TV Tropes is hands down the absolute best site for writers on the web. It’s so popular that it even has a page mocking it/venerating it on cracked.com. Not only will you learn an amazing amount about your craft, you’ll learn something about yourself too. It’s also a good place to contribute in a very open source kind of way. I’m just starting on that adventure myself, as I’ve started to notice a number of tropes I don’t see covered already, despite the site covering thousands and thousands of major and minor topics. In fact, I’m so enamored with this site that I’ve actually used a website copier to grab the entire thing in case they just disappear one day. To say that’s a rare thing for me, would be an understatement. I’ve mirrored maybe a few sites in my life, like Wikipedia (please don’t use a website copier there, as they offer the database for free). I only do it when it is an absolutely essential site that I just refuse to lose, in case they drop off the planet one day.
Let me start you out with a few warnings. Getting into TV Tropes can be a bit of a rat hole, to say the least. You start opening dozens and dozens of tabs. You click on every fascinating term and never manage to get through whole articles, because you are twenty clicks deep into an obscure topic like Red Oni, Blue Oni, but it’s so fascinating that you can’t stop, even as you’re wondering “how the fuck did I get here, wasn’t I reading about anti-heroes a few hours back?” You can easily spend HOURS on the site, trying to find new stuff. For me that’s all exacerbated by the fact that I’m in “study mode” right now. That’s where I try to learn as much about my craft as possible, while working on a new novel. This is the best time to study, because you can try out lots of new ideas and techniques to see how they affect your work. That said, I think I can help you get the best out of the site faster, by pointing out some essential resources and some resources worth skipping.
Once you start using the site, you may wonder if it will destroy your creativity? My friend and I, fellow author Graeme Ing, had this very debate over email and IM when I first told him about it. Quite frankly, I think the discussion is moot. I believe in using every single tool available to me, to make me better as a writer. I am not afraid of knowledge. Graeme said the writers of the past didn’t use anything like this. I agree, because they didn’t have anything like this! Not even 10 years ago was anything like this available! We are the first writers, ever to have a knowledge base like this available to us and as I see it, it opens up all kinds of new possibilities. Graeme falls into a different camp. He feels that knowing too much of this stuff can affect your creativity. He believes in an organic process and I see things more as a series of underlying mechanisms, though I also see the big picture. That said, I love to learn all these mechanics and then when I actually write, I get into a very trance like state, with absolute quiet and noise canceling headphones playing white noise. In other words, I am not using the site to pick and choose a bunch of tropes and just string them all together. You shouldn’t either or your story will be shit. Clearly, we are not the only writers to have this debate, because there are two wonderful and brilliant articles that cover both sides of the argument. The first is called TV Tropes will Ruin Your Life and the other is called TV Tropes will Enhance Your Life. It just goes to show there is nothing new under the sun. I’ll tell you that both of these articles are correct. At first the site may start to make you a bit of a cynic. You’ll look at a story and see trope after trope after trope, especially bad stories. It can make bad stories unbearable. But it won’t last. If you’re a good writer, a dedicated writer, it will only make you better at what you do. You will begin to find new ways to enjoy books and films. I guess I fall firmly on the side of “enhance you life.” And remember, there will always be the story that sweeps you away, where you forget everything you know while you stare at it mesmerized. These are the stories we all live for and want to create ourselves. HINT: Those are the best stories to go back and study later.
Once you’ve read enough, you may spot something that isn’t up there, despite there being upwards of 60,000 articles on the site. Contributing is a great way to exercise the writing bug. You can get started by clicking the “Getting Known” menu on this page. Sometimes I just need to take a break from work/life and crank out a few words. I don’t always have all the time I want to do that. That’s just life. I know I won’t be able to work on anything serious, like a novel, because that requires becoming totally focused and having many hours of free time to do it, as John Cleese so perfectly explains in this fantastic video called “how to be creative.” By working a little on an article here or there, it keeps me sharp. If you want to be an author, you have to write all the time, period. This is essential. With contributing to TV Tropes you can help other people too so that’s a double win.
I believe the key to really understanding this resource is to concentrate on the major tropes and avoid some of the minor ones. It also helps to have a project, so you can narrow your research. You won’t be able to read the whole site. Don’t try. Oh you’ll try anyway, but stop after a bit. There is a point of diminishing returns. Many of the minor tropes such as this one that discusses the use of “Ahem” in dialogue are of little value unless you are really struggling with a moment of dialogue. If you like writing anti-heroes, then spend a little time learning about what goes into that, rather than reading about every variation on the hero.
Still here? Ok, it’s easy to get lost clicking links here, I know. If you’re still with me, or you’re back after two hours of opening tabs, here are some of the most useful entries I’ve found, that relate to the big picture of stories.
