Writing Het Romance in Fanfic

The more I study shōjo manga, the more interested I’ve become in romance tropes. Based on about a month of observation throughout about two dozen fandoms on AO3, here are my notes on the sort of stories that get hundreds of kudos within the first day of being posted. I’m not judging, just observing:

(1) Ideally, one should be writing for a popular pairing in a popular entertainment franchise.

Even more ideally, the writer should also have a huge following on Tumblr because of their artwork. I actually think that the single most effective thing you can do to improve the reception of your writing is to develop your skill in visual art, but writing for a popular pairing definitely helps.

(2) The story needs to be at least 3,000 words, and 4,500 words is ideal.

The most effective structural balance seems to be 800 to 1,000 words of setup, 1,500 to 2,500 words of erotica, and maybe around 500 words of postcoital conversation. If an author can consistently put out a 4,500 word chapter of a slow burn novel every week (or, in a best-case scenario, twice a week), then the story has the potential to get massive numbers of hits and kudos, but intense sexual tension still needs to be incorporated every four chapters or so.

(3) The male lead needs to be scary.

If he’s murdered people, that’s good. If he’s murdered entire geographical populations of people, that’s even better. The idea is that he’s misunderstood and really a gentle person, but that he will only show this side of himself to his female love interest.

(4) The male lead needs to hate himself.

“I’m a monster,” he needs to think. “I’m a terrible, terrible monster, and no one will ever love me.” This is the cue for the heroine to step in and heal him with amazing therapeutic sex. She is special because her hidden depths allow her to see past all the murder. Basically, this is a way to flatter the reader, who also possesses hidden depths and is able to love the male character despite the fact that he’s scary.

(5) Both the male and female lead need to have tragic pasts.

Even if one or both parties haven’t been abused or mistreated in canon, they still need to bond and express vulnerability by revealing their secret trauma to one another. This creates feelings of mutual understanding and sympathy that pave the way for sexytimes.

(6) One or both parties need to feel intense guilt about their intimacy.

“No, I shouldn’t” and “No, we shouldn’t” are common phrases. One party needs to either convince or coerce the other party into a sexual situation. The “I’m a terrible monster” trope ties directly into this, especially if the male partner gets a bit angsty or violent. The more dubious the consent, the better. Obviously this is not a good model for relationships in the real world, but it’s precisely because it’s fiction that things can get a little rough and kinky without anyone getting hurt.

Again, I’m not judging, just observing. It’s easy to look at some of these tropes and pass them off as simple self-imposed misogyny, but I really don’t think that’s what’s going on in a lot of the fanfic I’ve read. Based on the quality of the writing, I also don’t think most of these authors are young and inexperienced. Obviously this is a very shallow summary of these narrative patterns, and I’m interested in conducting a more detail-oriented and nuanced study.

Notes on Writing Fanfic

Get rid of nine out of ten of your adverbs. Most of them are unnecessary, and the rest can be substituted by a more specific verb or adjective. I like to use ctrl+f for “ly.”

It’s normal to use contractions in fiction, especially in dialog. A story that uses no contractions at all reads like a term paper written by a college freshman.

In 95% of all situations, you want your dialog tags to be unnoticed by the reader. Simple words like “said” and “asked” are your friends. Most of the time, however, you don’t need a dialog tag at all, as it will already be clear who is saying what.

Use the names of your characters! The rule of thumb in English is to avoid repetition, but the names of people are an exception. This is especially relevant in situations when pronouns can become a problem. For example, instead of “the blond kissed the dark-tressed man,” just say “Steve kissed Bucky.”

If you’re using a particularly flashy word, take care to only use it once. If someone’s eyes are described as “crystalline” once, it’s striking. If someone’s eyes are described as “crystalline” more than once, it’s silly.

It’s not the nineteenth century anymore, and page-long paragraphs have fallen out of fashion. When in doubt, start a new paragraph.

Forget what you learned about structure and formatting in high school. Look at professionally published online writing and take note of how it handles things like indentations and spacing. Fanfic is a reader’s market, and you’re going to lose a lot of potential readers if people click on your story and are confronted with a strange and confusing layout.

Do your research on specialist terms and modes of address, especially if you’re writing historical fiction or historical fantasy. Be especially careful when writing about a culture you’re not already familiar with, and try to consult more than just one or two sources.

On that note, do you really need to wax poetic about the color of someone’s skin. Do you. Really.

Don’t be afraid of being “formulaic,” but don’t feel as if you need to follow a given formula laid out in a writer’s guide, especially if it’s a screenwriter’s guide with a male author. You’re always going to be balancing tradition and originality, as well as the expectations of a potential reader with your own self-indulgence. You have to find a balance that works for you, and it’s going to be different in every story you write.

Sex sells. Include a highly specific kink or set of kinks in your story and tag it appropriately, and you will find readers on AO3, I promise.

If you’re obsessed with a rare pairing, scrub off the serial numbers and replace the names so that you’re writing about a popular pairing. Your readers aren’t stupid, but people love what they love, and you might be surprised by how accepting people are of your new and fresh take on an established pairing.

Write that Hogwarts AU. Write that mermaid AU. Write that “the dark brooding hero/ine is actually a shapeshifting dragon” AU. Fanfic is not and will never be a judgment-free zone, but it’s been my experience that even the most niche AU stories can find an audience. Treat yo self!

Try to finish things. If you’ve only written bits and pieces of your dream novel, post them as their own separate short stories. If you write three chapters of a fic you planned to be thirty chapters long but then get stuck, figure out a way to wrap up the story in just one or two more chapters. It’s always good to end on an emotional climax, like “and then their eyes met” or “and then they left on their journey.”

Leave kudos on other people’s stories, and leave comments if you can. Even a short comment, like “I love this,” will be appreciated. No writer writes alone, and this is a great way to make friends through your writing.