Fanfic Prolixity – Why?

Fanfic is an old phenomenon by now.  As a child I found some fanfic my mother had written about The Osmonds.  I don’t remember much but I think it was about her and her sisters meeting the band, mild-mannered hijinks, and a frog in a toilet.  But from the late nineties on, as everybody and their moms went online, it changed, refined and distilled into an ultra high speed turbo form that is staggering to behold, from my place on the outside.  The wordier fanfics routinely exceed the length of original novels, including those they refer to.

It raises a lot of questions for me, as an outsider who has been forced into proximity with it.  I’m in a small writing community, and any given writing community these days is sharing space with ficcers, ranging from those who are shy and circumspect about it to those who talk about almost nothing else.  The ficcers in my little community do not seem amenable to analytical conversation about it.  The main questions today, which I can’t get answered there:  Why can fic be written so quickly, reach such outrageous word counts, and why can it be read quickly as well?

This has become an issue because we’re doing word count -based activities, things like NaNoWriMo, and it seems like anyone doing fanfic can write two to four times as fast as the rest of us.  When the same ficcers overcome the compulsion toward their comfort zone and do original writing they slow to a crawl.  Fic literally is much easier to write for them, and I’m not sure why.  They are willing to admit that.  A common refrain is that “I was going to do something original but life is stressing me out so I’m just going to do fic again.”  But they won’t discuss the why of it.

Ficcers also read fic faster than they read original writing – much faster.  This has also become an issue in that shared space.  Ask a ficcer to return a favor and read some original writing, they say “Oh yeah, I can read anything.  Just read a 100k fanfic in one night.”  Then they fail to read your 10K words of original fic and disappear in shame for seven months.  A little research has shown me people who admit they have trouble reading anything that is not fanfic.  Some say they can’t read something unless it’s tagged with every aspect of its content in a way that lets them feel comfortable before they start.  The more sexually fixated just don’t read anything without their specific fetish or ship involved.  But why can they consume this stuff as fast as its written, which is already outrageously fast?  This doesn’t work in reverse, by the way.  As a non-ficcer, I read fic the same pace as anything written to the same level.

Why all the words, guys?  Of course, you don’t have to do any world building or character development, at least not the foundational kind.  That surely helps, but it can’t be the whole picture, can it?  There are a few conventions of fanfic that might help.  A common issue is that any actions of a non-sexual nature are extremely glossed over.  Was there a big world-shattering event that happened?  It’s written almost in shorthand, like a news blurb.  The writers are less interested in events than in character’s reactions to them, which is kind of reasonable on its face but can be really odd in practice.

In writing original fiction, every writer is going to have strengths and weaknesses – things that can speed them up or slow them down.  It could just be they’re willing to lean into the easy stuff and freely skip doing anything difficult because that’s acceptable in their culture.  Like fanfic doesn’t have to be entertaining or understandable to anybody outside of the fandom, so they don’t bother crafting something that would stand without the foundations established there.

Dialog is one of those easy things for ficcers.  There’s a convention in fanfic of “ice cream shop” chapters.  Something happens in a short chapter, then the characters process it verbally for a much longer stretch afterwords – often in a safe location where there’s no threat or sense of danger that the writer would have to keep in mind.  Chapter One – Snape kills Dumbledore!  One hundred words.  Chapter Two – Everybody chills in a magically safe place eating candy and talking about chapter one.  Five thousand words.

Another possible contributor to easy word count:  porn.  I had some firsthand experience of this.  I was writing a story in a high fantasy setting where adventuring was associated with homosexuality to the extent adventurer was a euphemism for gay dude.  The main character had inspired a revenge plot by characters that were basically the fellowship of the ring.  I was lagging on word count and for a laugh I made the fellowship have a big orgy in a bathhouse.  Just describing several characters having sex required enough words that it became one of my most productive days ever.

TL;DR:  Why is fanfic written so fast and easy?  Why is it easy to read for its fans?


  1. says

    Why is fanfic written so fast and easy?

    My first take is because it’s actually easier to bang out a thousand words than it is to edit a thousand words of text. I can write very quickly, but to get enough distance to fairly edit my own work I have to leave it alone for long enough that what I meant to say isn’t so close to the top of my brain that it overrides my ability to determine whether what I’ve written actually says that.

    Secondly, of course, with the world and characters built for you, there’s no agonizing about etymology & developing a character or location & then picking the perfect name. It’s right there, and that’s no small thing. I spend a lot of time getting the names right, rethinking them later as I find more associations and elements of character in the story as it builds.

    Third, there are popular phrases that pad your word count without being “written” by you, the author of the fanfic. Sure, you’re only plagiarizing a half-sentence at a time, and dropping it into a new context, and it’s completely understandable because the Enterprise really is going where no one has gone before, but it adds up. Take the copied phrases out of a 100k fanfic & you might have only 80k or 90k words. That’s a pretty big chunk of writing you don’t actually have to do.

    But mostly, for me, if I had to guess, it’s the lack of editing. Editing can take a long, long time and few people writing fanfic bother with anything other than mere copyediting. Some don’t even bother with that.

  2. blf says

    I’m sort-of both sorts (as I suspect many literate people are): Sometimes, like with this and many other comments, I just bash out some words. The editing is minimal (a clew is all the Tpyos offerings,) and the botched punctuation.