To start, you can look up your favorite books and shows by name and see all the tropes associated with them. This is a fantastic way to get started because you are working with a story you know and love. I looked up the Godfather and Song of Ice and Fire, plus Fight Club and a bunch of others. But before you go TOO deep into that, it helps to know how to separate the wheat from the chaff. Movies or books will have LOTs of tropes. Many of them will be tiny ones, as we talked about earlier, so what does a major trope look like? It’s one that deals with the keys aspects of story, character, plot, theme, dialogue and symbolism. Let me point out a few essential articles that you should get to know and get to know well.
A simple trope that’s incredibly effective is “Chekhov’s Gun.” Ever had someone tell you never put something into the story that you don’t plan to use later? That’s this trope. Something seemingly unimportant is introduced early. It’s an ordinary object and barely anyone pays any attention to it, but it turns out to be a crucial weapon in the war against evil.
Let’s look at Morality, with a capital M. I believe most stories come down to how a character’s morality will be portrayed. It may sound simple, but it’s incredibly complex, from stories that have very black and white morality, to stories where everyone is morally ambiguous, to black and grey morality (my personal favorite), where the good guys are bad, but not nearly as bad as the bad guys. A good article on the site will be comprehensive. It will point to all the variations on that idea or theme. In those variations, if you look at the examples, you will find many of your favorite stories clustered under one type or the other. For me it was “grey on black morality.” It’s safe to say that 70% of my top 100 falls under that trope. That’s useful to know because it helps me understand the types of characters that I enjoy reading about and writing about. I just don’t believe that most people are black or white. As George R.R. Martin said in an interview, “it’s said that Hitler loved dogs.” Hitler also didn’t drink and was a vegetarian. Churchill drank a quart of brandy every morning, smoked and ate a ton of red meat. The world is not a black and white place. Yet, there is room for those type of stories and they are very popular. Find your own path. Find what you like and write that.
Now that you know morality, it really helps to understand how characters change. When they change, they change their morality and how they do that is called either the Face Heal Turn or the Heal Face Turn depending on whether they are good or evil.
Another key article is “Tropes of Legend.” These are the tropes that will be found in every story. Usually not all of them will be in one story, but probably a good number of them. They are the basic building blocks of story reality.
You also can’t go wrong with Hero and Anti-Hero. The “Five Man Band” talks about pairing various heroes together. If you want to pair up some villains, check out it’s inverse the “Five Bad Band.” Speaking of villains, we can’t leave them out, especially the “Big Bad.” Now all you have to do is make the “Big Bad” “Kick the Dog” and people will cheer his death. Don’t believe this stuff works? When someone caught LA cops shooting a man’s dog on camera the other day, people went ballistic, calling for the officer’s head. Trust me, this stuff works. Remember “Rape is a Special Kind of Evil.” Once they do that, it’s almost impossible to redeem that character in the audience’s mind because they’ve crossed the “Moral Event Horizon.”
Maybe you read Game of Thrones and thought damn I could write a big ass series like that? Perhaps you dream of creating your own doorstopper fantasy novel and having your name in lights? An epic burns inside you! The people will love you. Well, if you want to write a really big book, check out the various strategies for handling that on the “Loads and Loads of Characters” page. It doesn’t mean you will be able to pull it off, but you’ll at least be wearing the right shoes for the race. Of course, if you really want to write a story that captivates audiences, check out the “Magnificent Bastard.” This topic is so big that there are articles on “how to write your own Magnificent Bastard.”
Now that you’ve got the major tropes under your hat, it’s time to dig into some equally useful ones that are a bit harder to find. Maybe you’re not sure who’s going to die on a show or in your great American novel? Then check out the “Sorting Algorithm of Mortality,” which offers a grid of characters that are definitely going to get it and ones that usually won’t. You can easily play with this audience expectation to create all kinds of emotions. Maybe you want to really tug at audience heart-strings and make them cry? Check out “Kill the Cutie” for an easy and powerful way to achieve that.
Maybe you want to write a female hero and you want her to be a post-feminist badass, a spunky action girl, but you still want her to appear feminine and not just act like a dude with tits? Then you need “Acceptable Feminine Goals and Characteristics,” to help round our your character. Just remember, “All Women Love Shoes.”
Made it this far? If you got through this whole article and didn’t get stuck in the TV Tropes event horizon, then congrats. Or maybe you just managed to make it back here after getting caught in the infinite click-a-thon that is TV Tropes? No matter. This is a page you can keep coming back to. I will continue to expand it as I find new and essential engines of creation. Feel free to point out crucial tropes you find in the comments section.