Writing Right with Dmitri: Fun with Tropes

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Words, words, words. That's what we're made of. Herewith some of my thoughts on what we're doing with them.

Writing Right with Dmitri: Fun with Tropes

A man in green with a feather in one hand and drawing a theatre curtain with the other

I shouldn't be doing this.

We're all busy writers. We should be outlining, planning, researching, and – above all – crafting sentences. What we should not be doing is trolling around the internet, finding exciting mind-candy to read. However, I cannot resist this website – and nor can you, I suspect. We'll have to chalk it up to, er, Research. That's it, Research.

The website in question is called TV Tropes. Before you protest that your TV set, like mine, sits on idle most of the week, I hasten to point out that this trope site goes beyond TV to film and literature. What it is, is a wiki site devoted to fictional tropes. It's breezy, fun, fairly comprehensive, and user-generated. What's not to like?

What's a trope when it's at home?

A trope is a device or convention that we rely on in fiction. The TV Tropes site points out that a trope is not a cliché   – unless, of course, the trope itself is used in a tired or hackneyed way.

An example of a literary trope is Chekhov's gun. I blush to admit that when I first stumbled across this trope, my mind flew unbidden to Star Trek. The Chekhov in this instance is not the Enterprise ensign but his 19th-century predecessor. I quote the author here:

If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there.   – Anton Chekhov, in S. Shchukin, Memoirs. 1911.

Isn't that an interesting trope? Good advice for writers, too.

Where tropes are at home is in the expectations of readers, listeners, or viewers. It's what they expect. You can surprise them, but you have to know what they're thinking first. Tropes are a useful study.

Snappy Names for Funny Habits

Before you get lost in this website (and you will), I would like to point out one of its biggest advantages: snappy names for things. The trope site specialises in creating clever and memorable titles or phrases to describe familiar fictional phenomena. Reading about them gives us a short, sharp shock of recognition. 'You know, that's right, that does work like that,' you think, and immediately come up with examples from your own experience. (You can sign up and add to the lore, but I'm warning you, if it takes too much time away from h2g2, you – and I – are going to be in a heap of trouble. So moderate your rapture, as WS Gilbert would say.)

At the bottom of the page on Chekhov's gun, you'll find a link to another trope, called Schrödinger's Gun. Lo and behold, the Schrödinger's gun trope is a lot like what I was writing about last week, what I called the 'quantum moment'. This trope says that whatever isn't already fixed in a story is open to interpretation. Elegantly, the site calls this 'improvisation masquerading as planning'. See how much you can learn?

One of the joys of the TV Tropes website is that reading an entry combines the 'aha' experience of discovery and learning with the déjà vu of encountering the familiar in an unfamiliar place. Oh, and the guilty pleasure of chuckling at the transparency of other people's plot devices. We, of course, are always much subtler.

Take the page on 'applied phlebotinum'. Every science fiction writer uses this. Now you have a name for it. Even better than the site's discussion of this fictional trope business is the useful link to an article by David Langford entitled 'A Gadget Too Far', which goes into greater length on the subject of science fiction inventiveness. Read and learn.

I know, I know: I'm supposed to be making helpful noises in this column, not sending you scurrying off to another website to be edified. But I'm having so much fun laughing at the gossip, anecdotes, and jokes that show up – who knew that John Barrowman1 was turned down for Will and Grace because he 'wasn't gay enough'? Okay, probably everybody but me, but it's still funny – to keep my mind on serious analysis.

So I've slacked off a bit. Nonetheless, I'm hoping you'll give the site a once-over, and start h2g2 discussions on anything you find interesting/enlightening/maddeningly wrong over there. Plenty of room at the bottom of the page here.

After all, that's a h2g2 trope: If somebody writes a Post article, somebody else will start a comment thread on the bottom, probably with a pun in the title.

I don't know what to call that trope, though. Any suggestions?

Writing Right with Dmitri Archive

Dmitri Gheorgheni

11.06.12 Front Page

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1Captain Jack Harkness? Not gay enough?

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