Applied Phlebotinum: TV Tropes and Fiction Writing

You know how sometimes, when you’re reading a book/watching TV/playing a game, something happens, and you’re like, “Oh, I’ve seen this before. And now that guy’s going to die, and those ones are going to fall in love as a result, and the bad guy is going to switch sides.”

There’s a reason for that. It’s because there is usually a particular rhyme and reason to storytelling, and people who read/hear/watch/play a lot of stories know that there are common threads.

This is the basis behind TV Tropes, a wiki site dedicated to giving a name and basis for the things we recognize in the kinds of storytelling without even realizing it.In the words of TV Tropes’ actual home page,

This wiki is a catalog of the tricks of the trade for writing fiction. Tropes are devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members’ minds and expectations. On the whole, tropes are not clichés. The word clichéd means “stereotyped and trite.” In other words, dull and uninteresting. We are not looking for dull and uninteresting entries. We are here to recognize tropes and play with them, not to make fun of them.

If you’re a writer of any sort, you have undoubtedly used a number of these tropes in your own work. If you’re not a writer, you have no doubt seen dozens of them. But do you really understand them? Can you use them in a sentence? Can you use them in your writing? On purpose?

Some of these tropes are fairly recognizable, while some others are a little more obscure, like Kryptonite is Everywhere, a trope pointing out the unusual coincidence that bad guys tend to often have – no! – the good guy’s weakness! Especially if the good guy is a superhero with only one weakness.

Even if that weakness is a piece of radioactive planet from the opposite end of the universe, petty bank robbers will have access to it. Sometimes multiple versions of it. Somehow.

Kryptonite Comic Image

This is a great example of what makes TV Tropes particularly useful. Though the site started (as the name implies) pointing out common tropes in TV shows, it has expanded to include literature, comic books, anime/manga, movies, video games, and even webcomics.

That means you can see how the same plot device or storytelling element shows up across multiple different forms of media.

Every time you look up a trope, you are given a detailed desrcription of that trope (complete with links to related tropes), and then at the bottom, a list of noted examples of that trope appearing in fiction.

If you prefer to just go search for your favorite movies, shows, or games, and see what tropes appear in those, you can do that, too.

Should you actually find yourself on TV Tropes, I must warn you: you may be there for a while. Once you start breaking apart the individual elements of fiction and seeing behind the curtain, it’s hard to stop. You end up learning a lot about the tricks and tools of constructing  a story, and then you start seeing them show up when you consume fiction, and you start to want to know more. It’s hard to stop.

So the next time you see someone use Applied Phlebotinum, or somebody gives a Hand Wave explanation to move the plot along, you should have no trouble calling it out.

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