Monday, July 30, 2012

Have You Heard of TVTropes?

I'm sure you're familiar with wikis. A wiki is a website created by a huge number of contributors, the best-known example being Wikipedia. But it's not the only one. You can find wikis for any number of different purposes -- as an example, StrategyWiki is a wiki with strategy guides for over 4000 video games. Wikis are becoming more and more popular as life gets more and more complicated.

So let me introduce you to TVTropes, one of the coolest fiction-writing wikis around. As the organizers say on their home page:
Tropes are devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members' minds and expectations.
And yes, if you click on the "tropes" link in that quote, you'll zip to a page that goes into more detail about tropes. That "hotlinking" is part of what makes TVTropes so cool... and sometimes you'll need it just to understand what they're talking about. On occasion I've spent hours on this site just learning about how different types of fiction stories are created... and laughing at some of the lessons as well. Let me give you a quick idea of what you might find on this site... and how absorbing it can be.

TVTropes not only teaches you how to write fiction (I'll get to that in a moment) but they also dissect how those tropes are used in various types of fiction. For this example, I'll use the basic trope page about the Star Trek franchise. (There are individual pages on each series as well.) You'll find gobs of hotlinks on this page.

In the first paragraph, the words "five live action television series, one Animated Adaptation" are actually seven different hotlinks! (That's not common, but you'll find it occasionally.) In this case, each of the first six words links to a different Star Trek series -- discussed later in the article, and with hotlinks there as well -- and the words "Animated Adaptation" link to a trope page. These two pages give you a good idea what you'll find on a TVTropes page.

On the Star Trek page, partway down you'll find a list with the title "Tropes common across all series" followed by a list of tropes, some with the craziest names you'll ever see  -- A.I. is a Crapshoot, Almighty Janitor, Blunt Metaphors Trauma, Chekov's Gun, Cleavage Window, Destructo Nookie, etc. These represent memorable tropes that get used frequently on Star Trek (and other shows as well -- that's why they're tropes):
  • A.I. is a Crapshoot: Artificially intelligent computers and lifeforms have a tendency to be unpredictable. Will they be helpful, like Sonny in I, Robot or homicidal like Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey?
  • Almighty Janitor: Many shows feature a character who's pretty low on the totem pole of "valuable member" in a given society, but these characters often turn out to be the most valuable source of strategy in the story.
  • Blunt Metaphors Trauma: How do you make someone sound alien or out-of-place? Just have them butcher common idioms that we 21st Century humans use. The movie Demolition Man has loads of these, like "You can take this job and shovel it."
  • Chekhov's Gun: An actual name from a plot device used by author Anton Chekhov. Since he's the original creator of this trope, he's also called the Trope Namer on the site.
  • Cleavage Window: One of the sillier tropes that you'll easily recognize -- the woman's outfit with a huge hole over the chest, with no other purpose than showing off the shapelier aspects of the actress. Note that there are other tropes linking to this -- like Fan Service, which is the term manga fans use.
  • Destructo Nookie: Two characters may be trying to kill each other but end up making love (like in the movie Mr. & Mrs. Smith).
All of these individual pages, after explaining the trope (and linking to related tropes) provide a list of examples in various types of fiction. For example, click on "Film" on the Blunt Metaphors Trauma page and you'll see Demolition Man listed right there, along with some of the examples. (Some of those examples aren't quite accurate but, as John Spartan says, they're close enough.)

The point of all this is to help you:
  1. recognize aspects of style that are essential to a given type of story (for example, look up Ray Gun Gothic, which is listed on the Star Trek page; it includes some of the elements I use in my Captain Nexus stories) or
  2. overused tropes that you want to avoid. Most of the time you'd want to avoid the Aliens Never Invented the Wheel or No Such Thing as Alien Pop Culture tropes unless you're going for humor. (The latter trope page mentions the alien G'Kar from Babylon 5 who wonders if Daffy Duck is some kind of household god -- advanced aliens never heard of cartoons, you see. In a related example, G'Kar once observed that every alien race seems to have its own version of Swedish meatballs. Make of that what you will.)
That's part of what makes TVTropes so cool. But there are specific pages designed to help you write fiction that fits in specific genres. Go to the So You Want to See the Index page and just skim down the listings. The section labeled The Basics will send you to pages with general writing help, while there's a load of genre-specific help in the sections after that. Some probably won't help you much, like Write a Dating Sim or Write a Slasher Horror Story, but there's plenty of helpful stuff you can use -- even in a children's story -- to make sure you get the right elements in your story.

Just allow plenty of time to poke around TVTropes. It's an addictive site!

NOTE: Here's a page with a list of the most common trope names and their meanings. It might make things a bit easier to follow.

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