one of these things:
- Try a smaller scope. Your fanfic doesn't have to be an epic 100-chapter saga. Try a one-shot or an 8-chapter piece first, and see where that gets you. You may learn something about yourself.
- Or, if you're dead sure you want to make that 100-chapter saga, try making the whole thing awesome! Don't wait until Chapter 86 where Alice finds out that Bob is her brother and that they're actually stuck in an alternate dimension... Instead, why not plant a juicy plot twist or new revelation in every chapter? It'll keep you interested and it'll keep the audience dying to know what happens next.
- But keep in mind, there can be too much of a good thing. If it ever feels like you have to get your revelations from out of your lower intestine somewhere then give yourself a Breather Episode or three. Trying to steadily increase the awesomeness all the time can add more stress to the rigors of keeping up a long story up. Planning out and writing in arcs can go a long way to prevent the burnout that epics tend to bring.
- Be careful if writing a Genre Shift. A lighthearted romantic comedy could certainly become a chilling horror story, but have you foreshadowed the change? Is it internally consistent? Is it what the readers are expecting? Wham Episodes are all well and good, but if they come out of nowhere, your readership will likely be alienated. Also, provide honest content warnings.
- Summarize: Most fanfiction sites display a summary of your story on the index page - think up a good one! Tell somebody you're bad at summaries, and why should they believe you'll be any good at writing a story? (If you're really, really stuck, go through the fic and -if you've got a short passage that could give the reader a reasonably good idea of the story's basics- use that as your summary. That can work well, especially if it's got lines in it that you like. Also, be aware that "summarize" is a bit of a misnomer - you want to intrigue the reader, not provide a soundbite version of your fic, so go for outlining the premise rather than the plot.
- Author's Notes: Never insert these inside a story; it breaks the feeling of immersion and distracts the reader. Any meta notes should be placed at the beginning or end of a chapter. Make sure they're distinct from the story so that the reader's eye can just skip past them easily.
- If knowing a certain fact is vital to understanding the fanfic, usually you can introduce that fact within the story, not outside it.
- It can be tempting, but don't spoil the story in the Author's Notes (although it's okay to say things like "If you don't like horrible gay rape, don't read this story").
- Don't make them long and tedious. Don't feel obliged to reply to your reviewers. If you want to do that, there's a PM system. Readers don't care about your holiday in Majorca, even if it did keep you from putting a chapter up. And if you took a time out, don't waste your time writing a long and boring apology, just write the damn story.
- Some people break the fourth wall and joke with canon characters in the AN, telling them horrible things will happen, or complaining about their roles. Unless your story is meant to be funny to some degree, don't do this as it shatters immersion and drama, lightens the mood, and gives the reader the constant nagging suspicion that they are missing the joke.
- Title: Make it short and simple, unless you have good reason for doing otherwise. Obscure poetry lines do not make good titles; they are difficult to remember and make the author sound pretentious. Neither do sentences like; "[Character A] gets fucked". Awkward titles- even if they're intentional- make the fic difficult to recommend to others. For example, every time it's listed on a trope page, people with no knowledge of the fic will skim by it, think, 'That sounds silly' and quickly forget about it. note Every time someone recommends it on their LiveJournal, they'll have to spend time explaining, 'It's better than it sounds, really!' A fic can become popular if it has a boring title and a good story, but not the other way around.
PostingYou have a number of options when it comes time to post your story. note Some of the most common are:
- FanFiction.Net - Probably the single most popular fanfiction archive out there, and one of the biggest, with a fairly extensive set of fandoms and its own organizational system. However, it's not especially easy to navigate, it's not designed for particularly easy communication between individuals, and it has a fairly widespread reputation for hosting a lot of less-than-great fanfic. However, fic can still reach an extensive and appreciative audience, so consider your options!
- LiveJournal - Doesn't have the same stigma as Fanfiction.net, and a lot more pleasant and intuitive to use, as well as a lot more customizable and much better for talking to people. However, it was designed as a blog site first and foremost, and thus there isn't really one large archive of fic the way there is on other sites. However, it is possible to find fandom, character, or pairing-specific communities and post your fic, or links to it, there, which can help it reach a much wider audience - just don't spam! LiveJournal is also notable for playing host to a lot of Kink Memes, competitions, fests (occasions where people create fanworks in line with a theme,) and the like, although its popularity is dwindling slightly.
- DeviantArt - Despite being mainly for graphic art, it includes a Literature section, which itself features a fanfiction section.
- Dream Width, Insane Journal, etc - Essentially LiveJournal clones, although navigation and terminology differ.
- Archive of Our Own - Similar to Fanfiction.net above, but far easier to use and has a much, much more versatile tagging and archiving system, and offers the user a very great deal more freedom in general. It also features pages and coding to make some of the above fests easier to run (and hosts the well-known Remix_Redux and Yuletide, among many others), and unlike Fanfiction.Net, allows the user to create a category for a particular canon if it doesn't already exist. It also has a reputation for quality. However, it's noted for low comment rates (although it does have a Kudos function, similar to "likes" on YouTube or Facebook but with more impact) and something of a dearth of anime and manga fandoms, and currently requires invite codes to get an account (although they're not necessarily too hard to find, with a bit of Googling.)
- Wattpad- is a place to discover and share stories: a social platform that connects people through words. It is a community that spans borders, interests, languages. With Wattpad, anyone can read or write on any device: phone, tablet, or computer. Originally started as a place for original fiction, the amount of fanfiction has grown over the years. The site encourages fanfiction as equivalent to original fiction in its contests and popularity ratings. They have fanfiction writing contests and fanfiction challenges like #JustWriteIt.
- Fandom-specific archives - These are Exactly What It Says on the Tin. We at TV Tropes have links to several of them here, and until Wiki Magic compiles a full list of the best-known, Google is once again your friend.
- SMWCentral allows Mario works of all types, but has strict quality control standards.