But What is a Trope, Anyway?

by Timothy Kwok, Chemistry + USP, Year 1

The reading of books has always been a habit that’s actively praised, espoused and encouraged. However, I intend to advcate something altogether different: reading about books, stories, or any kind of creative work. This is advice that may at first seem peculiar or even boring – but fear not. I am not suggesting doing something as dry as ploughing through lengthy book reviews by verbose academics or perusing plot summaries on Wikipedia. I simply ask that you visit tvtropes.org and read its articles.

TV Tropes is a wiki that catalogues various tropes found within creative works. The first half of its name may come off as something of a misnomer, because TV Tropes compiles tropes from films, video games, comics, anime, and – yes – books, instead of only restricting itself to television shows. But at least one more question remains unanswered: What is a trope, anyway?

One can think of tropes as devices and conventions that the audience can expect in a creative work. The Hero and the Big Bad, tropes respectively referring to the clean-cut protagonists and chief villains of stories, count as among the more ubiquitous examples. To illustrate, under the TV Tropes entry for the Harry Potter series, the Big Bad is Voldemort and the Hero is the titular character. Tropes need not, however, be confined to character archetypes. Most refer not to actual people and things but to specific occurrences, and may also border on the tongue-in-cheek. Ever noticed, for example, a character going through a bad day glumly remark, “At least it isn’t raining…” – and then, wham, it suddenly starts pouring? They have a trope for that (Tempting Fate). Or what about the numerous instances in which the protagonist is seemingly killed off in the climactic final showdown, but is later revealed to be alive all along? They have a trope for that too (Disney Death). Or perhaps you’ve observed – in this very written piece and many others – how three examples are often listed to get a point across? They have a trope for that as well (Rule of Three).

But, so far, I have dwelled on the what. Lest I get carried away and list out the wiki’s entire repertoire of tropes, I shall move on to the why – specifically, why I even bother looking up TV Tropes articles on the books I’ve read and why I think everyone should as well.

Newcomers and seasoned tropers alike may hesitate in spending extended visits to the wiki, and this is perfectly understandable. Whenever I feel tempted to revisit an old series, a nagging voice in my head reminds me that time is at an all too precious premium, that my hours could be better utilised by moving on to something new. It’s a familiar conundrum for the college-bound bookworm: the dilemma of re-experiencing the rich storytelling of an old favourite, at the cost of not having the time to dive into a new narrative. I nonetheless still advocate spending time on the former, for the simple reason that a lot can happen in a novel. 200 to 500 pages’ worth of story can tell and describe a great many things – and oftentimes, in my haste to get through a book, a lot gets glossed over and missed out, especially if it’s my first read. What TV Tropes excels in is its comprehensive deconstruction of creative works. It breaks down that behemoth of a book into more palatable bite-sized bits, by neatly listing out the tropes that appear in the story in alphabetical order. This collection of tropes doesn’t provide the reader with a coherent overview of the storyline, but it really isn’t meant to nor does it have to. I have already read the book, after all. What TV Tropes does is analyse.

I like to think of TV Tropes as a speedy, text-based DVD commentary, which surfaces observations, ideas, and insights about stories that may not have been very obvious in the first reading. Some tropes perform this service better than others. I especially enjoy scrolling down directly to the “Foreshadowing” entry, which is described in the wiki as “a clue or allusion embedded in the narrative that predicts some later event or revelation”. I draw from the popular Harry Potter series another trope example (the last one, I promise). In book one, we see Ronan, a Centaur from the Forbidden Forest, make an ostensibly throwaway comment that “always the innocent are the first victims”. Fast forward three books to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and readers are punched in the gut with the tragic revelation of the blameless Cedric Diggory becoming the Second Wizarding War’s first casualty. Could the average reader have uncovered this gem of an insight even after meticulously mining through the books one, two or even three times? It is highly doubtful.

Using a trope to dig up all sorts of insightful observations about a given work evokes the excitement of a literary treasure hunt. Of still greater satisfaction, though, would be observing all the ways in which the same trope can work across different stories and settings. Whether in books or in movies, in Western animation or in anime, writers have found all manner of uses for a given trope. Although tropes are considered story conventions, they are not clichés. The same trope, applied across different creative works, can be averted, subverted, inverted, lampshaded or played straight.

We find a classic example in the Sheet of Glass trope: Imagine a high-speed car chase taking place in a movie. The perspective then switches to a pair of construction workers further down, carrying a large rectangular sheet of glass across the road. If the trope is played straight, the first car drives through the glass and shatters it. If the trope gets inverted, it is the car that gets destroyed instead – perhaps as a hyperbolic, humorous attempt to show just how shoddy the vehicle is. Trope subversions possess great laughter potential as well. There is a scene in a Simpsons episode in which the two workers manage to deftly evade a speeding car and a skateboarding Bart Simpson, only to toss their sheet of glass into a dumpster on the other side of the road, just as they had intended. Or, the trope could get lampshaded – that is, the trope in question can get directly referenced by a character in the story. In such a scenario, the car smashes through the glass, and the irate workers are heard snarkily remarking about how the speeding cars can manage to avoid crashing into anything but their sheet of glass.

We thus see that the Sheet of Glass trope can be used to great effect for comic relief. However, if we shift our attentions away from gag-based tropes to the more serious, things get really interesting. I like complex villains in my stories, and it is exceedingly evident that many authors and creators do as well. A common way writers add that additional layer of character complexity is to make their villains sympathetic, to provide their personalities a dimension of Good, to – in other words – convert them into Anti-Villains. But, very much like our simple Sheet of Glass gag, this character trope can work in myriad ways. The brand of anti-villainy of Les Miserables’ Inspector Javert, for example, is very different from that of, say, Batman’s Mr Freeze. Though they both share the designation as Anti-Villain in their respective stories, they fulfil the role in ways that are completely opposite of one another. Javert is a law-abiding policeman motivated by an extreme sense of justice that leaves no room for mercy; Mr Freeze, meanwhile, is a super-criminal who commits heists so that he can save his dying wife.

This, then, is the true strength of tvtropes.org and its compilation of tropes: They establish connections between different stories and characters. In so doing, the tropes prompt readers to pause and ponder about deeper questions pertaining to storytelling itself. Readers familiar with Javert and Mr Freeze may, for example, begin to ask about the different ways in which the two characters’ motivations inform their actions. They may also start to notice how sympathetic the two Anti-Villains’ are relative to one another. And this may, in turn, get them to make still deeper and broader enquiries: How do villains shape a story? What makes a villain compelling to audiences? Can a villain be complex even if he’s irredeemably evil? Or, conversely, if an author lazily slapped together a one-dimensional evil character but then also adds that he loves his pet dog Mr Biggles, does this automatically make the villain deep and “balanced”?

TV Tropes gets readers to think, reflect and attain a deeper appreciation of the stories they’ve read and watched – and it does so in a breezy style accessible to all audiences. Its articles’ casual and light tone bears great resemblance to that of a witty fanfic analysis, carrying none of the pretensions of a stuffy academic paper. Ultimately, TV Tropes is about the celebration of storytelling, and everyone is invited to join in. An entire universe thus awaits: Put down that novel you’re reading, look up your favourite series on TV Tropes, and get lost in this wonderful world of wry observation and illuminating insight.