Friday, January 9, 2015

How To Fanisode: Or, The Guide To Writing Good Fanfiction

Really, that's all there is to it... No, honestly, it's okay!

Today on "Leslie's How-Tos", I bring you the fanfiction edition. I am still relatively "new" to "fangirling," having never considered indulging the budding fantasies that happened in my head when I watched or read something that inspired my imagination till about 2010, when I first plotted the "Telmar Trilogy." It took quite a bit more research than I had ever spent on a non-academic project to that point, but it brought out the part of me that not so much cared about "getting it right" as I did not wish to infringe on what someone had already written. 

I take my fanfiction very seriously. I have always made a point to infringe on canon as little as possible. In the Telmar Trilogy, I was not so much trying to make fanfiction out of the mainstream, popularized theatrical version of this fantasy world and the characters it contained, as I just admired Lewis so much for his creativity and genuinely desired that his work continue that the resulting trilogy became a fitting tribute so closely matching his style that it may have confused some readers who didn't know Lewis didn't write it himself. (All I know is I really did try; I do not presume to affirm whether I succeeded or not!)

Not long after I finished that, I was watching a TV series that I rather enjoyed (in the "I have seen every single episode" kind of way) and I began to wonder, "What if, down the road, somebody took the adventures I write about in my (as-yet-unpublished) books and made an episode out of that?" I had finished the second season (I believe it was) and was waiting for the third season to begin, and so I just sat down and borrowed characters and "props" from my own story, and tried to sort the details in a way that would fit both the show and a possible timeline for the story I was borrowing from. Being unpublished and my own work, I could basically change something if I wanted it to be different in the "show's" version. My main concern was how well it would fit as an episode of the show, within the show's existing arc and canon. What I ended up with was the first "fanisode" of what has now grown to almost two dozen such works, all written for about twenty different shows that I have followed over the years since... Well, basically, since 2012. And not one of them truly violates canon (at least, not the state of the canon at the time; a lot of my "fanisodes" quickly resigned to "alternate universe" status when the actual writers of the shows (obviously) ended up taking the arc and/or characters in a different direction than I did. (Or cancelled the show altogether... Still miffed about that....)

Before I delve too deeply, let me just define this strange new term that I can proudly say that I made up. (Okay, I guess according to Google this is not true... But at least nobody has put it on Urban Dictionary yet!)

The term "fanisode" is basically a combination of "fanfiction" and "episode", and that's basically what it is: a work of fanfiction oriented and presented like a narrative "adaptation" of an "unaired episode." Deeper than a cheap "one-shot" fluff-fest, and yet not quite like those thesis-level fanfictions that seem to drag on and on indefinitely with little point or purpose but to follow the character around in quite a different format than the weekly episodes where we first saw them. 

Fanisodes differ from straight fanfictions in their simplicity and length. The Telmar Trilogy was an actual fanfiction, which meant I had plenty of time to stretch the story out and make it more of a literary work like the originals. In the same way, I wanted to work the story arcs of my "fanisodes" in much the same pattern/framework that I saw in the style of the original show's episodes. How does one simplify an idea to fit the way someone else writes, using someone else's character and world? Well, I do know that whatever I am reading (or in this case watching) tends to influence the way I write; fanfiction is just my opportunity to let the mindset of the actual writers and the way they view the stories in their shows kind of overtake me while I embrace it fully without fear of appearing like I am totally "ripping off" these shows; of course I am ripping the show off, that's what fanfiction allows you to do!

That being said, how does one go from novels and single scenes or scattered conversations to a plot as simple as a single television episode? Really, in practicing writing one, I have discovered that writing a fanisode is as easy as writing an essay or a story. There are at least five guidelines or "rules" that I can perceive, to make your fanisode so "realistic" that fans would believe that it could have actually aired.

