The funny thing about fan fiction is that it exists both at the top and the bottom of the writing food chain. A lot of writers start with fan fiction because they find a story that inspires them so much that it galvanizes them to experiment, and this is why they pick up a pen or start typing. They imitate the style and characters of the work that inspired them, and if they discover they like writing, they can branch out into other areas and one day make something of their own.
A drawback to this is that a lot of writers who start with fan fiction never leave it or never show their work to others because of lack of confidence or the risqué nature of the work. It’s still art, and there’s nothing wrong with that, especially if it makes you happy, but you could leverage that passion to work your way to the top of the ladder where fan fiction reigns supreme, and you can even find you a well-paying job: television.
Many don’t realize this, but no green writer gets to walk into an executive’s office and pitch an idea for a new television show. They only give chances to established writers. So how does a writer get established in television? They write for an existing show. And how do you get a job writing for a show?
You need to prove that you can write episodes for a show exactly how they’re supposed to be written.
Imitating form and substance is the number one desired skill in television writing. This ability kicks down the doors of Hollywood.
Now, obviously, if you’ve done nothing but find excuses for Kirk to kiss your self-insert character, you’re not going to do very well, but if you can focus that passion and pay rapt attention to the minute details of the intellectual property that gets you excited, you’ll be well on your way.
Television writing is about study and creativity. You need to live and breathe the property you’re adapting and know its ins and outs like the back of your hand, so when a character talks, they sound like themselves, and when they make a decision, it’s a decision they would make.
Areas of focus for good fan fiction and good spec episodes:
What kind of stories does the property tell?
I don’t want to blow your mind, but writing for The Good Wife is different from writing for Rick & Morty. They tell completely different stories. One is about a woman who bails on her cheating husband and faces the weekly challenge of becoming a success in her own right and solidifying her identity as an individual. The other is about the wacky adventures of a brilliant nihilistic scientist and his grandson as they confront the horrors of an indifferent universe. You have to understand the implications of this.
The titular good wife doesn’t spend any time in the butt dimension, sure, but she also doesn’t confront existential dread very often. As a matter of fact, most of her stories end on an uplifting note about the value of the self and self-reliance. This is completely antithetical to the themes and messages of Rick & Morty. In the event that Morty actually starts to gather a little self-worth, it usually comes from an external event and at an unbearable price, if at all.
So, when thinking about what kinds of stories your target property tells, don’t just think about aesthetics—space nurseries vs. courtrooms—think about what the property tries to say and the tone it speaks in.
What settings recur most commonly in the property’s stories?
This isn’t so much of a consideration when writing a short story you never intend to show anyone, but it’s an extremely important consideration when writing for television.
Television producers have to consider expense, so if you can write a script or story mostly or entirely set in existing locations, you have a valuable skill and a good story. Think of the precinct in Brooklyn Nine-Nine, the Bundy residence in Married with Children, the hospital in Grey’s Anatomy, or The Enterprise on Star Trek. These shows feature new locations all the time, but you should maximize the amount of time they spend doing interesting things in familiar locations.
Who are the characters?
There are four types of characters to think about when adapting a property: Main, principal, recurring, and episode-specific.Each of these characters has lives of their own. You need to understands their wants, their opinions, their bonds, and their fears. What would they do? What would they never do? What is their weakness? What do they contribute to their group?
Rare is it that there is more than one main character in a property. There might be many characters that appear in every episode or every story, and these can be confused as part of an ensemble cast and maybe even hog the spotlight sometimes, but there is usually only ever one main character. This is the character upon which the story is built. They make the story what it is, the story ultimately revolves around them, and they are at the center of the ideological conflict of the story. Think Jake Peralta in Brooklyn Nine-Nine, John Crichton in Farscape, or Jeff Winger in Community. These people are surrounded by colorful ensemble casts and their names aren’t even in the title, but they are the sole main character.
The principal cast is everyone surrounding the main character. They appear in nearly every installment of a series and usually support the main character on their journey. Sometimes this even includes the villain, but because of the typically transient nature of antagonists, not usually. Principal characters can be bright, complicated, and interesting, but they should not drive the main conflict of the story.
Villains and antagonists are typically considered recurring characters. They appear for an installment of the series, conflict with the good guys, and then disappear until they are called upon again. This also goes for certain gag characters in comedies and people of interest in the world of the story who don’t usually interact with the main cast.
What events in the property’s past informs the world as we know it today?
This may be the most important consideration when adapting a property. Knowing the “canon” is important. The canon of a story is the version events generally accepted as official. If a story is released that contradicts the accepted history of a property, it is probably non-canon. Knowing the canon is knowing where the story has been and where it is currently so you can write where it will go. For television, writing within the canon is a necessity, but often, fans will write their fan fiction with a caveat to the canon in mind. “Like the story, but if—” As in, “like Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, but if Angel never left.” Even this requires knowing where the story is so you can change it.
In a nutshell, the glory and utility of fandom is that it not only encourages creatives to start their journey and gives us a little community, but it can also be leveraged for real professional development. Like with everything we enjoy, it need only be taken seriously. So, far from discouraging you from writing that steamy Star Trek fan fiction, I encourage it. Love what you do, and work can mirror play.
Thanks for reading. As always, if you consider yourself a writer, or just want to start developing your talent, I hope you’ll consider participating in one of our monthly genre contests for a chance to win cash, a custom digital book cover, and an author spotlight interview.
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