(Fanfiction, in case you didn’t know, is just what it sounds like: fiction written by the fans of a book, a film, or a TV show that uses the same characters and/or setting as said book, film, or TV show.)
The other day I was talking with someone in one of my classes about fanfiction and the fact that some fanfiction (50 Shades of Grey being the best-known example at the moment) goes on to become published work under new character names. She said she didn’t think this was so good, and that fanfiction really ought to stay fanfiction. I think she had a point, but I also think that fanfiction has a place in the world of a professional writer. After all–as I pointed out to her–is writing for television not just glorified fanfiction?
One of the ways to get started as a TV writer is by writing a spec script of a currently existing show. A spec script should be one that can fit anywhere in a given season without altering the plot (no major developments, no killing off characters, that sort of thing). These scripts typically don’t ever get made–they’re just used to demonstrate your writing ability and may (if you’re very good and very lucky, of course) get you hired to write for that show or one that’s similar to it.
I’ve written some fanfiction myself, pretty much all of it in character and some of it in script form (and to everyone who’s following Warrior of the Blue Box, I offer my sincerest apologies and assure you that it’s not officially abandoned), and I can tell you that there are two important rules to be followed while writing fanfiction that also apply to writing serious spec scripts.
The first is to know the characters. Have you ever been watching a show or reading a book and been disappointed by a character who said or did something that didn’t seem like him/her at all? Well, that’s pretty much what you want to avoid like the plague. This can be tricky, of course, because the characters don’t exist inside your own mind. In order to make it authentic, your best bet is to treat the characters with as much care as you would an original character. Get inside their heads. Get a feel for their voices. Watch the show and pay attention to how they behave and how they react to given situations. If you get to know them well enough, you’ll be able to stop yourself when you’re about to write something that’s out of character.
The second is to know the show. It’s pretty much a given that you should have watched every episode (or almost every episode) before you sit down to write. It’s also a good idea to think about what the themes of the show are and what an episode is generally like, because this can help you to build your plot. For example, Breaking Bad is about change, and typical episodes involve Walt looking for ways to expand and preserve his drug outfit while keeping his family in the dark, so if you were going to write a spec script of Breaking Bad (I wouldn’t recommend it for professional purposes, since you’re really only supposed to write specs for shows that are still running), it’d be a safe bet to write a plot where Walt looks for ways to expand and preserve his drug outfit while keeping his family in the dark.
Most, if not all, TV writers aspire to one day create their own show. So do I. Who wouldn’t want to create a totally new story that keeps people coming back for more, week after week? But until that day comes, writing in someone else’s universe is an indispensable skill for a TV writer. So, if you’ve never written fanfiction before, I encourage you to try it. You’ll be developing a skill and you may even learn something about your favorite characters!