A site to help you fill the gaps in your story outline

I’m shuffling ideas for The Venice Novel and I’ve come across a fantastic site that’s helping me clarify where I want to take the story.

It’s called Television Tropes and Idioms. But don’t be fooled by its name. Tropes doesn’t mean cliches; it means story conventions and readers’ expectations. In fact, you can use the site as a cliche and stereotype warning – it tells you what’s already been done to death so you can keep your story and characters fresh and original. And the site includes movies and novels as well – of all types, all genres (and even stories that don’t fit easily anywhere).

I’m using it to fill gaps. At the moment I have a rudimentary cast of characters and a fundamental conflict, so I need to see what else could gather around it. Poking around in the subject sections (‘topical tropes’, in the left sidebar) suggested a lot more places I could take the characters and ways to develop the plot. It also gave me ideas for more defined roles my characters could play.

If you want to hit a particular genre, zip down the left-hand sidebar and look up ‘literature’ and you’ll find a list of categories to clarify where you fit. You can also check you’ve covered enough bases to satisfy readers and identify possibilities you might not have thought of.

But even if you don’t fit traditional pigeonholes (like certain folks I could mention), you can look up story ingredients, such as ‘war’, ‘betrayal’ or ‘family’ – just for instance, under the latter you get a delicious sub-list with suggestions like ‘amicably divorced’, ‘hippie parents’, ‘dysfunctional’.

Some writers get their first inspirational spark from a setting – if that’s you, you can research how other authors have done your setting justice, from pre-history to ‘4000 years from now (and no jetpack)’.

One of the other things I like about it – very much – is its tone. No judgements are made about whether genres are fashionable, overworked, lowbrow or highbrow. It’s all about celebrating how stories work – or sometimes don’t. As we know, that comes down to the writer’s skill anyway, not whether a ‘subject’  is en vogue. And after a few hours in the company of their rather breezy descriptions, not only will you be better informed, you will be spurred to avoid the lazy story decision.

If you’re sprucing up your outline – especially as NaNoWriMo looms – spend an afternoon exploring Television Tropes and give your story a thorough workout.

Do have any go-to sites when you’re planning a novel – and how do you use them? Share in the comments!

You can find tips for researching, outlining and what makes a robust story in my book, Nail Your Novel – Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. Available on Kindle and in print.

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  1. #1 by Stacey Mitchell on October 21, 2012 - 6:21 pm

    Wow, thanks for sharing. I’ll certainly be checking this out. I am still working on my vague outline for NaNoWriMo, so more ideas can never be a bad thing!

  2. #3 by Storeylines on October 21, 2012 - 6:33 pm

    Hmm. I went to look at the page, it sounded good. But it’s one of the most confusing sites I’ve ever seen – navigation is almost incomprehensible. I typed in “literature” in their search field, as you did, and got a list of links from Google that contained the word “literature” – not the category you got. Maybe it needs a bit more time to be understood, but my first impression was not good. Too bad – it sounded good from your description.

    • #4 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on October 21, 2012 - 6:43 pm

      Aha, don’t use the ‘search’ field to find the categories. Zip down the left-hand sidebar and you’ll find the most helpful bits. Here’s the link to ‘literature’… http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/Literature I agree it’s not that clear at first, and I’ve just explained in my post. Thanks for the feedback – and believe me, that site is useful!

  3. #5 by Saleena Karim on October 21, 2012 - 7:40 pm

    Hi Roz! I used this site for my novel. It is good info-wise – takes a bit of getting used to though. 🙂

    • #6 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on October 22, 2012 - 12:14 pm

      Hi Saleena! Yes, as Storeylines remarked above, it’s not the most friendly-looking site. But it’s terrific for story research.

  4. #7 by Debra Eve on October 21, 2012 - 10:12 pm

    Absolutely fascinating, Roz. I just perused the “A” listing under action-adventure and found
    “Acrophobic bird: When escaping danger, a character who can fly will never think about flying up.” At first I thought, huh? Then I realized it figured hugely in the successful first Ironman movie. I can see myself spending a lot of time there. Thanks!

    • #8 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on October 22, 2012 - 12:15 pm

      Hi Debra! It’s amazing how exhaustive that site is. I also like the way – as in your example – they gently mock some of the more ridiculous conventions, thus encouraging us to not make the same mistakes.

  5. #9 by cydmadsen on October 21, 2012 - 11:10 pm

    Excellent site, and thanks for reminding me I’d already liked it 🙂 So many pages to like, so little memory.

    When I was struggling with log lines and the word limit, I noticed that every show on Netflix had a log line with limits. Now I go there to help me tighten and define what I’m writing. Sometimes their log lines hit the mark, sometimes they don’t, so I practice on those TV shows I’m familiar with and try re-writing them (tons of British shows on Netflix with their American re-makes, excellent for comparing how things are changed as they jump the pond).

    I once knew a TV writer who had a station of three computers in a semi-circle and a stack of old TV Guides. Since there are only 36 dramatic situations (Polti’s book might be a good resource), he’d cruise the Guide, identify each of the 36 and determine how they were altered, then alter them more for his own use.

    The Wall Street Journal has been a favorite of mine for decades. Ha! And we think artists are odd and do strange things. It’s nothing compared to what some entrepreneurs do. Their Arts & Entertainment second are online, and you can cruise the headlines for profiles of the strange things these people do. The mind tends to stretch when reaching for money 🙂 I have no understanding of Squidoo or their Lenses, but it seems you don’t need to understand something to use it. Here’s an interesting article with lots of generators of all sorts: http://bit.ly/OUCotl

    • #10 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on October 22, 2012 - 12:22 pm

      Hi Cyd! Yes, another site for the favourites bar.
      The Netflix loglines is a good idea. Loglines are darn difficult, but – as with back-cover blurbs – if you can start thinking in their language that’s half the battle.
      And how many dramatic situations are there? I have a few lists in Nail Your Novel 1, including the Polti.
      Squidoo? I don’t even know what a Squidoo is, let alone its lenses. Shouldn’t that be Squintoo? …. Just checked it out – looks fun, although they should fix the headline typo that asks you if you’ve done story ‘writting’ 😦

  6. #11 by Teddi Deppner on October 22, 2012 - 1:21 am

    This is great! I’d already discovered this site when searching for werewolf tropes, but it hadn’t occurred to me to use it the way you’re suggesting. Brilliant, thank you!

  7. #13 by Cat York (@catyorkc) on October 22, 2012 - 5:46 pm

    I love that site. I’ve come across it looking up various movie terminology. It’s great for exactly the uses you’ve mentioned, (which you articulated/outlined so much better than anything in my own brain). Thanks for posting! cat

  8. #14 by Amber Dane on October 23, 2012 - 8:58 am

    Thanks for sharing,have to check it out.

  9. #16 by Laura Lamere on October 23, 2012 - 1:09 pm

    My dabbling in fiction has left me frustrated – this sounds like a cool way to get inspiration and keep the story moving! Thanks so much for sharing this – I look forward to getting lost in it!

  10. #18 by Marcia on October 28, 2012 - 1:47 am

    Oooh, this is going to be fun! Thanks for sharing this, Roz!

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