The Wave Theory of Slash

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Title: The Wave Theory of Slash ("I am not Alone or The Four Waves of Slash Fandom" and "Catch A Wave")
Creator: Lezlie Shell
Date(s): April 1993, May 1993
Medium: online, print
External Links: someone in 2005 posted it here
Click here for related articles on Fanlore.

The Wave Theory of Slash, often referred to simply as "Wave Theory", originates from a 1993 essay by Lezlie Shell.

In the essay, Shell theorizes that there are clusters of tropes and styles in slash that a given fandom (or a given fan) progresses through, in the same way that feminism is said to have progressed through various "waves".

One thing Shell emphasized was that "EVERY wave has quality stories and writers. EVERY wave has bad stories and poor writers. What you consider good and bad depends on which wave you rode in on."

The Wave Theory was one of the first "big hits" of fannish meta fandom. It has elicited conversations and analysis from the time it was first posted[1], and continues to do so.

Also see Meta Essays, List Surveys and Notable Discussions on Virgule-L.

Publication History

The essay was posted to the Virgule-L mailing list on April 7, 1993 with the title Catch A Wave. It was also printed in the Strange Bedfellows APA in May 1993, with the title I am not Alone or The Four Waves of Slash Fandom.


series of wave theory buttons created by the Media Cannibals in response to Lezlie's theory. These were most likely worn at Escapade conventions in the 1990s.

The essay sparked a lot of interest as it classified a fandom's fanfiction according to four sets of characteristics: explicitness of a sex scene, relationship of the story to canon, sexuality focus within a sex scene, and the writer's perceived relationship to the fandom.

Because the essay was originally on a private mailing list, its contents could not be directly passed around to other fans, but had to be alluded to and discussed without accessing the original text; this led to fannish drift.

The essay was discussed at a panel at the slash convention Escapade, and the theory was one of the first pieces of meta where fans attempted to describe their own processes and culture.

The Four Phases or Waves (from the original posting)

reprinted, with permission, in the 1998 Red Rose Convention program book

New Theory poised for criticism, evaluation, and elaboration:

Please be brutal, sarcasm appreciated.

Slash fan fiction has four waves:

Phase One: Character-based stories with slash

  • A. The relationship between the characters is the point of the story. Slash is a means to intensify that relationship.
  • B. These stories are almost exclusively set in the "real" broadcast universe as the writers' love of the show/characters as presented is what got them into fandom.
  • C. The writer invests a great deal of time making characters presented as heterosexual having sex with each other "believable". In these stories this relationship is not "homosexual" in the political or social sense. The sex acts are between two people of the same sex, but are not "realistic" in relation to the lives of homosexual men.
  • D. The writers are in fandom (in contact with other fans) and already writing non/slash stories. They view slash as the end of a progression. Would have no trouble classifying a sexless story as slash. Writers: Sebastian, H.G..

Phase Two: Character-based slash

  • A. Stories about the characters involved in a slash relationship. The slash characterizations are still tied to the aired ones, but the writers do more extrapolation without looking for "proof" in the aired episodes. Certain aspects of the first-wave characterizations are accepted on equal footing as aired source material.
  • B. The majority of the stories are still in the "real" world, but it is a broader world. The few a/u stories are the "real" characters in another time. The reader has no trouble recognizing "aired" characters in these stories.
  • C. The sex in these stories is more realistic in that the writers have probably read "The Joy of Gay Sex", but the sex is still female-oriented.
  • D. Second wave writers are already a part of fandom and are readers of non/slash fan lit, but there is no doubt that reading slash gave them the impetus to write. Writer: Pam Rose. Work: Mercs.

