The Two Step Theory Of Fanfic
by The Brat Queen
I suppose you could toss this under "How to speak TBQ in these easy steps". I've got a two step theory of fanfic and it tends to be my touchstone for a good story.
Before I get into it though I want to stress this is not what I consider a hard and fast rule for good fanfic. I'm not saying this is the only way to write good fic, just the way that makes me more apt to enjoy the premise of the story. I'm not saying all fic has to be written like this, nor am I saying that I'll never read any fic that doesn't do this. This is just what works for me both as a writer and a reader 9 times out of 10.
In other words, don't take any of this personally. I'm just putting this out there as food for thought.
Fanfic, to me, works best when it starts out close to the canon. I want to see a story that somehow resembles the canon because otherwise why am I reading the fanfic? If I could search and replace the character names with anybody else's then this might as well have been an original story - and frankly I've read quite a few fanfics that really should have been original stories, and I can't help but wonder if the writer just needed more confidence in their writing skills in order to realize that yes, they could have posted this as original fic and nobody would have faulted them.
But if we're writing fanfic and we actually want to be writing a story about Spike, or Brian, or Harry Potter or whoever, then we're going to have a better chance of hooking the discriminating reader in and feeling more canonical if we stay within - wait for it - two steps of the canon. Two steps isn't a big leap. It's taking a small jump and conclusions are there. The reader can buy it.
Once you've got your two steps you can go anywhere with it. It's like an angle - there's a small distance between the two lines when you're at the point, but those lines, once started, can now get further and further apart as time goes on. Yes, you can write a story wherein we see things that seem to be miles away from what we've seen in canon. You just can't start your story there (or at least you can't start your story there without some difficulty).
The steps can be big or small. They just have to be precise. And they have to flow from the canon.
Let's try some examples:
Step 1: Their onscreen chemistry is due to their being attracted to one another
Step 2: They act on it.
Angel/Cordy romance (pre "Offspring" aka "You remind me of kye-rumption")
Step 1: Buffy's death makes Angel re-evaluate his life
Step 2: This re-evaluation makes him see Cordy in a new, romantic, light
You start to see the idea. Not that your story must be restricted to some sort of romance-related premise. It could be anything. I'm just picking pairings like this because I think they show a very obvious break from the canon. But however obvious a break like this is from the canon we can still buy into the premise because it stays within two steps.
The two steps don't even necessarily have to be obviously from the canon, as such. Interaction between Angel and characters who share the same show with him isn't that big a leap. We can apply the two steps to anything, even for pairings of characters who haven't even met. Case in point:
Step 1: Lindsey leaves LA for parts unknown
Step 2: He meets up with Riley in South America and chemistry ensues
You see again how we can take a logical step from the canon, then add a slight spin to that step. This is also the same process an AU must follow in order to make the reader believe it. Step 1 is that you've placed the characters into an AU, Step 2 is that these are the same characters, just slightly tweaked because of the alt universe. (Take a look at "The Wish" on Buffy for a good example of this - we had the AU of the Wishverse, but Angel was still Angel, Buffy still Buffy, Giles still Giles, etc. They were just slightly different because of how the wishverse had affected them).
Where a story premise breaks down is when - with the exception of AU stories - Step 1 has no logical connection to the canon. Case in point, a great deal of Willow/Angel stories which take as their Step 1 the idea that Angel loved Willow more than he loved Buffy. This is a story that's destined for failure because it's in direct contradiction to the canon. We know that he didn't - the perfect happiness clause proves that - so the story breaks down before it even gets out of the gate.
Could you do a two-step Angel/Willow? Yes you could, but your first step has to be wisely chosen. Something like Step 1: This is an AU or Step 1: It's ten years in the future gives you the head start that you would need.
Stories also fall down on the job when they try to add multiple steps. You get more leeway with this in a large story, or in a series, but even so you've got to build your steps slowly. The reader can only swallow so much at a time. Can you do a story where, for example, Lindsey and Riley are a couple, Spike becomes human, Xander wins the Nobel Prize for Physics and Buffy has a child with Wesley of all people? Sure. But use the steps. Don't start the story there (unless you're immediately going to go into flashback to explain how it all happened) and don't throw all the steps at us at once.
A good example of a canonical story that violated the two step rule is "Offspring." This canonical attempt to sell us on Angel/Cordy falls flat because out of nowhere we're told about kye-rumption and Cordy being a champion. Granted the actual canon is allowed to violate the two step rule as often as it likes because it's the canon, but the "Tell, don't show" of kye-rumption is still a good example of two step violation. It came from out of nowhere and then didn't have a plausible Step 2 as its followup.
The episode then goes on to try to sell us on even more steps - there's a prophecy that we've never heard of before, Darla's pregnant with no explanation (admittedly brought up in earlier eps, but this was the ep which showed the AI gang finding out about it), nobody tries to stake Darla, drinking the blood of children means the baby is human, etc. It's too much. The audience is being asked to take too many things on faith in too short an amount of time. Each individual thing, in and of itself, could have been done in two steps, but you can't dump an entire pile of two steps on top of us and expect us to connect with them all.
So basically two steps is, appropriately enough, twofold: first, it has to be steps that somehow tie in with the canon and second, it can't be too many at once.
Now again, this isn't to say that you can't do more than two steps, or can't do multiple two steps at once. This is just to say that very often the two steps are helpful. If nothing else, any story, no matter what the premise, can work as long as it keeps the following two steps in mind:
Step 1: The writing is good
Step 2: We recognize the characters
Keep those in mind and you're able to go far.