Wikipedia:Manual of Style/Writing about fiction

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Wikipedia contains numerous articles on fiction-related subjects, fictional worlds, and elements from them.

If a topic warrants inclusion in Wikipedia, editors should consider what to write about the subject, and how to best present that information. Because these questions are complementary, they should not be interpreted in isolation from one another, and editors should address both these questions simultaneously to create a well-written article.

When an article is created, the subject's real-world notability should be established according to the general notability guideline by including independent reliable secondary sources—this will also ensure enough source material is available for the article to be comprehensive and factually accurate.

This page is a guideline, not policy, and it should be approached with common sense and the occasional exception. Following the basic notions laid out in this guideline is generally a good way to improve articles on fictional topics.

Real-world perspective[edit]

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Articles about fiction, like all Wikipedia articles, should adhere to the real world as their primary frame of reference. The approach is to describe the subject matter from the perspective of the real world, in which the work of fiction and its publication are embedded. It necessitates the use of both primary and secondary information.

Exemplary aspects of real-world perspective include:

  • Careful differentiation between the work of fiction itself and aspects of its production process and publication, such as the impact a work of fiction has had in the real world (see also below)
  • Careful differentiation between narrated time and fictional chronology on the one hand, and narrative time and actual chronology of real-world events on the other (of particular relevance to all film and TV-related topics)
  • The presentation of fictional material
  • Description of fictional characters, places and devices as objects of the narrative
  • Making (referenced!) mention of the author's intention

Real-world perspective is not an optional quality criterion but a general, basic requirement for all articles. See below for a list of exemplary articles which employ a consistent real-world perspective.

The problem with in-universe perspective[edit]

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An in-universe perspective describes the narrative from the perspective of characters within the fictional universe, treating it as if it were real and ignoring real-world context and sourced analysis. The threshold of what constitutes in-universe writing is making any effort to re-create or uphold the illusion of the original fiction by omitting real-world info.

Many fan wikis and fan websites (see below) take this approach, but it should not be used for Wikipedia articles. An in-universe perspective can be misleading, inviting unverifiable original research. Most importantly, in-universe perspective defies community consensus as to what we do not want Wikipedia to be or become.

Features often seen in an inappropriate, in-universe perspective include:

  • Disregarding all or most aspects of a work of fiction as a creative endeavour
  • A plot synopsis written like a historical account
  • Fictography – an article or section about a fictional character written like a biography, placing, for example, undue emphasis on titles or birthdates despite their being unimportant to the plot or interpretation. For example, instead of writing: "Gandalf was a powerful wizard" write: "Gandalf is characterised, described, or cast by Tolkien as a powerful wizard".
  • Description of fictional places written like a geographical account; the same principles apply as for fictional characters. For example (per WP:CYF), instead of writing: "Trillian is Arthur Dent's girlfriend. She was taken away from Earth by Zaphod when he met her at a party. She meets Dent while travelling with Zaphod", write: "Trillian is a fictional character from Douglas Adams' radio, book and now film series The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. In the first book, Trillian is introduced to the main character Arthur Dent on a spaceship. In her backstory, she was taken away from Earth when the space alien Zaphod Beeblebrox met her at a party."
  • Using past tense when discussing the plot or any of its elements (except backstory), rather than the historical present tense
  • Attempting to reconcile contradictions or bridge gaps in the narrative, rather than simply reporting them as such
  • Giving equal weight to a fictional topic's appearances in major works, and in obscure spin-off material
  • Placing spiritual successors in the same continuity as the works that inspired them
  • Using in-jokes and references which require knowledge of the plot or characters of the work, its prequels or sequels
  • Using infoboxes intended for real-world topics
  • Referring to the fictional events or dates which occur in the story, rather than the fictional works themselves. For example, instead of writing: "It is the year 34,500 AD, when the Trantorian Empire encompasses roughly half of the galaxy", write: "This story is set in the year 34,500 AD, when the Trantorian Empire encompasses roughly half of the galaxy", or similar.
  • Ordering works by their fictional chronology, rather than the actual order they were published. For example, although Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was the fourth film released in the franchise the story is a prequel that represents the beginning of the Star Wars narrative. As such it should be ordered as the fourth work in the series not the first. It is acceptable to include both the fictional timeline and the real world timeline, providing that the distinction is not ambiguous; the real world time line should take precedence.

These restrictions should and do hold for serious satire such as Gulliver's Travels or Candide (and many works for the stage) where the fictional elements are designed to camouflage the serious political or social criticism within the work. In such cases, it is legitimate to freely examine the fictional elements and the design of the storyline in order to attempt to decipher the author's original intent. The same exemptions might apply to other special forms of literature where the fiction/non-fiction categorization is disputed, such as the possibly historical elements of religious scripture.