1. Set the Stage

First things first, you have to know where in the timeline your fanisode will stand. As any good fanfiction writer knows, your place in the overall timeline of the show will affect which of the show's characters are present and how they interact and respond in different situations. To take a character that someone else has already created and do my own thing with him or her feels (to me) like painting over a masterpiece. I just want to borrow the characters and setting, not rewrite the whole thing! 
I call it "plugging in" my own story. I did it with the first two fanfictions I wrote, one for Warehouse 13, and one for Eureka. (Both Syfy network shows that ended a few years ago) Both times, as well, I ended up setting my fanisode at the time between seasons, which reflected where the show actually was at the time. For Warehouse 13, I did end up keeping on a character who had just been preparing (I thought) to leave the show, because I really liked that character and thought the show was trying to replace her. I was so mad that I purposely left out whatever the new character was going to be, and treated it like an episode separate from the show, but still very much in the style of an average episode. As it turned out, she didn't actually leave, so it was all good. 

The second phase, once you've figured out the approximate timing of your fanisode, is to then plot out how the fanisode is going to go. Basically a bulleted list of all the ideas you want to include, all the things you want to "see" in the course of the story. This is the part where you make sure you have a beginning, middle, and end. If you're adding to the lore or crossing over, this is the part where you make sure your idea holds water.
When I first got the idea to add a fantasy story of my own creation to the lore of Warehouse 13, I told myself that I would first make a plan of how the fanisode would go. If it fell apart at any point, I would either try to resolve it, or I would not write it at all. (I was still new and didn't have an outlet for this... I seriously didn't really know about at that point!) I got from the beginning of a plot to the end without issue, so I went ahead and started writing.

2. Canon the Context 

Once you have a plan, and a solid plot line in itself, check the canon of your story. "Canon" within a fandom is basically the accepted boundaries and rules or guidelines within which it functions, the established character personalities and the way it works within its own premise.
Sometimes a TV series is based on a literary work or series. So when you're writing your fanfiction, how closely are you following the canon?
When writing the Telmar Trilogy, I had two sources to pick from, and while I did choose things like character portrayals and a few "tweaks" from the movies, it was largely based on the book series. I had read that series so many times growing up that it was relatively easy to remember how things went, and fill in what was going on "behind the scenes of the book"... without messing with the events that the narrative already established.
For all my other "fanisodes" it was simply a matter of making my characters and any additional monsters and whatnot fit within the scope that the show had already established. Each new setting I crafted for the characters, all the references to prior events in the show were carefully tailored to the established canon. Fanfiction already has somewhat of a bad reputation for its "looseness", being used by starry-eyed romantics to vicariously live out their "fluffy" fantasies. I take it seriously; I don't "ship" what hasn't already been "shipped", and I don't change any part of the existing timeline to suit my own ideas. A good fanfiction will be a sort of side supplementary storyline, not a hostile takeover of the plot, world, and characters that weren't yours to begin with. Make your context consistent with the canon, and you have the makings of a strong fanisode.

3. Align the Arc

Once you've established "canon consistency" and "setting stability" it's time to figure out the plot arc of your fanfiction. 
The arc within an episode differs between shows, but it usually takes just a few episodes to figure out how an episode works in that show. Aligning the story arc of your fanisode with a typical episode of the parent show will have a twofold benefit: it will keep your fanfiction from getting too long and way out of hand--and it will make other followers of that fandom very happy.

Most fanfiction platforms allow the formation of "chapters." The way I picture it, each chapter break should come where the commercial break would happen if your fanisode actually aired. The beginning of the episode is all about establishing a baseline for the characters, and perhaps teasing an impending problem the characters will have to solve. Then the problem starts to increase, bringing the characters into turmoil till the climax near the end, and just a few chapters to resolve the whole thing and bring it to an end. The average television episode has about five commercial breaks, which gives you five "chapters" (with room to expand each of those as necessary) in your fanisode: One chapter for the introduction of the setting and the impending conflict, two chapters to bring the conflict out in the open as the characters find out more about it, one chapter for the climax as the characters confront the conflict, and one chapter to close everything off.
My fanfictions end up anywhere from ten to twenty chapters long, but since I have already plotted the whole thing out, the end is always in sight. A resolution is key for keeping your fanisode a reasonable length. Write it like your readers are watching the clock while this happens. By the end of that "hour", you had better have your resolution well in hand, or people might lose interest. If by this point your great idea is falling apart, take a step back and tweak the plot some more before you get yourself stuck.

