Author has written 13 stories for X-overs, Worm, Chronicle of the Black Company, Naruto, Harry Potter, Fate/stay night, Star Wars, and Katekyo Hitman Reborn!.
Tips for writing fanfics:
I’m a pretty good writer, and hopefully still getting better. I got good through a LOTof practice and infrequent tips that helped me grow. I want to encourage anyone willing to try writing, and I’d like to help you all skip some of my many early mistakes. These are my rules for writing fanfiction. Obviously I cannot guarantee anything, often enough stories get lost in the shuffle. There are millions of them after all, but if you can follow these rules, well you’ll be off to a better start than most.
1: Every time you change speakers you need to hit the enter key twice. If you have more than one person speaking in the same block of text people will get confused and frustrated.
“What fine weather we're having,” said person A.
“The hell are you talking about, moron? There's a freaking monsoon going on!” shouted person B.
So many people, myself included, don’t do this when first starting out. Don’t make that mistake, or at least don’t continue to make the mistake now that you know about it.
2: Your character's dialogue needs to match their age and emotions. For example, older authority figures use longer words and often have a more calm and measured form of speech. Younger characters should use smaller words, have occasional trouble articulating what they want to say and be emotional and impulsive. Teenagers are often blunt and prone to cursing. Angry people will be less articulate, and swear more, people in love will say cheesy crap, and so on. None of these are set in stone, but keep them in mind as guidelines.
If you can’t imagine yourself or anyone you know (someone age and temperament appropriate) saying something the way you have it written, it’s probably because no one would. Sentences like that are jarring for your readers, and they will resent it.
Try reading what you have written out loud while editing. It is a good way to catch all kinds of mistakes, but particularly good for finding awkward wording and dialogue.
3: Tense issues! While speech can be in past present or future tense depending on the topic, narration should always, or almost always, be in past tense. Why? Apparently it's sort of a socially ingrained holdover from old school storytelling. You can narrate in present tense, it's just less common. Either way, stick to one or the other. Do not go back and forth between past and present tense for narration.
4: Dialogue is not just a way for you to push the plot along. Dialogue is the primary means by which your audience gets to know your characters, unless they are privy to the characters thoughts, but even then dialogue is important. So when you go to write your dialogue keep in mind these are people, they get sidetracked, topics wander, they might banter or joke a bit. It should not just l be a clinical bulleted list of the things that need to be said for the plot to start moving the direction you want. Give them a bit of room to breath and grow, they need to feel alive.
5: Monologues! I cannot stress this enough. Overusing monologues is annoying and poor writing. That does not mean you can’t use them. It means you have to use them carefully, and if possible, sparingly.
Breakup explanations so they are shared between characters. Have another character interrupt the primary speaker with questions. Or if it’s a angry rant have the other person start shouting back, if appropriate. Turn it into an argument. Remember everyone wants to get the last word in, so your main/favorite character has to work for it like everyone else.
Or, break the monologue up into multiple smaller chunks by stopping to describe what the speaker and other characters are doing. Describe body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. All of these things can change multiple times over the course of a lengthy explanation/rant, and describing those changes as the monologue progresses will make it feel more real.
6: Describe tone of voice, body language, and facial expressions. Yes, I know I just said it. I’m saying it again because it is that important. You know exactly how you want that character to look and sound. Your readers won’t. The dialogue will give them clues, but taking the time to describe it will make things clearer. You are painting a never ending series of pictures, or describing a movie with stage directions step by step. The more details you include the clearer your audience's picture will be. Lighting, ambient sounds and smells, the layout of rooms and buildings are all things you can include to give your readers a better image of what is going on.
7: Do not follow every piece of dialogue with ‘person exclaimed.’ I’ve seen that a few times. People don’t want to use ‘Person said’ because it is bland, so everything becomes exclaimed. Only it doesn’t work that way because normal conversation is not constantly exclaimed.
Be diverse; chastised, joked, pointed out, deadpanned, teased, flirted, called out, shouted, whispered, mumbled, grumbled, scoffed, seethed, and yes, said and exclaimed. These are the ones I thought up off the top of my head. There are plenty of others. Be diverse and descriptive.
8: Use grammar and spell check. Don’t ask me to explain grammar and spelling. I’ve always been bad at both, there are mountains of books out there on the subject and honestly word has gotten to the point where it catches most things. If you can find one get a beta reader to check your work as well. If not, try letting it sit a couple days before doing a final edit so you look at it with fresh eyes. Reading what you have written out loud does in fact help a lot.
9: Run on sentences are bad. So make sure to practice proper use of periods and commas. I had a lot of trouble with this early on. Still do really. But breaking up those lengthy sentences really does make for better writing. The same can be said for paragraphs. There should not be fifteen sentences in a paragraph.
