Last time on Why We Write, I tackled the topic of why we write fanfiction in general, and then focused down on how we can more effectively write fanfiction by stylizing our prose. Today, I thought I'd take a different look at things and examine why we write fluff. Shout out to verkisto for the inspiration on this one.
So... why do we write fluff?
That can seem like a stupid question regarding a show where the two main lover interests were kept apart for so long, and then even when they were together their relationship was shown more in the bad times than in the good. But why we want to see fluff and why we write fluff are actually two different things. We want to see fluff because we want to see two people we care about being able to love each other, unfettered. It's why, on Chuck, the episode Chuck vs. the Honeymooners went over so well. A lot of that episode was, well, fluff.
But writing fluff is a completely different animal. We write fluff for many of the same reasons, but the reason why fluff never works quite as well in writing as you would expect is because the principles of fluff are almost diametrically opposed to the principles of telling a story.
The main thing about writing a story, is that you need tension. You need something for your protagonist to encounter and then overcome. You need difficulties and problems.
Fluff, on the other hand, not only doesn't require any of those things, but in fact outright loathes them. The entire point of fluff is to NOT have problems, to NOT have tension, and to NOT have difficulties. It's to place your couple in a situation where the biggest issue they have is who gets the last slice of toast.
So, knowing that, why do we still write fluff?
Because, sometimes, stories can get to be too freaking much. There's only so much drama and tension and plot and problems that we can take before we need some release. Fluff is basically that: a release. When we as viewers could take no more of the angst-fest of Chuck Season Three, they gave us an episode of almost pure fluff: a release, a palette cleanser, that would communicate that the showrunners cared as much about these two characters as a couple as we did.
But because of its precarious nature, because it's so untenable as a long-term storytelling format, writing fluff has particularly treacherous pitfalls. You need something of substance happening in a fluff story to make it readable. Chuck and Sarah stories where everything is good all the time forever and ever will inevitably end up boring, and those that solve all the problems between them right up front to make way for the forever and ever good times will suffer the same fate.
The key, then, is making the focus of fluff something innocuous, or low-stakes, or something that's referential to the show. The other key-- and more important-- is brevity. Fluff is unsustainable as a serial. Without a problem to overcome, fluff is just too much for that long of a period of time. Readers understand the concept of fluff very quickly, and dragging it on for too long is like eating nothing but candy: it may be satisfying right away, but eventually you're just going to throw up pink.
The perfect format for fluff is the one-shot. You can set up a silly, little problem, you can have your characters knock it down like they're taking practice pitches, and you can have them make out a little and maybe even sex each other up if you're feeling racy. It doesn't get overly long, and you can pack in references to the adorable things these characters have done in the past.
It doesn't even have to be long. My favorite piece of fluff that I've written is a little drabble entitled Auditory Aphrodisiacs that satisfies all of the above requirements in less than three hundred words. By limiting myself to such a low word count, I was able to condense the fluff down into a snack-size, making it burst like a Lindt chocolate truffle.
The length of your bit of fluff will depend on the size of your low-stakes problem, but because the reasons for writing fluff run counter to so many of the principles for writing a story, it makes it naturally impossible for fluff to sustain itself. We write fluff for a bite of dessert, but at the end of the day, we can't have lollipops for every meal.