Today I want to talk about a well-known resource for writers and fans of TV alike: TVTropes.org. Whether you love it or hate it, it’s impossible to deny the addictive power of this website, which makes use of the hyperlink-saturated style that has made Wikipedia infamous for drawing users knee-deep into Polynesian mythology when all they wanted to know was the name of that one actor in that one movie. The layout itself is what gives TVTropes its power to spark creative thought–if you use it correctly, that is.
In their article “Standards in the Making: Composing with Metadata in Mind,” Matthew W. Wilson, Curtis Hisayasu, Jentery Sayers and J. James Bono describe the importance of the presentation and organization of information to how information is accessed and interpreted. Among other things, they specifically discuss the power of certain methods of organizing and cataloging electronic information in fostering serendipity. Sayers points out that a system which encourages loose associations (such as the tagging system on Flickr) can “foster a kind of ‘stumbling upon’ new materials thus spark new research into associations or relationships.” In this instance, the value is not in finding information that pertains precisely to what you were looking for but rather in discovering new ideas and possibly finding ways to relate them to your specific line of inquiry.
Like I said, TVTropes’s link-happy layout is more than a little reminiscent of the site that they jokingly refer to as “The Other Wiki.” However, TVTropes appears to take the principle even further. If you read enough pages on this site, you’ll notice that in addition to the links sprinkled throughout the descriptions of each trope, most of the pages also include an especially link-heavy end-section detailing related tropes. For instance, the end-section of “Kick the Dog” runs, “A sign that Evil Is Petty. Compare with Can’t Get Away with Nuthin’ , And Your Little Dog Too, Kick Them While They Are Down, The Dog Bites Back, Threw My Bike on the Roof, I Will Punish Your Friend for Your Failure. See “If You’re So Evil, Eat This Kitten” for when bad guys do a Kick The Dog test to make sure undercover heroes are really evil.” And so forth. It’s almost like they were trying to keep us on the site by making sure they trigger the whole “knee-deep in Polynesian mythology” thing. But what does it mean for us?
People go on TVTropes for a lot of reasons. Maybe you want to re-live a particular film or TV episode, or maybe you’re a writer looking for advice on how to write a particular character, situation, etc. Whatever the case may be, when you go onto TVTropes, you generally start out with some idea of what you’re looking for.
Then you start clicking around.
And that’s when what may or may not have been a learning experience to begin with turns into a whole influx of unsolicited ideas. You’re clicking around and reading trope descriptions and example lists and probably wasting a lot of time, but you’re also learning. And the things you find serendipitously this way go into your pool of knowledge and let you think about TV in a way that maybe you couldn’t before.
I won’t deny that it can be dangerous to rely too heavily on TVTropes whether as a writer or a thinker, just as relying on any formulaic system carries a certain risk of stifling. But just meandering through the site and picking up information as you go can allow you to process information in a low-stakes way. You may end up using it and you may not. But if you read up on it, it’ll be there when and if you need it.