Wikipedia:Manual of Style/Writing about fiction

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Wikipedia contains numerous articles on subjects related to fiction, including fictional worlds and elements therein. When creating these articles, editors should establish the subject's real-world notability by including several reliable, independent secondary sources. This approach will also ensure enough source material is available for the article to be comprehensive and factually accurate. If notability is established, the topic will generally be suitable for inclusion on Wikipedia.

Once an article about fiction is created, editors should consider: (a) what to write about the subject, and (b) how to best present that information. These questions are complementary and should be addressed simultaneously to create a well written article or improve a preexisting one. Although this page is not a policy, following the basic notions laid out in this guideline is generally considered good practice.

Real-world perspective

Articles about fiction, like all Wikipedia articles, should use the real world as their primary frame of reference. As such, the subject should be described from the perspective of the real world, in which the work of fiction and its publication are embedded. To achieve this, editors must use both primary and secondary information.

Important 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 it 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
  • Mentioning the creator's intention (if references cover such information)

Real-world perspective is not an optional criterion for quality, but rather a 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

An in-universe perspective describes the narrative from the vantage of characters within the fictional universe, treating it as if it were real and ignoring real-world context and sourced analysis. 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:

  • Aspects of the work of fiction are described as if they were real
  • Use of past tense when discussing the plot or any of its elements (except backstory), rather than the historical present tense
  • Backstories of characters, places, institutions or lore are presented as historical accounts. For example, the history of Starfleet from the Star Trek franchise could be written about in the same manner as the US Air Force, how it was formed, key events, etc. If Starfleet needs to be discussed it should be explained in what episodes it was introduced and key events were established
  • 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 introducing the character as: "Gandalf was a powerful wizard", write: "Gandalf is characterised as a powerful wizard" or "Gandalf is a wizard who appears within the works of J. R. R. Tolkien".
  • Attempting to reconcile contradictions or bridge gaps in the narrative, rather than simply reporting them as such
  • Giving undue weight to a fictional topic's appearances in obscure spin-off material
  • Placing spiritual successors in the same continuity as the works that inspired them
  • Using in-jokes and references that require knowledge of the plot or characters of the work (or related works)
  • 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 the galaxy", write: "This story is set in 34,500 AD, when the Trantorian Empire encompasses roughly half 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; it should be ordered as the fourth work in the series, not the first. Editors can include both the fictional and real world timelines, providing that the distinction is not ambiguous; the real world timeline should take precedence.

These restrictions also apply to serious satire such as Gulliver's Travels, Candide, and many stage plays, in which the fictional elements are designed to camouflage the serious political or social criticism within the work. In such cases, it is legitimate to use reliable sources to examine the fictional elements and the design of the storyline when such sources 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.

Please review the sections on fair use, accuracy and appropriate weight, and templates.

Sources of information

This section deals with the incorporation of information in articles about fiction, specifically in regard to primary and secondary sources.

Primary

Primary information is gathered from primary sources about the fictional universe, such as the original work of fiction or an affiliated work (e.g., another episode of the same TV series). Even articles with the strictest adherence to a real-world perspective still source the original work. 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 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.

Additional details are in the sections on fair use and templates.

Secondary

Secondary information is external to the fictional universe; it 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 creation of the work. Publications affiliated with a particular work of fiction (such as 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 cover the topic's major facts and details from 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 related to the work, include the:

  • author, creator, or other key figures in the creation process (e.g., the cinematographer for films or notable translators for novels);
  • production company and/or publishing house;
  • design and development (at all stages of the work's creation);
  • real-world factors that influenced the work (or an aspect thereof);
  • actors who portrayed a character (and their approach to the depiction);
  • foreign translations;
  • sales figures (for commercial offerings);
  • reception by critics and the public;
  • critical analysis, including discussion of themes, style, motifs, and genre; and
  • influence on later creators and their projects.

Contextual presentation

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 real-world 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 and other real-world information related 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 (known in this use as the narrative present), as this is the way that the story is experienced as it is read or viewed (see also WP:FICTENSE). 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 (see, for example, #Plot summaries of individual works). 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).

The length of a plot summary should be carefully balanced with the length of the other sections, as well as the length of the story itself; simple plots may require only short summaries. 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#Plot suggests that plot summaries for feature films be between 400 and 700 words.

Plot summaries of individual works

In articles on individual works, the plot summary is usually described within a section labeled "Plot", "Story", or "Synopsis". This heading implicitly informs the reader that the text within it describes the fiction. For purposes for conciseness, it is thus not necessary to explicitly incorporate out-of-universe language, particularly if the work is presented in a linear, direct presentation, such as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. It can be presumed that the work, as presented by the plot, involves fictional characters and events and proceeds in a straight-forward manner. However, care should be taken to avoid incorporating elements of an in-universe perspective, as described above. For longer, singular works, subheadings based on the natural divisions in the plot (for example, the three Books within A Tale of Two Cities, or the acts of a play or musical) can be used to provide real-world framing.