10: Practice. Practice, practice, and still more practice. It is the only way you will get better. If your first few attempts suck and the readers are assholes don’t let it get you down. Take any helpful advice, ignore the rest, and try again. Keep writing, keep improving. It’s the only way to get better.
11: Everything in moderation, including moderation! Basically? Too much of anything can kill your story dead as a door nail.
It is common practice for main characters to have had shity lives. It makes the audience sympathetic. That does not mean you should just list off every horrible thing you can think of in a paragraph or two and call it backstory. You’ll sound like an idiot, and it’ll be obvious what you are trying to do. You need to be a subtle with that sort of thing. Hint at it, draw it out. Not only that, it is possible for them to have a shitty past without every possible horrible thing happening to them.
It is also more realistic. Remember the more crap you have heaped on them the more broken they should be. So life can’t completely shit on them if you want them to function in normal society.
The same concept holds true in other ways as well. Your character should need time and practice to build up their abilities, not come straight into the story able to beat all challengers. Some people manage to pull off overpowered main characters, but it’s usually a balancing act where combat is not the main focus, or the main character is holding back for some reason, only putting in the effort each challenge requires.
Remember dramatic tension is what makes combat scenes addicting. You want the audience worried for your protagonist, or at the very least questioning what insane bit of brilliance they will have to pull in order to win.
You want to ship your main character with someone? Go for it. But it is unrealistic to ship them with half the cast. It’s fan service plain and simple, and it detracts from the quality of otherwise solid stories far too often. Multi partner relationships are uncommon for a reason. You can’t just say, oh that doesn’t apply here because 'Harry/Naruto/whoever' is such a perfect guy, and the girls are all bisexual, or they don’t mind sharing him. They have to work for it! They have to fight, and reconcile, and beat out some actual guidelines! Honestly, even if it’s just two people in a relationship they still need to work for it! Love is hard! So unless you are writing a sappy love novel there damn well better be some bumps in the road!
12: People suck! We say this all the time, but rarely if ever do we actually consider the implications. We are all flawed human beings, no one is perfect, and that damn well includes your protagonist! I can not tell you the number of stories I have immediately stopped reading, or barely stuck with long enough to give them a chance, that start off with a couple thousand words of basic background, and an info dump on why the protagonist is infinitely superior to everyone else in terms of abilities, and or personality.
They can’t be perfect, so keep those flaws in mind! Drag them up now and again to remind readers, and if you are good and creative enough use them to drive the plot. Let them get baited into things, boasts they can’t quite backup, flying into a rage and attacking head on instead of intelligently, things like that.
Keep in mind that the reverse is also true. No one actually considers them self to be the villain, they always have their own motivations and/or delusions. Basically don't write poorly thought out manga villains. It's give and take with antagonists, naturally the protagonist should win in the end, but if it isn't a struggle, if the hero is never on the back foot, then where is the tension? Your antagonists should be engaging in their own way, not just someone put in place for the protagonist to crush or brush aside.
13: Dare to be different! This is my most central and important rule. This is fanfiction, you are already copying most of a story from the original. You need to make changes. If every fanfic just retraced the same steps it would be very, very boring. Every fictional universe offers possibilities that are only limited by your own imagination and creativity.
When you take into account the ability to add characters from other universes, invent new original characters, add or swap powers and abilities, and the option to outright combine two different fictional worlds into one cohesive setting? There truly are no limits to what you can create!
So be bold, creative, and innovative! Try things no one has tried before! Spit in the face of convention, laugh like a mad person as canon crumbles around you! Make the fandom sit up and take notice as you do something they haven’t seen before!
Have some examples!
Ship pairings that people tend to ignore! Naruto and Tenten. There’s only a year in age difference and they both have a thing for overkill, and the shared tragedy of being orphans! Why is that almost never touched on as a possible relationship?! How about Harry Potter and Katie Bell? Again only a year of age difference, and they are on the same sporting team! They are basically required to spend hours in close proximity to each other every week! Potential just sitting there ignored in favor of more common pairings. Why? Because people are afraid to invent a personalities for them? Hasn’t stopped people from inventing personalities for dozens of other girls who only got passing mentions in their canon universes, so why should it stop you?
Change the setting. Skitter is an amazing protagonist, but her home setting of Brockton Bay in Worm has been done to death, why are there so few fics involving her in other settings?! She can be naturally added to any superhero setting without any kind of dimensional portal shenanigans! Or with them, she encounters enough at enough points in the timeline for it to be a non-issue! Either works!
Change the tone! Some of the best fics you will find are the ones that completely change the tone of the original story!
KHR was comedy that transitioned into stereotypical anime combat. There are several amazing fics that fandom has spawned where they play the mafia angle seriously instead of silly! And they are amazing! Some of them rank among the best fanfics I’ve ever read.