See also the sections on fair use, accuracy and appropriate weight, and templates.

Primary and secondary information[edit]

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Where the above section discusses the principal perspective from which an article is written and makes the distinction between real-world perspective versus "in-universe" perspective, this section discusses the incorporation of information. Please see also the related policy on the use of primary, secondary, and tertiary sources.

Primary information[edit]

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The term primary information describes information that originates from primary sources about the fictional universe, i.e., the original work of fiction or an affiliated work of fiction (e.g., another episode of the same series). Even with strict adherence to the real-world perspective, writing about fiction always includes using the original fiction itself as a source. See also the sections on fair use and templates. WP:PSTS says, "...a primary source may be used only to make descriptive claims, the accuracy of which is verifiable by a reasonable, educated person without specialist knowledge... Do not make analytic, synthetic, interpretive, explanatory, or evaluative claims about information found in a primary source."

Examples of information available in primary sources include:

  • the birth and death dates of fictional characters;
  • performance statistics or characteristics for fictional vehicles or devices;
  • history of fictional locations or organizations;
  • background information on fictional creatures; and,
  • the plot itself

Secondary information[edit]

The term secondary information describes information external to the fictional universe, and is usually taken from secondary sources about the work of art or the fictional world contained therein, or from primary and secondary sources about the author and the circumstances of creation. Publications affiliated with a particular work of fiction (e.g. fan magazines), are mostly not considered suitable secondary sources about the primary works. However, such publications may be suitable primary or secondary sources in an article about the fan publication itself or other related topics.

The rule of thumb is to use as much secondary information as necessary and useful to give the article a real-world perspective, not more and not less. Another rule of thumb is that if the topic is notable, secondary information should be available and possibly already in the article.

Examples of useful information typically provided by secondary sources about the original work, or primary and secondary sources about information external to the work:

  • the author or creator
  • other key figures of the creation process, e.g., the cinematographer for films or notable translators for novels
  • the film or software company or publishing house
  • the design
  • the development, both before its first appearance and over the course of the narrative
  • real-world factors that have influenced the work or fictional element
  • for a fictional character in a dramatic production, the actor who portrayed the role and their approach to playing that character
  • foreign translations
  • its popularity among the public
  • its sales figures (for commercial offerings)
  • its reception by critics
  • a critical analysis of the subject
  • the influence of the work on later creators and their projects

Contextual presentation[edit]

Plot summaries[edit]

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For further information, see Wikipedia:Plot summaries and Wikipedia:How to write a plot summary.

Generally there are two possible issues to be considered: the context of the production and the context of the original fiction. Whenever the original fiction itself is the subject of the article, all out-of-universe information needs to be set in the context of that original fiction (e.g., by including a plot summary). When the article concerns, e.g., a documentary about that original fiction, it is not necessarily important to discuss the content of the original source material.

Details of creation, development, etcetera, relating to a particular fictional element are more helpful if the reader understands the role of that element in the story. This often involves providing plot summaries, character descriptions or biographies, or direct quotations. By convention, these synopses should be written in the present tense, as this is the way that the story is experienced as it is read or viewed (see also WP:TENSE). At any particular point in the story there is a "past" and a "future", but whether something is "past" or "future" changes as the story progresses. It is simplest and conventional to recount the entire description as continuous "present".

Plot summaries and similar recaps of fictional works (like a character's fictional biography) should be written in an out-of-universe style, presenting the narrative from a displaced, neutral frame of reference from the characters or setting. While an in-universe style may be more engaging for prose, it may also bias the work and be overly wordy. For example, instead of starting a plot summary with "It is 2003," (which puts the reader in the frame of reference of the work), start with "In 2003, ..." (which extracts the reader from that frame).

Plot summaries can be written from the real-world perspective by referring to specific works or parts of works ("In the first book", "In Act II") or describing things from the author or creator's perspective ("The author introduces", "The story describes"). This gives the summary a grounded tone that is accessible to those unfamiliar with the source material. Real-world perspective is the preferred style for plot summaries that encompass multiple works, such as broadly describing a series of novels, describing key events that might have happened in earlier works that impact the present work, or the biography of a fictional character over multiple works. Such conventions are not as important for plot summaries of single works that are not part of a series; nevertheless, real-world language at the beginning of summaries is often good style. A long singular work that has natural divisions (for example, the three Books within A Tale of Two Cities, or the acts of a play or musical) can be used to created subheadings under the plot to provide real-world framing without introducing it in text. A singular work itself might necessitate a real-world perspective due to its structure. Summaries written in a real-world perspective do not need to stay true to the fiction's chronological order if going out of order improves the summary. A work with two concurrent running storylines where the narrative switches back and forth between them (for example, the film Memento) is likely better told by summarizing one storyline in full, followed by the second storyline, as long as this narrative structure is explained to the reader.