A singular work itself might necessitate a real-world perspective due to its structure. Works that incorporate non-linear storytelling elements, such as flashbacks (Citizen Kane) or In medias res (The Usual Suspects) presentation, or other narrative framing devices such as breaking the fourth wall (Ferris Bueller's Day Off), may require inclusion of out-of-universe language as to describe how the work is presented to the reader or viewer. For example, a summary of Citizen Kane should be clear much of the film takes place as an extended flashback, described in narrative present tense to the reader, bookended by scenes taking place in the film's present. 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 and condenses the summary. A work with two concurrent storylines between which the narrative switches is likely better told by summarizing one storyline in full, followed by the second storyline. If the narrative device is a significant feature of the fiction, such as with the film Memento, this structure should be explained to the reader.

Where there are narrative ambiguities, for example as a result of an unreliable narrator or cinematic technique, the plot summary must not present interpretations of the creators' intent. In such cases where a true narrative is not immediately obvious, this can be avoided by the use of out-of-universe language to describe the context of how the events are presented. Interpretation of the plot taken from reliable sources can be included elsewhere in the article to provide additional information.

Plot summaries of serial works

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. This can often be aided by provided appropriate section headers for each of the works as to delineate the divisions of the series.

Characters and other fictional elements

When characters or other elements from fictional works are notable for their own standalone article, it is acceptable and often necessary to include a narration of that element's role in the events of the work(s) they are a part of. However, such narration must employ out-of-universe style and include real-world descriptors. Characters should not be presented as if they are real persons, fictional settings should not be treated as a real place, and so forth. Since such articles are presented with a mix of elements related to the fictional narrative alongside elements related to conception, development, and reception, editors must be sure these articles clearly define the fictional aspects with out-of-universe language to avoid confusion. Often, using section labels such as "Fictional description", "Fictional biography", or "Appearances" can help to segregate the narrative elements from the real-world elements in the rest of the article.

Summary style approach

When an article gets long (see Wikipedia:Article size), a section is sometimes developed into its own article, and the handling of the subject in the main article is condensed to a brief summary. This is a normal Wikipedia procedure called summary style. The new article is sometimes called a "spinoff" or "spinout" 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, with an appropriate amount real-world information included. As with all Wikipedia articles, the spinout needs to be verifiable, must possess no original research, and must reflect a neutral point of view.

Sourcing and quotations

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.

Analysis and interpretation

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.

Notability

Generally speaking, a fictional topic that does not meet the notability guidelines should not have its own article on Wikipedia. However, a collection of fictional topics, such as a setting or cast of characters, may be more notable as a whole. As mentioned earlier, the rule of thumb is that if the topic is sufficiently notable, secondary sources will be available and will ideally be included on article creation.

Accuracy and appropriate weight

Articles must be written from a neutral point of view and must give due weight to all aspects of the subject. Editors should also give appropriate weight to all elements of the article (e.g., images and text, as well as infoboxes and succession boxes). 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 disproportionately long plot summaries and in-universe writing.

Fair use

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

When writing about fiction, keep the following in mind.

  • Write from a real-world perspective: the principal frame of reference is always the real world, in which both the work of fiction and its publication are embedded.
  • Use a balance of primary and secondary sources: both are necessary for a real-world perspective.
  • Avoid original research: unpublished personal observation and interpretation of the article's subject and primary sources are not acceptable on Wikipedia.
  • Reference all information and cite your sources: information needs to be verifiable and derive from and be supported by reliable sources. All sources (including the primary sources) need to be appropriately cited in the article.
  • Maintain balanced coverage: all relevant aspects must be given due weight in all elements of the article, including text, images, layout, and even the article title. Avoid creating lists of trivia; instead, incorporate relevant information into the body of the article, and discard what is unnecessary to the understanding of the topic. If a fictional topic is not covered in several independent, reliable, secondary sources, then it probably should not have its own article.
  • Put all information into context with the original fiction: readability and comprehensibility are key, and the reader should always be able to differentiate between real world and fictional content.
  • Use copyrighted work sparingly: check with the image use policy before adding images to any article. Ensure the article complies with Wikipedia's fair-use policy.

List of exemplary articles

Here are examples of fiction-related articles that follow the real-world perspective. Editors should use these as a guide when writing their own articles. For other examples, see the lists of articles that have been rated at Good and Featured status.

These articles may have changed in content since their listing.

Templates

{{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.


{{Primary sources}}

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.


{{Long 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

Many fictional universes have dedicated Wikis that may feature more comprehensive coverage of the in-universe aspects of the work, without the need to establish real-world perspective. If a universe is not available in the above link, please try a search engine.

Infoboxes and succession boxes

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.

Categories

A number of categories exist to sort works of fiction by their major themes and narrative elements which can help readers find related works. For example, works on Harry Potter should be categorized in Fictional characters who use magic. However, editors should be careful to use an excessive number of categories, and should only use the categories that primarily cover the work, where it would be nearly impossible to concisely describe the work or topic of fiction without broadly mentioning the category. While Category:Blood in fiction may readily apply to stories where blood is a major element such as works about vampires, the work should not be categorized into this category just based on the appearance of blood in the work. Overzealous sorting can diffuse the usefulness of these categories, as well as over-categorize certain works.

See also

Related wikiprojects

These are some of the larger wikiprojects that deal with fiction material. They may have additional suggestions, article templates and styles with 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.

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