A Deeper Kind of Shallow:
Theme, Symbolism and Resonance in Fanfic

By Associate Professor Jen

"Oh, well. I suppose we can't have underwear and sexual tension every week."--monkee

Sure, fanfic is fun. It's fun to write, and it's fun to read. But what makes you come back to a story and read it again?

--Celli raises her hand--

(Okay, besides that.)

Have you noticed that some stories seem to fall flat, no matter how much care the author paid to spelling and grammar and sparkling dialogue? And other tales, with more noticeable flaws, lure you back for a second reading, or even a third?

Three key ingredients to a memorable story--theme, symbolism, and resonance--can help you cook up a tale that will have readers begging for a second helping. But first, you've got to know what they are.

Theme and symbolism are two terms your high school English teachers probably threw around a lot. And, like me, you probably learned to sleep with your eyes open during those classes. (Don't worry! This won't be on the final exam!) So let's have a quick review.

I'd define theme as the underlying idea behind the story, the point you're trying to make that's larger than the characters or the circumstances in which they find themselves. For instance, the theme of an Alias fanfic about Jack and Sydney might be the tensions and misunderstandings between parents and children, or forgiveness, or self-sacrifice. Or some combination of the three.

An Enterprise fic might have a theme about human curiosity or tolerance or courage in the face of death.

An Angel fic could have an underlying theme about redemption or the power of friendship.

It's more than just 'my favorite characters have an adventure'--you're trying to sneak some deeper issues past your reader. But you've got to be subtle. If you find yourself writing something like, "Well, we sure have learned a lot about the power of friendship," said Cordelia. Then you've gotten a bit heavy-handed.


1. Read through your favorite fanfic again. (No, not the smut, Celli! One with a plot.) See if you can spot a theme, and then write it down. Limit yourself to one sentence.

2. Outline a story using that same theme (in the same or a different fandom). What scenes will you need in order to build your chosen theme into the story? Is there one particular character who'd be good for POV?

Moving right along, we come to another high school bugaboo: symbolism. Yeah, that's right, the green light at the end of the dock. The white whale. Jack Bristow's enormous black car. (Okay, so I'm obsessing. What's your point?)

Some objects have a cultural symbolism, while others are more personal. In fanfic, you can assume your audience has seen the same show as you, though someone else's take on it is bound to be a bit different than yours. Even so, you have a common ground on which to build, and using some object from the show as a symbol can actually work.

As an example of a symbol actually used in a show, those of you who watch Buffy and Angel will remember the infamous leather pants, which became a symbol of Angel's slide into the dark side. It's kind of a joke now, but the principle is the same.

And don't forget that setting can be symbolic, too. For Alias fans, that abandoned warehouse where Sydney and Vaughn meet is probably symbolic of something--

--Celli raises her hand--

--though I don't want to start thinking about what's up with those two. And the merry-go-round where Jack and Sydney talked about her mother and her future--also highly symbolic. Lost innocence, childhood dreams...good stuff.


3. Get out your embryonic fanfic. Think of a place or object linked to your POV character and try to think how it could tie in with your theme. How might the character use/view that object or setting to show the theme? What might happen there?

My third cool term, resonance, may be a new one for you. It's new for me, but my writing group had an interesting discussion about it last week, and I thought I'd pass along some of the tricks I learned.

Building resonance into a story means using imagery, epigraphs, allusions and other neat writing tricks to add depth to a story. For instance, the quote from monkee at the top of my essay is an epigraph--a snippet of someone else's words that help set the tone. Hopefully it made you laugh, but maybe it made you wonder what I was up to, as well. I keep a notebook on the shelf by my desk where I write down all the funny or intriguing quotes I read. Using one at the beginning of a story, or between scenes, can be a way to set the tone or bring up the theme without hitting your reader between the eyes with a ball-peen hammer.

Using song lyrics is example of this kind of resonance that turns up frequently in fanfic (which, in my curmudgeonly opinion, tends to be overused, but that's just me). It can be effective--see Celli's essay on music in fanfic--but you could always branch out and try something new.

Hopefully, if you're writing fanfic, you know what imagery is. For resonance, you want to try to create images using words that echo the theme in some way. Resonant imagery can mean the difference between "Sydney walked into the big, empty warehouse" and "The door slipped out of her hands. When it slammed closed, the boom echoed through the warehouse. She looked up to where light glowed faintly behind dirty windows. It reminded her of a church, an abandoned church that even God had left behind." Okay, it's a bit heavy-handed, but hopefully you get the point.

An allusion, for those of you who were sleeping that day in class, is a reference to an older and more famous piece of literature, such as the Bible, mythology, or Shakespeare. (Or Moby Dick or The Great Gatsb, such as I used earlier in this essay.) You can even use references to movies or TV shows, if you think your readers will get the point. Whatever works.


4. Before you do anything else, finish the rough draft (or at least a solid outline) of your story. In each scene, think of a way to add resonance in your descriptions. You get bonus points if you come up with an epigraph that's never been used in a song.

Once you've done that, polish it up and send it to your beta-readers. See if they notice anything different. (Hey! Did you get a haircut or something?) And let me know how it works out. If you need to find me, I'll be lurking in the back seat of Jack's car.

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