Harry Potter was always a bit serious for a kids story. At least once you dig past the surface. Some people have exploited that fully with the evil chess master Dumbledore, which works and people love. Others go the opposite direction and write goofy magical crack fics which will have you in stitches. Both changes in tone, both highly successful.
Redeem something that is utterly crap by putting it to good use!
Pick something you watched or read that you absolutely hated. Figure out what you hated about it and toss that out the window. Salvage what you can but otherwise just start fresh. You can make most anything good, you just need to keep an open mind, and recognize when the canon author was being an idiot.
You want to write fanfiction? You want people to read your fanfiction? Then put on your hypno glasses, down a half bottle of whiskey, stop taking your ADHD meds, stand on your head and look at things sideways and ask yourself ‘what if’ until you start asking ‘why has nobody done this already?!’ Then. Write. That!
Those crazy half mad ideas that flip everything on its head, ignore swaths of the original in order to get a fresh spin on things, or just make weird leaps of logic might not always work out. But if nothing else you will at least have people paying a bit more attention.
14: Having just expanded on the wonders of changing things this must follow as an equally important lesson. You need a plausible explanation for EVERYTHING. Every major decision your characters make, every random plot twist, every butterfly your early changes may have spawned to play havoc with the canon time line, every change to canon personalities that people will shout OOC about, all of it NEEDS to be believable. Because if it is not adequately explained people will not accept it. So think everything through carefully.
Readers may cut you some slack on minor things you failed to explain because they find the story too enjoyable to let those details ruin it. That is called Suspension of Disbelief. But there are limits to how much slack most people are willing to give you. Good crack fics for example can get away with almost anything if done right because people start reading knowing they are not supposed to take them seriously. Fics that take themselves very seriously on the other hand, the kind that give the characters as much depth as possible? They get almost no slack from the readers because they come to expect realism from the story and anything that seams out of place is extremely jarring to them. You can write whatever you want, but if the reader does not believe that what you have written makes sense and you keep right on going... They probably will not stick around to keep reading.
That being said, there are often plenty of things you can play with that won't have people up in arms. If canon failed to expand on certain aspects of the setting and you decide you want to get creative with them no one is really going to complain. It's why the civilian council shows up in so many Naruto fics for example. We have minimal details about how the village is run, so throwing in a civilian council heavily biased against Naruto makes for cheap and easy antagonists for him to contend with outside of combat.
Minor characters, especially the ones that we only have names for; Daphne Greengrass, Susan Bones, etc. Yeah, you can go ahead and build them from the ground up and make them into whatever you want or need. You can also build up a backstory for established characters as a way to not only explain why they act the way they act. Even better you can invent a backstory to justify changing someone's actions at certain points in canon.
Look... it is your story. It is ALWAYS your story. If people are bitching and dropping the fic because you aren't shipping their one true pairing? Fuck them. So long as the pairing is believable you can ship who you like. If people are upset and dropping your story because you changed the tone and it's not the same feel as canon? Fuck them. There is nothing wrong with changing the tone and there are other people who will likely find it amazing. But if people tell you that you've got a major plot hole, or that someone is acting completely out of character, or that something just does not make sense, or is not believable... Do yourself a favor and try to think it through. See if you can explain it them rationally without hand waving anything. If you can't do that... then maybe you need to consider the possibility that you made a mistake. DO NOT cave to every little thing. Some readers will just never be happy, or will reject your every explanation, and trying to cater to them is a terrible idea, but don't ignore the reasonable people asking reasonable questions and making reasonable suggestions. Think it through for yourself before agreeing because it is YOUR story not theirs, but do not just ignore it.
15: Have an ending in mind. If you don't know where you are going, then how do you plan to get there? I honestly believe this is the source of a lot of aborted fics. People with a cool idea who never stop to ask how they are going to handle the big enemies/problems and just rush off to start the fic. Then they get stuck part way through and the story dies. So have a beginning, have an ending, and at least have a vague idea of what you want to happen between start and finish.
15 Revised: Right rule 15 is... I would say it's the least critical of my suggested rules. After a long stretch of writers block I've been having a lot of fun just launching into a few fics without taking the time to consider everything. I just sat down and let the characters I understood interact with one another and waited to see where that took me. Writing without any agenda or goal in mind has produced some really organic dialogue, and some very original plot. It's not always great, but it is rather interesting. So I don't know what to recommend here. Try both, try striking a balance between the two, find a mix that works best for you.
So yeah, there you have it. That is my advice for anyone trying to write a good piece of fanfiction. If you like these rules and want to share them with other people please by all means feel free to link or repost them. If you want to make changes you feel are important or make things clearer, or you have a rule you want to add then go right ahead. If you have your own suggestions for how writers can think outside the box and be original I outright encourage you to edit that section. Best of luck, and have fun!
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