The length of a plot summary should be carefully balanced with the length of the other sections. Strictly avoid creating pages consisting only of a plot summary. For some types of media, associated guidelines may offer advice on plot length; for example, WP:Manual of Style/Film suggests that plot summaries for feature films should be between 400 and 700 words.

The plot summary for a work, on a page about that work, does not need to be sourced with in-line citations, as it is generally assumed that the work itself is the primary source for the plot summary. However, editors are encouraged to add sourcing if possible. If a plot summary includes a direct quote from the work, this must be cited using inline citations per WP:QUOTE. Sometimes a work will be summarized by secondary sources, which can be used for sourcing. Otherwise, using brief quotation citations from the primary work can be helpful to source key or complex plot points.

Presenting fictional material from the original work is allowed, provided passages are short, are given the proper context, and do not constitute the main portion of the article. If such passages stray into the realm of interpretation, per WP:PRIMARY, secondary sources must be provided to avoid original research. Plot summaries cannot engage in interpretation and should only present an obvious recap of the work. For example, we cannot state anything about whether the top remains spinning or topples at the end of Inception. Even small details that might be clear on a word-by-word or frame-by-frame analysis – steps well beyond the normal act of reading or watching a work – should be considered original research and excluded from such articles. If a vague plot element is later clarified by the work's creator, this can be included in the summary as long as a citation to this clarification is provided. Independent secondary sources that make analysis or interpretation of a work but without any correlation with the creator should be discussed in a separate section outside of the plot summary and not confused with the presented plot summary.

Summary style approach[edit]

For more details on this topic, see Wikipedia:Summary style.

Sometimes, when an article gets long (see Wikipedia:Article size), a section of the article is made into its own article, and the handling of the subject in the main article is condensed to a brief summary. This is completely normal Wikipedia procedure; see for example Wikipedia:Summary style, which explains the technique. The new article is sometimes called a "spinout" or "spinoff" of the main article. For fictional works, these spinout articles are typically lists of characters or other elements that usually rely on the coverage of the parent topic, and may lack demonstration of real-world coverage through sources dedicated specifically to those elements (see Wikipedia:Lists). Very rarely should such spinout articles be about a singular topic (e.g., character, plot item); either that topic has demonstrated its own notability, or should be merged into the main article or existing spinout articles.

The spinout article should concisely provide details of the topic or topics covered in the work – just because the spinout article is given more space to grow does not mean that excessive plot summaries or fictional character biographies are appropriate. As with other fictional works, the spinout article should be written in an "out-of-universe" style. As with all other Wikipedia articles, the spinout article needs to be verifiable, must possess no original research, and must reflect a neutral point of view.

Notability[edit]

There are notability prerequisites to be met by all subjects to warrant articles specifically about them. As mentioned earlier, the rule of thumb is that if the topic is sufficiently notable, secondary sources should be available and should ideally be included on article creation.

Accuracy and appropriate weight[edit]

It is not only important that articles be written from a neutral point of view and that they give due weight to all aspects of the subject but also that appropriate weight be given to all elements of the article page, including, e.g., infoboxes and succession boxes as well as images and the text. The goal is to attain the greatest possible degree of accuracy in covering the topic at hand, which is also the basic rationale behind discouraging, e.g., disproportionately long plot summaries and in-universe writing.

Fair use[edit]

As the Wikimedia Foundation is based in the United States, Wikipedia articles must conform to U.S. copyright laws. It has been held in a number of court cases that any work which re-tells original ideas from a fictional source, in sufficient quantity without adding information about that work, or in some way analysing and explaining it, may be construed as a derivative work or a copyright violation. This may apply irrespective of the way information is presented, in or out of the respective fictional universe, or in some entirely different form such as a quizbook or "encyclopedia galactica".

Information about copyrighted fictional worlds and plots of works of fiction can be provided only under a claim of fair use, and Wikipedia's non-free content policy requires minimal extent of use. Many works of fiction covered by Wikipedia are protected by copyright. Some works are sufficiently old that their copyright has expired, or the rights may have been released in some way, such as under the GFDL, or into the public domain.

Conclusions[edit]

When writing about fiction, keep the following in mind:

  • The principal frame of reference is always the real world, in which both the work of fiction and its publication are embedded: write from a real-world perspective;
  • Both primary and secondary information is necessary for a real-world perspective: maintain a balanced use of both primary and secondary sources;
  • Unpublished personal observation and interpretation of the article's subject and primary sources are not acceptable on Wikipedia: avoid original research;
  • All included information needs to be verifiable and derive from and be supported by reliable sources, and all sources (including the primary sources) need to be appropriately cited in the article: reference all information and cite your sources;
  • All relevant aspects must be given due weight in all elements of the article page, including text, images, elements of layout and even the article title: give weight where weight is due;
  • Readability and comprehensibility: put all information into context with the original fiction;
  • Check with the image use policy before adding images to any article;
  • Avoid creating lists of trivia; instead, incorporate relevant information into the body of the article;
  • Wikipedia's fair-use policy: the amount of copyrighted work used should be as little as possible.

