When faced with a creative writing assignment in your composition class, you may feel a bit nervous at first. How do you write something that’s not a research paper, where your main goal is to tell a story in a clear and inventive way?

Learning to tell a story—or have a strong, narrative voice—is a useful skill both in the classroom and outside of it. You can use storytelling to write a gripping opening to a paper.

Learning to tell a story—or have a strong, narrative voice—is a useful skill both in the classroom and outside of it. You can use storytelling to write a gripping opening to a paper. Later in your college career, when you have to write essays for scholarships or graduate school applications, telling a good story about yourself will make you stand out as an interesting applicant.

But if you’re not used to telling stories, where do you begin?

Getting involved in fan fiction is a great way to start building your narrative muscles. By writing fan fiction, you will learn how to interact with and manipulate ideas—and how best to articulate your story so that readers can understand you. Your tools are the characters, plots, and worlds or preexisting stories.

Fan fiction is basically any form of writing created by a fan using characters and worlds previously created by authors. Of course, this definition is just scratching the surface. Fan fiction is not limited to the literary world; you can write a “fanfic” about popular culture figures like politicians, celebrities, athletes, and musicians as well. People choose to write fan fiction because they like to experiment with their favorite characters and stories and grow as writers in the process.

Just because you’re working with a previously created world, though, doesn’t mean that writing these pieces is easy. There is still a strong level of writer responsibility involved—much like the responsibility you have when you cite sources in a paper. Readers of fan fiction expect that when you write a fanfic based off a given set of characters and plot, you are familiar with the universe in which you are writing. Clearly, you wouldn’t choose to write a fanfic about Doctor Who if you have never seen an episode of it. Doing your “research”—as in reading the books and seeing the films—will make you better prepared to write about the characters and world. You have to stay in character and work with the laws that govern the world you’ve chosen. So if you’re writing a Harry Potter fanfic and Voldemort is your main character and you have him handing out flowers and doing good deeds, you’ll have to come up with a way for that scenario to make sense. If you disregard even the basics of the world in which you’re working, you’ll find that many of your comments will be negative—if you get any feedback at all.

When someone writes a fanfic, they’ll usually post it to an online forum for other fans to read (the most popular site is http://www.fanfiction.net). What’s great about this is that readers interact with you directly by commenting on the work as you post it. Sometimes, if you’re stuck and are battling with writer’s block, a comment can help you get back on track. This almost-instant feedback is helpful and enlightening.

Think of this feedback in relation to peer review. In a typical peer review session, you join with two or three other students and exchange papers. You comment on each other’s papers and then discuss overall improvements that can be made on the next draft. Sometimes peer review is useful, and sometimes it isn’t; this usually depends on how anxious students are about sharing their papers face-to-face with another student, as well as how much energy or care students put into giving helpful feedback to each other.

The feedback you receive when you post your fan fiction online may be easier to handle because, unlike peer review, nothing is face-to-face. Comments come from people all over the world interested in the subject about which you’re writing—but oftentimes you’ll never know who they are. This can be a good thing; it means that the people commenting on your writing are doing it because they want to help you improve, not because they are forced to peer review an assignment. You should learn to recognize and welcome this kind of criticism of your writing.

To see what such feedback might look like, consider the following example. Imagine that you have posted your first chapter of an X-Men fanfic. Your first comment may look something like this:

From SilverxxxHugs
Posted: 24 minutes ago

I really liked the creativity of this story! I can’t believe you thought of sticking Wolverine in a sewer with Magneto hot on his trail. You have to post the next chapter soon so I can find out what happens to Wolverine! If your goal is length then don’t be afraid to set up the scene more to up the word count. Tell us what the sewer smells like, or even if Magneto’s boots are strained in sewer water. You’re lacking details right now, and so I had a hard time figuring out where the characters were from scene to scene.

While you won’t often find fan fiction readers correcting your grammar, your readers will remark on the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of your plot development and characters. These are global issues—”big picture” concerns about the content of your text. These are the same issues your composition course will likely focus on improving through classroom assignments. Grammatical issues can be fixed with a little practice and good eye, but global issues—like writing good transitions, organizing well, and being clear and creative—are harder to learn, especially when no one talks to you about improving them.

Receiving feedback along the way is one of the best ways to improve your writing and, in the process, learn the important skill of taking criticism. Not everyone is going to like your writing. Some people will give you thoughtful, constructive advice on how to revise your chapters, and other people will post flat-out rude comments. It’s important to read every piece of feedback you get and then evaluate the usefulness of each comment. Don’t take harmful comments personally, but don’t discount constructive criticism either.

Remember that, above all things, writing fan fiction is supposed to be fun. It’s the one time when you, the reader, transform into the writer, tugging the marionette strings of your favorite characters to see what happens. Thinking outside the box and still maneuvering through the rules of your chosen world will result in confidence. The blank page will no longer appear so daunting.

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Avelin. “Twilight.” FanFiction.net. N.p., 7 May 2012. Web. 16 May 2012.

 

Exercise

Pick two characters you like from your favorite book or movie. Both characters can be from the same book/movie, or they can be from different ones. Once you choose, write a story in which these characters meet at a bar. What would they say to each other? How would they act? Try to be as true to the characters’ personalities as possible.