Writing Tropes

A long time back I came across an awesome database of TV Tropes that basically logged and categorised everything that had been written on TV into various character types.

So you could see Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a girl with super strength hero, the chosen one, and other tropes that fit her character and she would be linked with other characters of a similar type – for example in modern times, Katniss from The Hunger Games, or Harry Potter.

I dip in and out of the site from time to time and it is fascinating to see how it has grown – you can find it at tvtropes.org.

As someone who likes to write, I keep realising that pretty much everything has been done before in one way or another.

It is much easier to write the nuts and bolts of a story than you’d think because you can lean on the expectations that people have built from previous things they’ve read or viewed, and mix things up by introducing hybrid options.

Certain TV shows seem to borrow these tropes quite freely whilst others tend to try to avoid falling into them.

I think this is why we end up with a bit of a hierarchy of shows that we enjoy. Something I’ve referred to in the past as my A shows, my B shows and so forth.

Take Legends of Tomorrow for example.

This week they did a groundhog day episode where their ship exploded every hour, throwing one character back to the start of the hour until she could figure out why it was happening and fix it.

This is something we’ve seen in almost every program out there.

I know that both Buffy and Angel did one, Stargate did one, X Files did one, Lost even did it with Desmond, Once Upon a Time started with one! This trope is used in literally every ‘B’ and ‘C’ show out there.

Legends of Tomorrow didn’t shy from it, they mixed in the trope of simply calling themselves out as doing a groundhog day story by referencing it over and over.

The comedy of the episode was in how they started to find ways to convince the team there was a time loop occurring, and their suggestions were to ‘do a fun montage’ for a bit whilst they try to figure out the problem.

This particular episode made me realise just how reliant their producers have been on moving from trope to trope.

They’ve done a Freaky Friday episode where 2 characters are body swapped. Something done in pretty much all the shows mentioned above.

They’re also part of the overall Arrowverse which is itself reliant on the Multiverse trope that so many things – especially hero comics, use.

I’ve been meaning to sit and go through this site learning more about twists and turns that can and are used in media as it looks like that’s pretty much all anyone else of note has done.

I don’t believe for a second that these people are somehow coming up with these twists independently and someones just noticed and documented it, so I’m starting to think that might be a bit of a leg up – at least for writing ‘good’ stuff that isn’t ‘outstanding’.

I think to go that extra level of ‘outstanding’ you need a ridiculously good editor, director or universe building technique.

Look at George RR Martin for example with Game of Thrones – it is a basic premise and concept, the tropes are rife throughout it, but the fact is he has made these insanely detailed histories for great houses that all interweave and affect one another.

He has made rules and built his own idioms and norms into the tropes to such a degree that you almost ignore them because the story is epic.

The TV Tropes website has become a bit too hard to navigate now in my opinion because people have started breaking out tropes so niche and refined that even shouting ‘NO!’ a certain way is now considered a trope.

That said it has opened my eyes to quite a few additional cool things that TV shows and films do which I’d never really seen explained or summarised.

It has reminded me of some that have been used in the past but not that commonly – for example ‘The Two person Love Triangle’ a trope used by both Superman and Spider-man where their eventual wives or girlfriends were also in love with their alter ego without realising that they were in fact the same person.

I think Coronation Street did that trope with Jack and Vera Duckworth online dating each other at one point!

I’m hoping that remembering this is there will help me get through the various writing projects I have on the go – from a consumption perspective I find it quite fun learning more about where shows are getting their inspiration – even if it undermines the quality a little bit by ‘peaking behind the curtain’.

What are your favourite tropes? Are there any you despise and wish would stop being used?

Don’t say Groundhog day, it’s a great film and I’d be quite happy if every show stuck a cheeky loop in at least once across a 6 season series…

I think despite liking the musical episode trope, my peeve is when there’s a really dubious justification for it, or when the songs aren’t great.

Buffy and Scrubs both had fantastic premises behind their musicals.

Flash and Supergirl felt a bit weaker but were OK, and Once Upon a Time’s musical was dire!

I also realise the irony that I’m essentially living a perpetual trope by being the geeky loser who writes blog posts every day, releases a weekly podcast and does all sorts of other nerdlinger things with his spare time.

If tropes have taught me anything, I’ll be bitten by some kind of radioactive creature and develop super powers one day, unless this is a sarcastic comedy, in which case I’ll just get radiation poisoning and die.

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