Fanfiction is a strange and magical thing: it’s at once an undervalued art form and the butt of endless jokes. It’s both a way to waste time online and the basis for a series of powerful and real communities. Even if you’ve never read fanfiction — generally defined as fan-made (often romantic) writing related to an already-existing story universe — you’ve probably seen it lately thanks to movies and television shows borrowing from fanfiction tropes and plots.
After witnessing a significant drought in the mainstream romance movie department, fans of love stories have spent recent months swooning over films like To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (“fake dating”), Set It Up (“matchmaker”), Crazy Rich Asians (“secret royalty”), and Love, Simon (“secret admirer”), all of which have reinvigorated the often-underestimated genre this year. These films’ appeal is due in large part to their handling of charming and engrossing storylines that, knowingly or not, nod to the fanfiction tropes and plots that pop up in the millions of fan-made stories that populate the internet.
So why stop with these movies? Why not pull more movie plots from the quirkiest and most creative side of the web, to continue fueling our sudden pop-cultural romantic streak? If you don’t know anything about fanfiction’s long and noteworthy history, that’s okay, because good fandom is always open to beginners. Let’s start with nine essential fanfiction tropes, and my pitches for their big screen (or Netflix screen) treatment.
1. Coffeeshop AU
The rare fanfic plot that hasn’t actually been attempted by a popular movie, Coffeeshop AUs (Alternate Universes, which is fic-talk for anything that takes characters outside of their regular worlds) usually involve two characters falling in love at a cafe, and one is often a patron while the other is an employee. Most of the action takes place within the coffee shop itself, where the two slowly build a repertoire and eventually a romance. The details vary, but try this on for size: Timmy Chalamet, the new patron saint of sunkissed European romances, plays a shy American foreign exchange student who just got a job at a hip cafe on Mykonos. He’s awkward and bad at his job until he meets another student, a cool but aloof party girl (Quinn Shephard) who comes to the cafe to nurse her hangovers, and gets inspired to start leaving her secret messages in the foam of the lattes he makes. Cuteness, authentic cultural experiences, and a playful deconstruction of the male savior complex ensue.
2. Body Swap
Hear me out here. I know this has been done badly in the past (remember that Jason Bateman/Ryan Reynolds movie? Me neither), but in fanfiction and the shows that have heavily influenced fanfic, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The X-Files, it can be shockingly wonderful and effective. An unspoken rule of fanfic is to make everything as gay as possible, so consider this: a body swap, but gay. Maybe a hot jock who initially seems like a meathead body swaps with an LGBT boy who’s known as “the out kid” at their high school, even though he never really came out by choice. Maybe they lightly tease each other, come to understand one another better, and slowly but surely fall in puppy love. Maybe the hot jock is played by everyone’s most-recently-Googled actor, Noah Centineo (sorry Noah, just keeping with the tradition that everybody is typecast at least once after their first big successful role), and the gay character is Troye Sivan, who apparently really is acting now. Bonus: The Miseducation of Cameron Post’s Forrest Goodluck is Sivan’s character’s ultra-deadpan best friend who eventually digs up some type of half-baked local mythology (a la Freaky Friday fortune cookie) that’ll put everyone back in their own body.
3. N Things
Examples of this fic style that appear often on AO3 (the internet’s predominant fanfic website of the decade) include “Five Times [insert name] Didn’t Say I Love You and One Time She Did” or, on the more depressing end of the spectrum, “Five Times [insert name] Saved [insert name] and The One Time He Couldn’t.” These sound like clickbait titles, but they’re really more like When Harry Met Sally-style vignettes of small but significant moments between characters whose relationships are shifting in front of our eyes. Kind of like One Day but not terrible, these stories revisit characters in wildly different life phases to produce moments of huge emotional impact on their readers. The end result, if the central characters do get together, is a bittersweet one; they’re happy, but they wasted so much time without declaring their feelings. This interview with Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder has me convinced that they should play the final iterations of this couple, who finally get together after a long, fraught never-quite-platonic friendship. If the filmmakers are feeling really creative and don’t want to drop Benjamin Button levels of dough, they can recut 1992’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula for the earlier bits.
