Trope: a metaphor, example, literary device, picture–and maybe whatever else the writer wants it to mean..

I was just digging into some serious re-writing when the latest post at The King of Elfland’s Second Cousin popped up. In it, Chris rhapsodizes about the Periodic Table of Storytelling, probably one of the funniest and most creative plotting tools I’ve ever seen.

(See Chris’ blog for full-sized picture.)

I first encountered it myself, not long ago, and all of the tropes displayed come from the TV Tropes website. When I saw Chris’ post I suffered a severe flashback to several missing days when I buried myself in my computer and read till my eyes burned and all the caffeine… well, nevermind. The point is that you visit TV Tropes at your peril. What is TV Tropes? It’s a wiki site dedicated to dissecting TV shows, movies, books, and yes, comics, for their tropes. There you can hunt down your favorite TV show, or whatever, and see how tropers have broken it down. The results can be horrifying and hilarous. For a writer, the best bit is the list of tropes (a long, long list). Stuck for a character or a way to make a character interesting? Just click along till you find an interesting character trope, complete with examples and comparisons. So it’s an incredible tool.

At least I keep telling myself that.

There are all sorts of specialized terms, like Subverted (when a trope is twisted in a way that defeats its original meaning), Averted (the writing escapes the obvious trope), and Lampshaded (a trope is used straight–but pointed out by the characters, showing even they are consious of it). How does it all work? Let me show you with the Main Character of Wearing the Cape, Hope Corrigan, aka Astra, spunky superhero sidekick.

Astra Tropes (click on each title for definitions):

Resigned To The Call: the bombing of the Ashland Overpass, her subsequent superpower breakthrough, and the Sentinel’s offer of membership is a clear Call to Adventure–but she already has her own plans and is leery of superheroes generally, so she’s Not Happy About It.

Hand Wave: the breakthrough that gives her her supergirl-like powers–and empowers all of her word’s superheroes–is never explained. (Example from the page: Time Magazine: “How does the Heisenberg compensator work?” Star Trek technical advisor Michael Okuda: “It works very well, thank you.”)

Plucky Girl: while Hope becomes a Super Hero (another trope), she starts as a Plucky Girl who will scream, cry, lose her lunch, and still come back and punch the Bad Guy in the face. The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow because she damn well will make it rise.

Superheroes Wear Capes: this one is partly averted and completely lampshaded in that “capes” is actually slang for superheroes in Hope’s world and only flying superheroes usually wear them. Hope herself has troubles with the short cape that’s an obligatory part of her costume.

Sidekick: while as Astra, Hope becomes the literal sidekick of Atlas, Chicago’s premier hero, she manages to avert virtually all cliches associated with this superhero trope (although she does get captured a bit).

Clark Kenting: Hope decides to keep her private identity secret (something many heroes in her world don’t do)–which means that in costume she can’t look like herself. So she wears a mask covering half of her face, a wig to lengthen and darken her hair, and even a padded costume to make her look more… more. No pair of glasses for her and she has to change her life to hide what she’s become.

I could go on, and someday I might, but I think you get the idea. I encourage writers everywhere to check TV Tropes out. As literary criticism, it’s an unmatched tool. It may show you how to better use the tropes you’re unconsciously using–or make you decide to subvert or lampshade them or throw them out entirely. If nothing else it will make you laugh. A lot.

But be warned; it’s the Red Pill–non-writers risk never again being able to watch a movie or TV show or enjoy a good book without picking out its tropes. Writers risk finding themselves caught in the Centepide’s Dilema, too trope-aware for their own good.

So maybe you should forget about this post. Walk away and be happy. Or click any of the above links and see how deep the rabbit hole goes.


One thought on “Trope: a metaphor, example, literary device, picture–and maybe whatever else the writer wants it to mean..

  1. And if you have been to TV Tropes, tell me a story–what are your favorite tropes? Is there a favorite movie/book/TV show troped there? Any suggestions/arguments for variations on tropes? Or do you think the entire site should be carpet-bombed so we can all get back to writing?

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