Downtime

Uniquely Derivative

Why TV Tropes is the ideal way for writers to procrastinate.

Collage of a man with writer's block holding a pen and paper in front of a computer, surrounded by a wizard, a sword, and an old TV.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by pxel66/iStock/Getty Images Plus, Warpaintcobra/iStock/Getty Images Plus, Anthro/iStock/Getty Images Plus, and vadimguzhva/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Rabbit Holes is a recurring series in which writers pay homage to the diversity and ingenuity of the ways we procrastinate now. To pitch your personal rabbit hole, email humaninterest@slate.com.

During undergrad, most of my classes were graded entirely on the quality of one final essay. There were no attendance marks, no coursework requirements, no pop quizzes or midterms or topic proposals—just you, your thoughts, and your empty Word document.

This was always the worst part of writing, trying to push past the jumble of fear and anxiety in my brain to deposit some scrappy words on a blank page. I would stress fruitlessly over first-year English Lit classes, wondering how to make my essay smart and interesting and unique. What if my essay wasn’t just bad—what if it was repetitive? Derivative? Or—worst—unoriginal? I regularly locked myself in my room for a week, surviving on tea and toast and alcohol, convinced that my teenage brain would come up with something of unparalleled poignancy.

Fortunately, when these creative droughts hit, I had a plan. Drink a glass of wine. Open up TV Tropes. Search for the text I had spent two months thinking about. Have another glass of wine. Read the list of tropes, according to whoever took the time to create and curate a page dedicated to Cléo de 5 à 7. Complain to nobody about how inaccurate the analysis was. Drink another glass of wine. Feel better. Click a link to one of the tropes listed. Click another. Inevitably waste the next three hours reading unrelated TV Tropes pages and drinking more wine until I fall asleep. Repeat.

I had discovered TV Tropes at around 15, probably while procrastinating from a high school essay. I regularly lost hours to the site. It’s a wiki that catalogs recurring ideas, characters, or patterns that exist across different works. Fandom battles may rage on the back pages, but the site overall has a very unified tone. You can search for almost anything (Breaking Bad, Super Mario Bros., Lizzo, Toronto) to see a list of its tropes. Or you can search for tropes (Jack-of-All-Trades, Batman Gambit, You Gotta Have Blue Hair) to see a list of all the places they appear. Just open up a page and experience the meditative calm of reading alphabetized lists that are parceled into neat little sections.

Tropes break up big, complicated things into small building blocks. How do you make sense of something sprawling like Harry Potter? You divide it into digestible pieces. The Chosen One goes to a Wizarding School and forms a Power Trio. He’s opposed by the Evil Overlord who is Only Mostly Dead. The books get Darker and Edgier leading up to a Final Battle and a widely mocked Distant Finale. But almost everything that happens has some kind of trope attached to it. (There’s a whole set of tropes that exists just to catalog how representations of fantastical creatures differ from their classic versions: Our Vampires/Werewolves/Fairies/etc. Are Different. So even consciously subverting tropes can still end up with you walking into another trope.)

But TV Tropes means more to me than just a way to waste time. In my teens, when I still had time to read and write for fun, I thought I’d publish a bestselling, totally original YA novel before I turned 25. At 18, I interned at Bloomsbury and acquired three dozen prereleased proofs over the course of two weeks, reading almost every one of them with the conviction that if it was published, it must be brilliant. Some were more brilliant than others. I convinced myself that even the less original ones were “not my taste” or “paying homage to traditional themes.” But whatever I wrote seemed like it had been done before. So I stopped writing.

Even so, whenever I got into a new band or played a new game or watched a new movie, I still looked it up on TV Tropes. I had to understand it—and seeing the same tropes appearing over and over again made me realize that I was holding myself to an impossible standard. Nothing is original. Every great work of art—every film, movie, game, book, character, painting, or song—is just a mash of ideas. Someone else has already thought those thoughts. Somebody much smarter than you has written that plot arc. Some earlier director has already used that exact motif. And, actually, that’s fine.

Making anything is tough. It’s an act of creatio ex nihilo, where you conjure a whole new tiny universe just through the power of your squishy human brain. Writing is an absolute horror show. I am constantly terrified that my writing (I did eventually try again) is irredeemable garbage that makes the world worse by existing. When it’s all been said and done before, what’s the point of trying? And TV Tropes says: Yes, that has been done before. But no two properties share all the same tropes. It’s about how you combine things. Tomatoes, onion, and garlic might be boring—but mix them with stock or chili seasoning, or serve with crostini and spaghetti, and you’ll end up with meals that look nothing like each other.

And listen, I know reading about writers complaining about how hard writing is seems a lot like navel-gazing. But that’s not the point. Humans naturally want to create stuff. And early humans painting the Lascaux caves probably worried if drawing another horse was boring. If only they’d had a resource dedicated to listing all the Cool Horses.

I still browse TV Tropes on an almost daily basis, usually while anxiously waiting for something else. When the world is scary and confusing, scrolling down an organized list of tropes is a little slice of calm. Everything is in order here. Everything is relevant. And if all these other people can create, so can I.