I wrote my first fanfiction story when I was fifteen, and I had no idea what I was doing as far as plotting and planning. It probably exists somewhere out there in the ether of the Internet, although I haven’t checked in a long time. It definitely exists in my files, a reminder of how far I’ve come and yet how far I still have to go.
In school, they taught us some basic story structure but not much about the details of how to accomplish telling one. I knew I needed a main character and a goal for them to work towards, but I wasn’t sure how to get from the beginning to the end. It took over forty stories of various lengths, from drabbles of less than five hundred words to novels of over seventy thousand, for me to even begin to feel comfortable plotting a story, and I still have a long way to go.
As I’ve dipped my toes into the raging river that is original fiction writing, I’ve concluded that the way I plotted for fanfiction just will not be adequate. When plotting a fanfiction story, I didn’t examine much of the structure of the original work I based it on beyond the bare bones of who and what happened. It rarely occurred to me to look at the why or how characters affected what happened in the original work because I felt like I didn’t need to. I already knew what happened. I wanted to tell different stories with those characters.
Later, I realized that was a mistake. I should have been examining the source in detail because it could tell me more about how my story might play out. While they praised my characters as being close to the real deal, rarely did anyone comment on the plot itself. Eventually I realized why. Often, I didn’t have one!
In fanfiction, the goal is often continuation. You want more of these particular characters in situations you find interesting. From reading and writing fanfiction, I can say that many stories, my own early ones included, feel more like babbling streams of consciousness with no proper way to reach whatever goal the author has in mind. That can work for some fanfiction writers. There have been ridiculously successful single stories that reach over a million words because with fanfiction, what the readers want is more, more, more. As long as the story remains entertaining, many readers are content for it to go on forever. That’s why we’re there in the first place!
Original fiction doesn’t have that luxury. There is no built-in audience clamoring for more when you’re a new author. No one is invested in your characters except, hopefully, you. No one cares what happens to them. It’s up to the author to make them care, and one of the best ways to do that is through deliberate plotting using tried-and-true methods.
Some people can do that while writing at the same time; they’re referred to these days as pantsers, people who write by the seat of their pants and somehow make a coherent story out of it. Sometimes, they wait until the editing process to add elements they know will make the story better, but they have a good foundation already with their first draft.
I am not a panster. I don’t have this innate understanding of what a story “should” be. This is something I’ve come to understand through all of my fanfiction writing and attempts at original writing I’ve made. At my core, I am a plotter.
My absolute best fanfiction stories, the ones that had the best success, came from a good outline with a breakout of how I was going to get from point A to B to C. With every outline, I’m consulting sources online and in physical books in order to make sure I’m hitting every point I need to in order to tell the story I want.
PLANNING MY WORLDS
Hand in hand with plotting out the story comes planning the world itself, especially because my focus is fantasy and paranormal fiction. An advantage I have while writing fanfiction is that the core canon is already there. There’s not much I need to do besides tweaking this or the other thing, putting my own spin on it.
With original fantasy writing, I use existing human myths, fairy tales, folk tales, and paranormal lore as a launching point. However, I have to make all the canon and keep it consistent. This is more challenging than in fanfiction where I’ve been immersed in the world already as an audience. Instead, I have to make all the decisions and stick to them.
It wasn’t until I began trying to world build my own stories years ago that I realized how much goes into every piece of fiction. I had taken all of that for granted when writing fanfiction. Original writing taught me it goes much deeper than the surface level I had been using. Answering one question about how you want something to work generates a dozen more that need to be answered.
I became mired down in the world building process more often than not. I actually enjoy it, but it kept me from starting stories more often than not. Part of that was lack of confidence. Would the world I was building even be good enough? The other part was that I never felt anything was “ready.”
In examining the works of my favorite writers and episodes of my favorite shows, however, I came to realize something I might not have since I was approaching all of this with my fanfiction writing mindset. I don’t have to know it all. I need to know enough to get the story started. Then I can add on!
That revelation has helped me so much. It’s allowed me to move forward with actually writing stories about the worlds I’ve dreamed of. I still try to fit in as much detail as I can during the world building phase, but I can break myself out of it when I have what I need instead of going down endless rabbit holes and never actually writing.
Writing fanfiction as a beginning gave me the space to test things and realize what worked and what didn’t. I’m not sure I would have even known I needed to learn about plotting and story structure without the successes and failures I had in fanfiction. However, it gave me more than a bit of overconfidence in my ability to plan a world and know when to quit. Overall, though, writing fanfiction helped me learn lessons I needed as an author of original fiction.
© Allyson Pauley 2021