    Other times, be a paper or that mythical novel (as examples), I tend to be more editor+writer concurrently. This greatly reduces the volume, and is perhaps not entirely effective. I would not be surprised to learn that a bit more preparation / planning, then bashing, then a few cycles of edit+rewrite, might increase the volume and actually reduce the time. It might even be more fun, or at least maintain my motivation for longer.

    Back a little bit closer to the OP: I rarely bother with fanfic, and probably most of what I’ve read or watched is atrocious (which encourages me to continue not bothering to read or watch). On the other hand, every now then there is something amazing, or something that whilst not fanfic (as I know it) is lovingly produced by a fan; e.g., a song or drawing based on whatever they are a fan of.

    Two example songs — both similar in that they both more-or-less tell the full story (albeit obviously in abbreviated form) — are Scott Walker’s The Seventh Seal (video), and John Anealio’s Lonesome October Night (audio).

  3. says

    Back in the 1990s when I got into anime, I read a lot of it in rec.arts.anime.creative (RAAC) on Usenet. The archive still exists, thousands of stories. I was a poor story writer, so my contributions were minimal. Much of the fanfic fell into four types: “lemons” (porn), “Mary Sues” (solve everything), “self insertions” (self explanatory), and people actually writing to make a point. And then, there was a lot of trash, both poor grammar and spelling or no idea about how to tell a story.

    Outsiders to fandoms and fanfics might not believe it, but fans can actually produce some quality and original stuff. It may not have been professional enough to make money, and I don’t know if any of the RAAC writers ever turned pro, but some of it was as good as the original work it was derived from. I’d wager that was true of fanfic written about many other fandoms.

  4. voyager says

    I wrote a bit of fanfiction when I was young (also about the Osmonds as it happens!) and it comes fast because it’s fantasy that occupies their brains. It often involves themselves and they’ve imagined it to self soothe. As for the verbosity, I except it’s because they aren’t really writers and don’t know how to be concise. There no need for an economy of words. Maybe it’s the same when reading it. They can skip over a lot of stuff because it’s part of a familiar world.

  5. lanir says

    This is I think a different perspective on the same answers you have already rather than anything new but here goes. The short version is I think most fan fiction is about characters who are very well defined. The fan fiction writers and readers gets to stop treating them like characters and can begin to treat them like archetypes. The same can be true for settings, they can be treated like tropes. If it helps, you can also consider this short version to be the edited answer while the rest below is a largely unedited thing more equivalent to the wordy fanfics you’ve mentioned. It would have been much harder to write this part from scratch than to write what I put below. In fact I wrote this part afterward once I’d had time to organize my thoughts by writing the rest.

    I mostly ran into fandom in RPGs. For awhile I played online games or ran Amber Diceless RPG (a pencil & paper roleplaying game). People do a whole lot of creative things with it but the default setting is based on Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber novels. The characters in the novels are really important to the setting so they tend to appear in most games unless you’re making a unique setting. Using these characters in an RPG seems to me like it has a lot in common with fan fiction although you don’t control the interactions and the PCs are unique creations most of the time.

    I found that there are things you can do with the characters from the novels, whom some or all of the players know, that are not so easy to do with an NPC you create. As long as someone has read about the characters you can imply things right away and the group will start to pick up on it. Even people that haven’t read the novels will begin to pick up clues from the other players who have and how they react to various people they meet. In a lot of ways I feel like you can treat these characters less like individual characters and more like archetypes. In fan fiction or RPGs you can alter details about them and all you have to do is highlight the change and your audience will assume the rest is the same.

    If I were to create a new NPC I’d have several steps to go through before I could get things like this across. First they’d have to understand how to approach this character. This part may be harder in an RPG but it amounts to knowing whether the story at this point is simple (beat up the bad guys) or complex (meet The Punisher – you guys are going to have an interesting relationship because sometimes you’ll work towards the same goals and other times you’ll be at cross purposes). Second, I have to begin revealing who this character is without telling them everything right away. There has to be a process to understanding them. Third and perhaps the most difficult, I have to both allow the players some agency but reward them for using that agency to interact with this NPC and learn their story. I think this translates to pacing and allowing your readers room to make up their own minds about the story you’re telling them and the various people and things in it. So basically the things that make up a good story no matter what format you’re using to tell it. Time and effort are required to do that well. Time and engagement are required of your audience to enjoy it.

    An RPG player is a lot like a reader with a low attention span. While playing an RPG you often expect to be confronted with choices and have things to do that will involve game mechanics. It’s disappointing if you don’t get to use the game mechanics fairly often because in most games you spend a fair amount of time using them to create your character. This lets a GM in an RPG tell part of the story or at least have gratuitous violence through game mechanics on a fairly regular basis where a writer may have more control but also have more choices to pick from.

    The audience never fully knows a character the way the creator does. Choosing what to reveal and at what time is what makes a story interesting. Fan fiction that doesn’t add new creative aspects ends up being sort of like watching a half-remembered rerun on TV. You may not remember every detail ahead of time but you recognize it and where it fits in when you see it. Less engagement is required to understand the story. I think that’s a lot of what makes reading fanfiction faster for the fans but not for others.

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