TV Tropes: or, how I learned to stop worrying and love the WikiWalk

By skepticlawyer

If this headline means nothing to you, it’s because you haven’t yet discovered this site, which is a thing of beauty, wonder and sunk costs. Yes, you read that right. It’s so amazing it represents sunk costs in advance, which is supposed to be impossible, but I know exactly what will happen to those of you who head off to look at it once you’ve finished reading this post. Consider your costs sunk, your funds sinking and your time forfeit… as described far more eloquently by xkcd in this cartoon:


The basic idea is very simple. A number of people (okay, a very large number of people) have decided to go all structuralist on popular culture. The originators of the concept may not have been aware that what they were doing was structuralism, but that doesn’t matter. They’ve managed to reproduce Ferdinand Saussure and Joseph Campbell, Claude Levi-Strauss and Mary Douglas… for the ages. Without any high theory or any impenetrable jargon they invite you to go on a WikiWalk through television, film, anime/manga, fanfic and gaming. They’ve even added literature of late, and they do a damn site better job with it than those literature academics who seem to have first swallowed a thesaurus and then mislaid the only dictionary within coo-ee.

One particularly impressive aspect of the site is that the people who do it love television (it started with television and went from there). They’re keen to point out that — for the most part — tropes are not bad, and that writers who try to navigate around all (or even most) of them will finish up producing a steaming pile of crap. The site also taught me that I’ve often taken a perverse delight in deploying peoples’ favourite tropes and then breaking them… and then wondered why people who love those tropes have come after me with a waddy. I’m still breaking tropes, of course, but it’s so nice having them all gathered together in one convenient place. It means I can go, ah, be careful with that one, kiddo, the powers that be will get medieval on your arse if you play with it too much

I was led to the site when googling around my favourite SF show of all time, Babylon 5, and quickly went on to explore various of their other efforts, notably The X-Files, Battlestar Galactica, Rome and Mad Men. Certain of the tropes are themselves described and enumerated so beautifully that they contain most of a literature studies course in one headline. I’m particularly taken with Crowning Moment of Awesome, You Fail Economics Forever, The Queen’s Latin and Anvilicious Morality.

And despite the time-wasting involved, there’s no doubt that writing these days is a damn site easier than it used to be, for the simple reason that multiple tedious trips to the university library are now easily averted. I was waiting a week for UQ library to drag books I needed out of store for The Hand that Signed the Paper. Multiple times. To be fair, I have had to dive into the Bodleian a fair few times for this one, but only once have I earned my ‘stack rat’ gold star by requesting a book from the Bodleian store. It’s places like TV Tropes that have short-circuited that process, and a great and good thing it is too.


  1. Jacques Chester
    Posted December 10, 2009 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    I was thinking of writing a plot/narrative engine as an honours project and TV Tropes is pretty much a gold mine for small elements of plot.

  2. HeathG
    Posted December 10, 2009 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    B5 is your favourite SF show. You just won about a million brownie points with that comment as it’s my favourite too. I’m guessing the (generally) libertarian flavour to it plays a fair part in my love of it, as well as the idea that the “gods” are simply more advanced alien races. (though I was never really happy with that Lorien(?) (the first one) character.

    And speaking of B5 – is it just me or does this video of the unexplained swirly blue lights over Norway last night look a hell of a lot like a jump point!

  3. Posted December 10, 2009 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    Yeah – love the TV Tropes site… found their description of Badass Decay particularly amusing (and it was spot on wrt Spike)

    B5 was one of my faves as well – that Norway pic does look like a wormhole, though you should note that it is no longer unexplained, but was an out of control rocket.

  4. Posted December 10, 2009 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

    SL… you should someday post on what in B5 you find appealing.
    (My daughter loved the soap elements)

    And just looked at tropes… aaaargh… time wasted…. browser heroin

  5. HeathG
    Posted December 10, 2009 at 7:14 pm | Permalink


    The rocket explanation hadn’t been confirmed when I posted but I notice it’s now the accepted explanation. But hell, on the videos it looks a lot like a jump point.

  6. Posted December 10, 2009 at 7:24 pm | Permalink


    Yeah, I must say, it looked pretty awesome (and kinda spooky), didn’t it?

    There’s a good explanation of the effect at gizmodo. Pity… I was kind of hoping it was first contact with the Centauri 😉

  7. Posted December 10, 2009 at 8:49 pm | Permalink

    You WANT to get friendly with the Centauri? (…)

    What made B5 so good (for me at least)?

    1. People will take their Gods into space (no, religion is not going away, folks, hate to break it to you).

    2. People x are like y. Deal with it.

    3. Diplomacy is difficult, even with advanced technology.

    4. Enlightenment only goes so far (the Minbari).

    5. A mostly consistent story arc that works well across the first four seasons (the 5th went a bit funny due to Executive Meddling) with only the occasional continuity error or timing disjunction.

    (Contrast this latter with Rome, where the telescoping in the second series is so bad it means that Eirene must have been pregnant for about 3 years and the oldest daughter should have turned 30 and reproduced a couple of times already. The Romans were not into child marriages but they did like the kids out of the house by about 20 or so).

  8. Posted December 10, 2009 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

    (hours later) And they say warcraft is addictive…

  9. Jacques Chester
    Posted December 11, 2009 at 2:38 am | Permalink

    Seconded and move to put the motion, DEM.

  10. Posted December 12, 2009 at 12:42 am | Permalink

    I *love* TV Tropes. The only problem I have with that xkcd cartoon is that it understates the problem.

    Oh and B5? What *I* liked best about it is that it didn’t idealise humans in the same way that ST:TNG did. The politics of dealing with people above you and back on Earth who didn’t have your best interests at heart seemed so much more real than Jean-Luc Picard’s Starfleet. (“Starfleet is NOT a military organisation!”. No sir, of course it isn’t sir).

  11. Jayjee
    Posted December 12, 2009 at 2:33 am | Permalink


    It truly is a different world for the researcher in 2009 compared to even 1989. As I am an enrolled student at a university, I can log at home and instantly access the thousands of obscure journals, newspapers, magazines that the university has on its many databases. The amount of time one ever really needs to spend in a library is very limited nowadays.

  12. Posted December 12, 2009 at 8:18 am | Permalink

    Have avoided going back to TV tropes wikiwalk for at least 24 hours. The cravings came when I dropped back here for a visit.

    Hmm. Thinking about bash script via routes or proxy that turns off the ability to connect every half hour… so I can manually add the capability, but it turns off automatically.

    Hmmm. There’s a product idea… timed site-specific disconnects daemon… manual temporary over-ride. Does such a beast exist?

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