Guide to TV Tropes, Part 1: Tropes are Not Bad
Pylon @constablewrites here! You may know me as the one who likes sending people to TV Tropes. The site is a fantastic resource and can really help writers develop their understanding of story–but it can also be intimidating and frankly dangerous. So I’m here to share some wisdom not just about the site, but about the idea of tropes in the first place.
What is a trope?
Let’s start by defining terms here. For our purposes, a trope is a specific storytelling element that is recognizable in multiple works. The concept of having characters, of stories having acts like plays, of multiple plotlines, all those basic, fundamental concepts are technically tropes.
This is a very broad definition, but that’s on purpose. It’s difficult to discuss something that doesn’t have a name, so that’s what tropes are: a way to give names to those concepts and elements we recognize so we can talk about them, and so that we can be clear that we’re talking about the same thing.
But people talk about tropes like they’re a bad thing.
When someone uses “trope” in a pejorative way, they’re usually talking about a trope that is deployed uncritically, without new context. Tropes can very easily become cliches when they get regurgitated wholesale, but that does not make a trope inherently bad, and that doesn’t mean that new life can’t be breathed into tired tropes.
So why is it important to know tropes?
Essentially, it’s hard to break the rules effectively if you don’t know what they are. Media doesn’t exist in a vacuum; your story is in conversation with everything that came before and everything that will come after. You know that guy who tries to hide that he came to class late, until he smugly makes a point that was already thoroughly discussed 20 minutes ago? Don’t be that guy. (Want to know how many people are out there hawking Hunger Games clones who genuinely have no idea that franchise exists? It’s a much higher number than you just thought of, I promise you.)
What about originality? If it’s been done before it’s not original!
Think of tropes like Lego bricks. It’s not about what bits you have, it’s about how you put them together. That’s how you can take most of the same pieces from this:
…and end up with this:
Take a bunch of spy tropes that have been overused to the point of parody and give them to superheroes, and you have something that feels fresh. A stock character that’s usually male might look very different as a female, even if they otherwise fulfill the same role. Throwing film noir and detective tropes into a setting with magic and monsters invented a whole new genre. And so on. You don’t have to reinvent or twist every element to have something new; you can get just as much mileage out of turning a single trope on its head and thoroughly exploring the implications of that.
Ultimately, you can’t mess with audience expectations if you don’t know what they are. That one death in Avengers: Age of Ultron completely shocked me because the movie is screaming at the top of its lungs that it’s gonna kill a different character. (Worth noting is that I saw it with a friend who didn’t pick up on those cues at all, and thus had a completely different reaction. Knowing those expectations can cut both ways.) Tropes represent the shared language of storytelling that your readers have learned, consciously and subconsciously, and are bringing to the table. You need to understand that language if you want to speak to them effectively.
Hopefully now you understand why it might be beneficial to spend some time on TV Tropes. But don’t dive in just yet! Otherwise you’ll emerge blinking into the light a week later, muttering about egregious sliding scales and realizing that no one’s been feeding your cat and you probably don’t have a job anymore. Tune in next time where we’ll discuss how to use the site effectively and avoid the black hole.
Edit by Werew: Here is the next part of this post! Happy Troping!