4. Legitimize the Lore

As you plan and write your fanisode, and you decide to add in weapons, creatures, artifacts, diseases, etc. (depending on the sort of show you're writing for), it is imperative that you observe how the show goes about introducing new things. The closer you can mimic that, the more credibility your fanisode will have.
When writing the Warehouse 13 fanisode, I knew that the "artifacts" needed to be something made of metal, and the show had a distinctly steampunk-type vibe to it. My story, on the other hand, had lore that was more fantasy-based, and was also set in the modern day. Therefore, in order to get my idea to fit the lore, I had to hearken back to a smaller item that I had introduced in the story for a minor part, and give that a bigger role because it worked perfectly into the style of lore already established by that show.
In a Grimm fanisode, I crafted a creature along the lines of the sort they had on the show, a creature with connections to mythology and urban legend. The legend I had chosen was the bookworm, so the fanisode sort of centered around the worm itself and its effects, while the creature responsible for the worm just had a name slapped on with little significance attached. When followers started asking for a sequel, I then figured out that if I tweaked the details just slightly, I could give the creature itself more of a history and a famous figure to attach to it (Scheherazade, in this case... it would make sense that she was a deadly Persian Wesen capable of mind control by the stories she told, wouldn't it?) and once again, the lore I had fashioned was completely legitimized by the established canon itself.

If your goal is to write a good fanisode that readers will enjoy for its appropriateness within the fandom, you'll want to make sure that the things and characters you introduce still fit what already exists.

5. Preserve the Portrayals

One of my pet peeves of fanfiction is when the characters from the show end up as cardboard clones of someone else entirely. For heaven's sake, keep the characters in character when you write! There are shows that I enjoy very much and I follow, but I will not write fanfiction for them because I feel that I cannot quite capture the spectrum of the characters as they are being portrayed by the professional actors. Then, there are also a few fanfictions that readers have liked, but they feel uncomfortable to me because I know that I have gotten the portrayal wrong on some characters, which results in an overall "bad feeling" on the part of true fans. Nothing is worse in a fanfiction than a character who seems to be portrayed by someone other than the original actor.

You may find that other fans have very different "favorite characters" than you do. If you cannot treat all the characters fairly, and not just the ones you like, then perhaps you might work on that before you go straight to publishing your fanisode. Bear in mind that these characters aren't "yours" to do with whatever you like. Someone else went through the effort of developing them. The least you can do is respect that effort and preserve the integrity of someone else's work. Most of the time, it will still work in your favor, because the readers will feel like they're "watching" (as I have said before) a never-before-seen episode of their favorite characters, and having a character with a pre-established personality will often help simplify the storyline, as some of the more extreme situations are at once taken off the table.

If and when this fanisode you're writing has passed muster on all five counts, you may find that fans are more drawn to fanfiction of this nature. It might be as long as fifteen chapters, or it might be as short as seven. For all my emphasis on writing "full-length episodes" for fanfiction, I have actually done at least one "one-shot", in which I actually changed a few key events of what actually happened in a show, to fit more with what I thought they should have done. Still, I made an effort to preserve the characters as they had been established in the show, and I made sure that what I wrote wasn't completely irrational--it still fit within the context of the canon of the original source, not the re-organized adaptation--so at least most of the five guidelines I've laid out still works, whether your fanfiction is one chapter or many.

At the end of it all, writing fanfiction is a fun, worthwhile way to hone your writing skills in a pre-established environment--and a way to keep the fun and excitement of your favorite shows going long after they're gone. Go forth and write well! 

*If you've already written a fanfiction that you believe fits the above guidelines that you think I might enjoy, please let me know in the comments!*