Tropes and Story Planning

In a recent blog post I apologized for linking to “the black hole that is TV tropes” It’s a highly interlinked site with summaries of hundreds upon hundreds of elements that appear repeatedly in fiction of various kinds, and even sometimes in the real world. Once you follow one link, you’re likely to follow many more, until you notice that far too much time has passed and you’ve wasted spent half the afternoon reading from it.

I’ve heard that some people consider tropes bad, to be avoided, but to me it seems they’re confusing trope with stereotype or cliche. Tropes are cultural elements that have endured for a long time; they’re the background “collective unconscious” from which we can legitimately draw to inspire us. I’m not sure avoiding tropes is the least bit possible, let alone desirable. So in this post I’m going to talk about a few tropes I’ve recognized in my work in progress , and what I’m trying to do that’s at least mildly original.

(A-Z Challenge T logo)

It seems to me that a good way to use the TV tropes site is to look up key ideas in your story, read the entry and some nearby related ones, then think about how your version of the story will have enough differences to attract readers who want to see something at least a little different. You might find that the differences you want are themselves tropes, but you need to keep in mind that you’re a unique individual who will wind up writing your own story even if it shares elements with well-known cultural patterns.

The mental image that started this story was a middle-aged female scholar (not a conventional socially awkward genius ) accompanying an adventurer. I eventually realized I wanted her to be reluctant to leave her grown children and grandchildren It was critical to the plot that she be fluent in many languages , including some dead ones; I’ve long been unhappy with the “one language to rule them all” convention in much fantasy.

Any story needs a reason for the protagonist to get off their butt and start engaging with the plot. I had a way for each of the three main characters to do that, but am now rethinking each to align them better with their core personalities as I’ve come to understand them. So sometime in the near future I have to dive into the black hole of links from the Call to Adventure page. I plan to read the first few sentences of allthe linked articles, keeping a list of the links that are worth considering in more depth, then returning to those and reading more thoroughly (and following yet more links). I have already decided that a prophecy is involved, and perhaps a Chosen One I am going to have to deal with those two tropes very carefully, because to me it seems it’s far too easy to fall into clichés with them. I’ve had writer friends express exasperation with both of them.

I previously mentioned that my story has an Evil Overlord that I needed to motivate. I definitely didn’t think ruling the entire world was a relatable obsession ; ruling some part of it for some specific purpose, meaningful to the villain, felt a lot better. I did need it to be something justifying invading the protagonist’s homeland. I’m not sure I want to have scenes featuring the villain , though I do need some way to reveal some of his motivations. I waffled about the classic Dark Lord’s fortress ; any sensible Evil Overlord would want to protect themselves, but the classic wasteland didn’t make sense to me; the minions would need someplace habitable.

I wound up picking a nonhuman but humanoid species as the minions / invaders , which I called trolls to indicate they’re nonhuman. In the long term I expect to make them moderately sympathetic so they aren’t mere orcs They need a leader, either the Evil Overlord or some lesser ruler

The Evil Overlord entry leads almost immediately to High Fantasy , whose description of the archetypal adventuring party left me cold. So did the related Medieval European Fantasy (of which I’d had enough from playing classic fantasy tabletop role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons ). I was unhappy with classic power structures such as hereditary monarchs and a noble class , though I realized that some sort of class structure is common in most societies. I wound up picking a somewhat egalitarian late Stone Age / early Bronze-Age society.

Eventually I realized what I felt most comfortable with was sort of High Fantasy but a bit nearer to Heroic Fantasy There are major stakes for part of the world , which is a classic High Fantasy trope, but some of the main characters are pursuing personal goals. There is a major villain, but not godlike evil. There is magic, but it’s not huge and flashy.

TV Tropes can suck down huge amounts of time, but if you approach it with a clear purpose, it’s easier to resist the pull of the black hole.

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