Phase Three: Slashing the characters

  • A. The slash relationship is central to the story. Without it, there would be no story. But, let me hasten to add, there IS a story complete with plot.
  • B. No emphasis on trying to convince the readers that these characters are having sex. The characterizations are based on 1st and 2nd wave stories as much if not more than the episodes.
  • C. Sex is more realistic in regards to actual homosexual practices. In these stories, one or both of the characters has experience with the same sex (other than the first-wave Bodie in Africa type of experience).
  • D. The writers were drawn into fandom by the slash. To them, there is no point in a sexless slash story.
  • E. Alternate Universe stories come into their own. The A/U is used to remove the characters from the strictures of the "real" world, or, to put it bluntly, to let the characters be out of character. Writer: Ellis Ward is a very good 3rd-wave writer. Work: Her horror novel (I'm sorry, I forgot the name)."

Phase Four: Multimedia slash

  • A .Slash goes multi-media. It is commonly accepted that the only admission requirement for a male TV character to be slashed is a penis. The notion that there was something "special" about K&S or B&D, etc. that made them slashable is viewed with tolerant amusement by the 4th wavers.
  • B. The characterizations in multimedia are, for the most part, composite slash characterizations built from fan fiction in other fandom. It takes a VERY VERY good writer to do character-based slash for a show that has a limited audience because the readers buy-in is limited
  • C. Fourth wave sex, particularly for shows set in present-day America, is more sophisticated. Some stories have one or both characters being bi or homosexual, as opposed to just having some same-sex experience.
  • D. While the writer will be drawn into fandom by the virtue of writing, the readers don't get drawn into the fandom. While the writer will be drawn into fandom by the virtue of writing, the readers may remain fans outside of fandom. Writers: M. Fae Glasgow [2] and whoever wrote the Holmes/Watson story in Kathy Resch's zine."

EVERY wave has quality stories and writers. EVERY wave has bad stories and poor writers. What you consider good and bad depends on which wave you rode in on.

I consider myself a second wave reader and writer. BUT I enjoy the h e double toothpick out of many 3rd and 4th wave stories. I just find that the percentage of stories I enjoy in the third wave is smaller than the second; and stories I enjoy in the 4th wave are an even smaller piece of the pie.

Someone who came in on the 4th wave, whose first Zine was Queer as A Three Pound Note (Which I REALLLLLY liked) might find first wave stories too naive and unrealistic for her tastes.

Does this make any sense?



Applicability For Today's Fans

When it was first released, the Wave Theory produced significant discussion from fans who felt it did - or did not - apply to them or their particular fandoms.

Some fans have commented that the Wave Theory - being a product of 90s fandom - still fits the patterns of slash fandoms from that time; but the activities of slash fans and the way they interact with canon have since changed to the point that the model no longer applies.

The wave theory fits my experience of old fandoms like K/S or Due South but not more recent fandoms.[3]
One of the things about the original wave theory is that it seems to posit an initial gen fandom that fans are part of and then slowly diverge from with their first wave stories, which, to generalize wildly, in the current climate of building slash archives before a show has even aired, and so on, doesn't precisely fit, and definitely doesn't seem to apply to popslash so much.[4]

As fandom has grown exponentially on the Internet, the 'lines' between wavers have blurred as fans jump into and out of fandoms more quickly. A better example in this instance might be a model in which concurrent 'waves' spread out from multiple locations, to be absorbed simultaneously (or not absorbed) depending on the content of the wave.

Fan Responses to the Theory

See MUCH discussion at The Wave Theory of Slash/Fan Discussion and Meta.


  1. ^ executrix's Meta: Drowning in Waving, dated July 14, 2008; WebCite. Also unovis's post Explanation of waves theory in slash dated July 15, 2008;WebCite.
  2. ^ "May I say that M. Fae Glasgow objected strenuously to being categorized as a fourth waver. She really and truly *loathes* "Any Two Guys" slash. I submit that she has never written it (and prefers to work as much from canon and "visible" subtext as possible). She was, however, a major slash writer during the initial multimedia slash phase--but that's because she could write so well and was so often inspired to do so. Palo Verde (Oblique Publications)" -- from palo_verde, who posted the entire fanwork (minus some small examples of authors and fics) on May 13, 2005
  3. ^ Anonymous comment at fail-fandomanon dated November 21, 2011; reference link.
  4. ^ Excerpt from a comment left on torch's 2007 essay Pairings, wave theory, interpretive communities.
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