There’s a great debate in fic writing circles about whether being a plotter or a pantser is a more effective approach when writing fanfiction. Whether or not you have a penchant for research, however, it is undeniable that every story requires at least some design. Personally, I enjoy the freedom of sitting down in front of blank page and seeing where my imagination takes me… writing by the seat of my pants. However, I am also painfully aware that starting a fanfic without a plan can lead to much more work in the long run, especially during the rewriting and editing stages. Outlining the plot of your fanfiction ahead of time not only saves you precious words (by avoiding tangents) but also helps prevent writer’s block because you already have a roadmap in place. And with so many Big Bang deadlines on the horizon, it’s important to have a plan so you can stick to your schedule.
So how do you design your fanfic plot? I like to think of a story as a puzzle — start with one piece, then build around it until it starts spreading out in all directions. This might begin by doing some research — what is the history of Starfleet? What is involved in the science of Starkiller base? Fully immersing yourself in the canonical story world can help to inspire new ideas. If research isn’t your thing, you may prefer to daydream. Let your mind run wild with “what ifs” and “imagines” — what if Dean Winchester was bisexual? Imagine if Time-Turners existed in the Sherlock universe. Take some time to wonder.
At some point, you’ll be ready to sit down and write your fic. And, because you’re a busy human being with responsibilities, you’ll want to maximize your writing time by avoiding some of the pitfalls of unplanned first drafts — plot holes, inconsistencies, dead ends. This is the perfect opportunity to start your fanfic’s design process. Personally, I use a modified version of Randy Ingermanson’s “snowflake method.” This method involves meticulously mapping out your entire story ahead of time so that when you begin writing, your fingers will fly across the keyboard and the words will, in theory, come easy.
I can attest that the snowflake method has worked well for me when writing original fiction. But fanfiction writing requires a slightly different approach because there is less exposition required — both you and your readers will already be intimately familiar with the story world and its characters. In addition, your characters’ motivations may already be firmly established in the series canon or other fan texts. (This is why flash fics like one-shots, drabbles, and ficlets proliferate in fandom.) When writing fanfiction, you have to be careful not to over-explain things or you may find seasoned fic readers’ eyes glazing over or, heaven forbid, abandoning your story altogether. To help with some of these differences, I will present a modified version of the snowflake method below, the steps I find most useful when designing a plot specifically for fanfiction.
Find the Kernel: Plot Summary
Before your fingers start dancing across the keyboard, spend some time really honing in on the purpose of your story. What most compels you to write this fic? What’s different about your story compared to the original text or other fics? Think about your main character(s). What do they want more than anything else in the world? And who has the most to lose? Thinking about your own motivations for telling this particular story will help you find the “kernel” — the central puzzle piece — that you’ll use to anchor your plot. Distill this kernel down to a one-sentence summary of your fic. Rework it until it is less than 15 words.
- Supernatural Canon Summary: Two brothers follow in their father’s footsteps hunting evil supernatural beings. (Or, the epic love story of Sam and Dean.)
- Sherlock Fanfiction Summary: An investigation into a series of poisonings pits Sherlock and Watson against an underground society.
Give ’em Hell: Add Conflict
No one wants to read a story where the characters all get along and breeze through life. An essential part of storytelling is creating conflict, whether from external forces (terrorist attack, the apocalypse) or from within your characters themselves (guilt, jealousy, unrequited love). Give your characters hell by adding obstacles they must overcome. To add conflict to your outline, take your one-sentence plot summary from step 1 and expand it to a five-sentence paragraph that chronicles your story’s setup, major disasters, and ending. (For more on the three-act structure, see “How to Plot With the Three-Act Structure.”)
Star Wars: A New Hope Five-Sentence Plot Structure:
- Setup: A long time ago in a galaxy far, far, away, the evil Empire wreaking havoc across the galaxy is being resisted by a small band of freedom fighters known as the Rebel Alliance.
- Disaster 1: After Luke Skywalker witnesses the Empire’s destruction of his home and the murder of his family, he decides to come with Jedi Master Obi Wan Kenobi to Alderaan to help rescue the captured rebel fighter Princess Leia.
- Disaster 2: Luke meets Han Solo and Chewbacca in the Mos Eisley cantina, who offer them safe passage to Alderaan; however, they only narrowly escape Tatooine in the Millennium Falcon after they are targeted by Imperial Stormtroopers.
- Disaster 3: After being caught in the Death Star’s tractor beam, they successfully infiltrate the space station and rescue Princess Leia; however, their escape comes at the expense of Obi Wan Kenobi’s death.
- Ending: Princess Leia, Han Solo, and Luke Skywalker work with the Rebel Alliance to destroy the Death Star.
According to the snowflake method, a good rule of thumb is to have “three disasters plus an ending.” The position of the disasters should be as follows: one at the end of Act I (the “point of no return”), one in the middle of Act 2 (the “mind fuck” moment), one at the end of Act 2 (the “crisis” or “rock bottom”). These do not necessarily have to be earth-shattering disasters. Make them fit within the context of your story. In a post-apocalyptic fic, a disaster could involve the water supply being tainted by a chemical spill. In a romance fic, a disaster could be a miscommunication between the two lovers. Make the conflict relevant for your fanfic.
Find Your Hero’s Journey: Character Motivation
The main difference between writing fanfiction versus original fiction is that, when fic writing, your audience will already be intimately familiar with your characters. As such, you can spend less time establishing your characters’ traits, morals, and backstories, and more time developing their specific motivations in your fanfiction. Every Twilight fan knows that Bella Swan is stubborn. But how does Bella’s stubbornness affect her life as an immortal vampire? What problems might her stubbornness present if she had chosen instead to live with Jacob Black’s wolf pack? Ask yourself how the canonical character’s established traits inform your story:
- Motivation: What does your character want abstractly? Bella wants to be independent. She wants to feel like she’s in control of her own destiny.
- Goal: What does your character want specifically in your fic? Bella wants to create an army of werepire hybrids to defeat an impending sabre-toothed tiger attack. (Crackfics are just fine.)
- Epiphany: What will your character learn and how will they change? Bella will learn this is a terrible idea because werepire hybrids are impossible to control. She will have to foster cooperation between the Cullens and the Black pack to help quell the werepire population.
Bring these questions together to write a one-paragraph summary of your main character’s storyline. To do this, you may want to follow Joseph Campbell’s concept of the Hero’s Journey, the monomythic adventure narrative that is the template for so many of our popular texts: Lord of the Rings, Jane Eyre, Star Wars, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games.
Expand Your Story: Plot Outline
Now that you have an idea of the overall structure of your fanfiction, you’ll want to expand on your plot summary by weaving in your main character’s motivation(s). To do so, take each sentence you wrote for your one-paragraph plot summary in step 2 and expand it to an entire paragraph, adding in what you’ve discovered about your hero’s journey in step 3. Pretty soon, you’ll have a five-paragraph skeleton that will provide an excellent starting point for when you finally sit down to write.
There you have it. In just a few short hours, you have a pretty decent outline for your fanfiction. Keep in mind that this outline does not have to be perfect — it’s okay if you go back and change things as you write. Nothing is set in stone. Once you know the rules, you can certainly break them. In fact, this is how “seat-of-the-pants” writers like myself help keep things interesting and spontaneous when working from a structured plot outline. I’ve officially become a “plantser.” Happy plotting!
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