I’ll be the first one to say that you shouldn’t put restrictions on what people write. The whole point of writing is creating a world in which you can truly express yourself. Sure, you might write things that some people won’t be comfortable with or want to read, but everyone finds their niche as time goes on. Publishing something outside the norm might take time, but even things like violence, gore, and intense sexuality have their audiences. However, there are some things that authors should be wary of.
When I was in middle school, my best friend came up with a very strange nickname for me. I won’t repeat it here, as it has some rather odd phrases and far too many suffixes. I always smile thinking about the name, but it’s rarely repeated to anyone else for the simple reason that it’s not funny on its own. The humor came from the experience that I had with my friend in creating the name. This is the inherent problem with including inside jokes in creative writing: they only make sense to those with an understanding of their origins. A few of my friends from high school will break out into laughter if I say the words “graphic novel” with a strange voice inflection, but anyone walking by would have no context for it and would (at best) think we were weird. The same goes for including such things in your writing. Whether it’s a poem, short story, or a script for a short film, including an inside joke will likely elicit positive reactions from only a handful of people, and possibly derision from those who understand that it’s an inside joke that they weren’t included in.
The trick, then, is to make sure your audience is aware of the joke. How you do this is largely affected by who your audience is. If this is something only meant for a few friends to see, then by all means, go crazy! If it’s meant to go out to a larger audience, then give them the chance to hear the joke’s conception. Introduce it as a fresh part of the story, allowing yourself to then use it as you please later on. The best inside joke is one that doesn’t force the reader to understand it to enjoy the story itself. Plenty of writers hide nods to their other works within newer pieces, often as throwaways meant to please the avid reader without alienating those who don’t know its background. Whatever you do, never force the joke onto someone who doesn’t “get it.” It’s a fast way to lose a reader.
Don’t get me wrong; I love fanfiction as much as the next nerd. As a reader, I love seeing the continuing adventures of my favorite characters through the eyes of other writers. It’s the uniqueness in everyone’s vision for how a character’s story would continue that makes fanfics great. I personally have several pieces, as well as an “epic” of sorts, that are based off of other published works. How wonderful, then, to share these new stories with the world.
Unfortunately, if I was to ever try to publish something that continues the story of another author’s character or world, I’d be nailed so quickly by lawyers that my head would spin. This isn’t done out of spite; individuals and companies have to protect their intellectual property. If you wrote a story that featured Spongebob as a sadistic killer and were able to publish it to the masses, Nickelodeon suddenly has a huge PR problem on their hands.
Knowing that my writings about my favorite characters will likely never be seen by the masses is disheartening. However, copyright is copyright, no matter how many people read and love your story. Either consign yourself to keeping your work within fanfiction circles, or change the story to make it your own (i.e. change names, locations, etc. until it’s a brand new tale). I never thought I’d use E.L. James as a good example of what to do when writing, but she’s the prefect example of this. Originally, 50 Shades of Grey started as Twilight fanfiction. When she saw potential for publishing it, she changed the characters and made the story and the universe her own. In doing this, she avoided copyright issues and created a new world for readers to dive into.
To be fair, If you wrote a story in which Spongebob Squarepants is a sadistic killer, that’s… certainly strange, but Spongebob isn’t going to personally be hurt by your description of him. Writing about real people, however, can get you into heaps of trouble. You put those people, whoever they may be, in the public spotlight in a way that they may not have wanted, and in a light that they may not agree with. It also then puts you under the spotlight with how you see those people, regardless of how objective you might be. Writing a piece about your “monster” of a mother-in-law is great for dealing with your emotions in a nonviolent way; showing that writing to the world makes both of you targets.
This also includes writing about one’s own self. Putting yourself into a story is nigh impossible to pull off. Most readers don’t want to hear how the writer of the story interacts with her own story, and they will either become confused or disinterested. Similarly, if the writer adds a character in who essentially serves as a surrogate for themselves, it’s painfully obvious to the reader, even if the writer believes they’ve pulled it off.
The easy answer here is to not include real people in your creative writing unless you’re okay with the backlash. Create your own characters; certainly use your experiences to define how your characters act and react, but don’t make them transparent caricatures of real people. If you really want to talk about real life, then a memoir or other form of creative nonfiction is the place to do it; keep in mind, however, these suggestions and warnings still stand.
Breaking the Rules
Each writer has their own unique style. Some use metaphors regularly while others only use a few; some love long, drawn-out paragraphs about very simple topics (looking at you, Tolkien), while others keep descriptions simple and allow the dialogue to take the forefront. Occasionally, an author’s style will, for lack of a better term, “break the rules.” Stephen king has a unique way of doing spacing and inner monologues; Douglas Adams breaks the fourth wall and uses literary devices in bizarre ways. These styles, while unusual and potentially off-putting, help authors distinguish their own voice and keep the audience on their toes. However, the reason these odd styles work so well is because the authors have had years to perfect their styles to the point where they feel fluid and simple, and have built a following of readers who expect and welcome such styles. A beginning writer has much more difficulty when trying to implement such stylistic choices.
I’d advise to stick to the basic form as much as possible to start, and over time, form your own style. Stylistic choices are perfectly acceptable, but they require lots of practice and testing. Along with this, attempts to duplicate styles of other writers often comes off as clichéd and ineffective. Writing, like speaking, should sound natural, and attempting to copy someone’s style of writing comes off as natural as reading off a teleprompter. Our speech patterns are affected by those around us, and your writing style does the same thing; let yours grow and develop naturally over time. Your loyal readers will enjoy taking the journey with you.