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By Dawn Field
One of the most entertaining sources of information about the process, history, and future of writing is the website TV Tropes, which started as an analysis of tropes in the TV show “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and exploded. Its tagline is now “THE ALL-DEVOURING POP-CULTURE WIKI.”
Scrolling the TV Tropes database as an author is a way to take a comparative look at tons of popular works from fans’ viewpoint. It should reinforce to writers how thoughtful readers can be – and creative. Of course, the keepers of the TV Tropes database are writers too.
Here are two examples on the topic of writers:
“You have just discovered the fundamental truth: that your favorite author failed irredeemably at high school math and never wants to see a number ever again except in the corner of a page.”
“Most people can’t get their minds around just how big the universe is. So it should come as little surprise that most Speculative Fiction writers can’t either.”
TV Tropes often uses wonderfully humorous language but has a very serious side. It’s not a site about writing, but a catalogue of writing that has been done and how it’s been received – often in an extremely thoughtful and comprehensive form. In this sense, it’s a reference work for writers of ‘what elements work, and which don’t.’ Equally interesting, it’s a history of the usage of these elements.TV Tropes often uses wonderfully humorous language but has a very serious side. It’s not a site about writing, but a catalogue of writing that has been done and how it’s been received Click To Tweet
Authors build stories by picking and choosing elements to put together – characters, their behaviors, interactions, internal and external events, settings, etc. Many of these instances or combinations are recognizable: it’s not the first time we are seeing them. Humans love certain kinds of stories: think of the enduring allure of a great romance, or a mystery or a thriller. We equally love certain characters: think of kings, princesses, the underdog, the epic villain. When story elements are repeated often enough they become recognized as a ‘thing’, someone gives them a name and they are born as a trope. A trope is any figurative notion – so it’s a wide-ranging tag to put on ‘things in fiction’.
Great storytelling is about, tropes, anti-tropes, managing your tropes properly, and avoiding tropes. It’s about intimately understanding the concept of trope and reader reactions. Ace writers invent tropes like Dickens did with ‘Scrooge’. The classic tale, ‘A Christmas Carol’, gave a special name to the ‘character of a miser’ so perfectly that we now call them ‘Scrooges’.
This is what TV Tropes is about, paying homage to all these elements by recognizing them with names. The TV Tropes website has an entry for Scrooge, to be sure. It details when and where it is used in popular culture, from Dickens to today. If we click to see ‘examples in Literature’, we get the originator — Dickens:
“Ebenezer Scrooge from A Christmas Carol is the Trope Namer. In addition to being a tight-fisted miser, he’s a cold-hearted, selfish man, who despises anything that engenders happiness. It takes three ghosts to do it (four if you count Marley), but he gets better.”
Dickens earned this trope the hard way, by writing a memorable character without equal.
Every trope has a Trope Namer, but now an interesting phenomenon has taken over – the number of novel tropes is dwindling because the database is so rich.
This should not be done lightly and is not a badge of honor. Using trope namers lightly or as a badge of honor is Trope Namer Syndrome and leads to confusion, renaming, and possible deletion of tropes.”
Reading this page, you start to get a hint and the cleverness of the writing in this website: Ah! There is Trope Namer Syndrome!
That THIS trope exists speaks to the morals and quality of the database and its creators. The Trope Namer Syndrome page bears this explanation:
…But due to the size and popularity that the wiki has grown to, the old days of sitting around in closely-knit circles of nerds and naming tropes directly from our favorite works of fiction are over. With a capital O.”
Since discarding false ‘trope names’ is a core activity, the database guardians have created tropes to describe the process:
They are guarding against Fan Myopia:
… There are occasional exceptions where a good new Trope Namer can be created, but this is very rare and extremely difficult to do, as there are very few universally-known works or characters out there and chances are people don’t remember them for the same reasons that we do. It’s easy to mistake something that you know and love for something everyone knows and loves — we call this Fan Myopia.”
Clicking on Fan Myopia explains how many fans think everyone likes what they do. This can also be an issue for authors, but “Author Myopia” is a trope yet to be coined, and likely won’t be – this is a site for fans, not writers.
The lessons for writers are in seeing the world of writing reflected through the eyes of fans and in seeing the rich diversity of creative options while also realizing it is finite – there are only 7 stories after all.
What tropes do you use? Which would you never use? How do combinations of tropes work? Have you written an anti-trope? Can you create something so compelling it ends up in TV Tropes in the future?
Dawn Field is a scientist now writing her second book for Oxford University Press. She has published over 50 articles on writing because she is fascinated by what makes great writing, the writing process, learning how writers create, and how fiction impacts society. She loves reading book drafts at any stage of completion, brainstorming writing projects, and hearing about the diversity of writing experiences. Connect with her to collaborate, or converse, at UnityinWriting.com.