4. Bonded characters
Bonded can mean a couple of things in fanfic. First, there’s this whole huge subsection of fanwork that’s based on animal hierarchies that have always seemed too kinky and confusing for me to crack (did it start with Teen Wolf? I don’t know, and I’m okay not knowing), so we’ll skip that definition. More cinematic and relevant to my interests is the reincarnation or soulmate trope, which like so many great fic plots is exemplified by The X-Files — in this case the overwrought but memorable Season 4 episode “The Field Where I Died.” The idea of possession by the past is always mysterious and powerful in these fics, reimagining history not as something to hide from, but rather to connect with and be healed by once it’s been faced. I could see Lupita Nyong’o pulling off the raw but largely internal emotions of a reincarnation plot, and John Cho could play the man she’s inextricably pulled toward. In my head, this is a David Lowery style indie movie and in the end, they discover they’re not actually meant to be lovers, just friends who find comfort in each other. The last frame of the movie would end up on One Perfect Shot.
Also affectionately referred to as “undercover at a gay bar,” the undercover plot puts two seemingly straight characters, usually investigative partners, in deep cover in a situation where they have to pose as a gay couple. In the wrong hands, this could be wildly offensive, but in fanfiction, it’s handled with nuance and eventually leads to pulse-pounding action and, of course — usually under the threat of death or with the aid of some sort of truth serum (or maybe just stiff drinks after a long day) — an eventual dramatic confession of love. Honestly, I’d pay to see this play out on an existing series like Jane the Virgin, a show that’s able to seamlessly reconfigure melodrama plot points into beautifully empathetic storytelling.
6. Sex magic
An all-around favorite among fanfiction tropes that’s somehow rarely been translated to the big screen, the sex magic plot basically involves characters in a sci-fi or fantasy scenario who are only able to make it out alive by having sex. It’s a sacrifice the gods demand, or the final step of a world-saving spell, or — in the case of a particularly memorable actual Star Trek: The Original Series plot — an alien condition that forces a character to mate or die. This sounds dubious, but it’s usually written into lengthy stories that affirm consent and also establish way before the moment of sexy truth that the characters in question definitely want to get it on and for some reason have never told one another (UST, Unresolved Sexual Tension, is the bread and butter of fanfiction). I don’t really want to dreamcast this one because it’s basically a porn setup, but I do think it’s a fun and provocative plot that deserves to see the light of day. As far as unorthodox climaxes go, you can never go wrong with sex magic.
Are you ever just chilling with your platonic friends when someone leaves a baby on your doorstep? No? That’s probably good because it means you’re not living in someone else’s fanfiction and life might not be a simulation after all. At any rate, this happens to characters in fanfic all the time, and the resulting Three Men and a Baby-esque antics are usually charming and heartwarming. I’d love to see an update on this plot that, in reflecting the modern post-nuclear family, features a love triangle that (twist!) ends in polyamory. Polyamory, or open relationships, are a mainstay in fanfiction, but despite their presence in the real world, these types of relationships are rarely fleshed out on screen. Here’s my elevator pitch: a fun dude (Chris Evans) is hanging out with his fun friend (Kristen Bell) when boom, baby at the door. In the course of raising this kid and maturing into real adults, the two realize they’re super in love, but when the baby’s mom (Indya Moore) returns, things get complicated in ways the three parents never expected. Hollywood, fund this now!
Also cleverly called “anthropomorfic,” this narrative device has the ability to be either adorable or grating. In short, it’s kind of like the part of Beauty and the Beast where the dishes and candle start shipping the main characters. These stories are told by the objects — books, wallets, cars, what have you — that witness the lead characters falling for each other and often, despite their apparent lack of sentience, realize that love is blooming before the couple does. These stories were originally written as little more than creative exercises, meant to push their authors into taking into account unusual points of view and might be tough to pull off on screen without coming across as corny. I could see anthropomorfic working as a low-key, sweet and funny family movie though, with, say, Noah Schnapp and Elsie Fisher as the central duo being nudged toward romance by all their overbearing belongings.
9. Enemies-to-lovers + bed sharing
In the course of making this list, I asked a lot of fanfic-loving friends for the essential fanfiction tropes they want to see more of on-screen, and every one of them put enemies-to-lovers and bed-sharing at the top of their lists (besides fake dating, which To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before has covered). The former trope is pretty self-explanatory, while the latter involves two people with that pesky UST being forced to share a sleeping space, either to huddle for warmth, or because they were accidentally given a queen bed instead of two twins, or for some other preposterous reason that forces them to face their feelings in close quarters. These two fanfiction tropes frequently go hand-in-hand. Can a whole movie be plotted around this one unrealistic but butterfly-inducing scenario? No, but fic-lovers wouldn’t be mad if someone tried.