List of exemplary articles[edit]

The following is a partial list of articles about fiction or elements from fiction that follow the real-world perspective. These are good examples to follow for editors seeking to cover fictional subjects on Wikipedia. For other good examples, see the lists of articles that have been rated at Good and Featured status.

Note: Keep in mind that the content in these articles may have changed since the time of their original listing here.

Templates[edit]

{{In-universe}}

If you notice an article that predominantly describes a fictional topic from an in-universe perspective, or even provides no indication that a fictional subject is fictional, preferably rewrite the article or section yourself, or use the {{In-universe}} template to bring the issue to the attention of others. Be sure to leave a note on the article's talk page explaining your objections. The template looks like this:


{{Cleanup-tense}}

One of the most frequently occurring errors associated with an in-universe style of writing is incorrect use of past tense when discussing elements of the plot. Works of fiction are generally considered to "come alive" when read. As with all other article issues, preferably fix it yourself, or alternatively you may use the template to supplement and specify the {{In-universe}} template's call for a consistent real-world perspective.


{{Primarysources}}

If you notice an article featuring only primary sources and sources affiliated with the subject, preferably find and add suitable sources yourself, or use the {{Primarysources}} template to bring the issue to the attention of others.


{{Plot}}

A plot summary should be succinct and focused on the main plot. What to cut can sometimes be a difficult decision. If you have the time and energy, please consider tightening overly long and overly detailed plot summaries yourself. Alternatively, use the template:


{{All plot}}

If you come across an article which consists entirely or almost entirely of a plot summary, you may use the {{All plot}} template to raise the issue. Since this is a crucial article issue which may eventually lead to the article being nominated for deletion, consider improving the article yourself.


{{No plot}}

Conversely, the {{No plot}} template can be used in the rather atypical case that a plot summary is missing from an article. If you feel qualified to write a basic plot summary, consider giving it a shot. Succinctly summarizing a plot and deciding which elements to mention and how to describe and weight them can be a challenge, but it's also a rewarding experience; plot summaries can be entirely based on primary sources and in many cases no complicated cross-reading between various sources is required.

Alternative outlets for fictional universe articles[edit]

Some other Wikipedia-like projects prefer the in-universe perspective. These provide a good alternative for editors interested in writing as fans, for fans. The following is a partial list:

See also: List of wikis

Infoboxes and succession boxes[edit]

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Infoboxes, usually placed in the upper-right portion of an article, give key data about the article's subject in tabular format. For entities within fiction, useful infobox data might include the creators or actors, first appearance, an image, and in-universe information essential to understanding the entity's context in the overall fiction. What qualifies as essential varies based on the nature of the work. Where facts change at different points in a story or series, there may be no appropriate in-universe information at all to add. By contrast, an infobox on a character in a fantasy work with multiple warring factions may warrant data such as allegiance.

As with all infoboxes, trivial details should be avoided. An infobox for a real-life actor would not contain items such as favorite food and hobbies; these details do not aid the reader in understanding the important characteristics of the subject. In the same way, infoboxes about fictional entities should avoid delving into minutiae, such as information only mentioned in supplementary backstory. For this reason, infoboxes meant for real-world entities should not be applied to their fictional counterparts, since, for example, information important to a description of a real-world company may be tangential to a fictional one. It is important to identify the revenue of Microsoft, whereas the fact that fictional MegaAcmeCorp makes 300 billion GalactiBucks in 2463 is probably unimportant.

Another common type of template, succession boxes, should not be used to describe in-universe relationships in articles about fictional entities. Succession boxes assume continuity, which may not exist. Furthermore, they may invite the creation of non-notable articles that fall under the fictional succession. For articles about works of fiction themselves, the story that each work of fiction depicts does not change despite the continuation of stories across serial works or sequels, and as a consequence, the events within one work of fiction are always in the present whenever it is read, watched, or listened to. In-universe temporal designations such as "current" or "previous" are therefore inappropriate. For character articles (which cannot be bound temporally), it may be acceptable to use customized templates to summarize information from the perspective of the real world, such as connections between articles describing the same fictional world. Such templates should not invite the creation of articles about non-notable subjects.

See also[edit]

Related wikiprojects[edit]

These are some of the larger wikiprojects that deal with fiction material. They may have additional suggestions, article templates and styles which which you might wish to make yourself familiar.

There are also numerous genre-specific and even franchise-specific wikiprojects; see WP:WikiProject Council for listings.