There are fervent arguments made on both sides of the trope debate. Many people will say that tropes don’t belong in modern writing; that they’re tired and need to be shelved. Others claim that tropes are not only the foundation of genres and always will be, but also that using classic tropes, as well as reinventing them, is a crucial tool in any screenwriter’s arsenal.
Whichever side you favor, here’s one simple fact: it’s better to have the hammer in your toolbox and never need it than need it and not have it. Like any other writing tool, tropes can be used in clever, satisfying, unexpected ways—as demonstrated by way of the humble MacGuffin. So let’s talk about how you can reinvent other classic tropes.
What is a Trope?
The definition goes “a common or overused theme or device”, so even the dictionary can’t decide whether they’re common or overused! In screenwriting, a trope is any element of your story that’s shared with many other similar stories. So, if you’re writing a criminal investigation horror where the killer sends taunting messages to the police, congratulations! That’s a trope.
The greatest argument in favor of learning how to use tropes is proven in the above example. If serial killers writing notes is a trope, does that mean that no great movie should ever again have a compulsive note-sending serial killer? Is it a closed door, never to be written about again? Are all tropes?
The problem with that kind of mentality is that it’s impossible to follow to its conclusion of writing trope-free scripts. You can avoid intentionally putting tropes into your work, and they will still pop up by themselves because of our shared cultural background and understanding of genres. One brief glance at the TV Tropes page will have you reeling in horror. Instead, what we can do is find the most creative and exciting, and satisfying way to get from point A to point B, leaving our audience cheering.
The following examples aren’t meant to be taken as they are and dropped into your script; unless it just so happens they fit! The goal of this exercise is to show you how to start thinking laterally whenever it seems like a certain situation demands a certain trope so you can later apply the same methods to any number of scenes.
A character, usually a woman, wears high heels or otherwise uncomfortable footwear/clothing that prevents her from properly running away from the monster. Sometimes it turns into a Broken Heel trope, other times a Twisted Ankle trope. Either way, it’s what screenwriters did when they just couldn’t figure out any other way for the monster to catch up. You can find this in Friday the 13th or parodied in Scary Movie.
Reverse it: If the monster is much faster than the hero, then you’d need to find a creative way to trip the monster up.
Subvert it: Give us a high-heeled heroine and make us expect that she will inevitably trip; then defy our expectations and have her fly through the encounter.
Improve it: If the heroine’s high heels are a must, why not use them more creatively? A sharp heel makes a better weapon than you’d think, can be used to smash windows or mirrors, or thrown for a momentary distraction.
Popular in many genres, and often seen in Superhero films, this trope is a frequent visitor of the Drama genre, as well. The hero’s opinion of someone they once looked up to is radically altered, either by meeting that person, by that person’s actions, or by revelations related to them. It shows that someone once put on a pedestal was simply flawed and human all along. A great combination of drama and superhero movies that showcases this trope is Hancock.
Reverse it: The protagonist meets someone they admire, and that person is disillusioned in their expectations of the protagonist.
Subvert it: The protagonist’s respect for their hero only grows upon discovering that they’re a normal person who makes mistakes and has problems just like anyone else.
Improve it: The protagonist learns about their hero’s shady past, and rather than be disillusioned, embark on a journey of acceptance and a better understanding of the world.
Alien invasion stories are the bread and butter of the SF world, so much so that it’s unlikely you’ve been around long and not seen at least a handful of them. One of the oldest stories of speculative fiction is that beings from distant planets come to conquer ours. Edge of Tomorrow is an obvious example.
Reverse it: There’s no reason why humans can’t be the ones who travel into deep space first, ready to conquer an alien planet regardless of its inhabitants. Goodness knows we still do it on our own planet plenty, especially when there are resources to be gained.
Subvert it: Aliens arrive, looking dead set to invade us. Instead, upon realizing we’re intelligent (debatable as that may be), diplomacy ensues. Bonus points if they react in a way that can surprise the audience, and more so if it’s borrowed from real historical diplomatic encounters.
Improve it: Aliens arriving can be used as a backdrop to telling any number of stories, including ones about immigration, colonization, and marginalization. Using this trope to say something poignant about the way the world treats otherness would be a great use of a trope.
Often, screenwriters and directors don’t feel like blowing something up is enough. Bumping up the protagonist’s cool factor by having them leisurely stroll away from the lethal explosion behind them is a common trope and one that implies they had more than a little to do with setting the bomb in the first place. A fan favorite is X-men Origins.
Reverse it: If you want the cool outline of your protagonist against the backdrop of a flaming inferno, why not set the bomb on a moving target instead? A large cruise ship would be a great example. That way, they’re the ones standing still as the explosion epicenter moves further away from them.
Subvert it: We all expect the protagonist to walk away unscathed, so the most immediate way to subvert this trope is to scathe them. Bonus points if they’re real, lasting injuries that impact the rest of the script. Even better if they’re caused by your protagonist’s hubris and become an integral part of their character arc.
Improve it: If you’re going to use a classic trope, make it work extra hard for you. Use the explosion as a means of transport, a means to reveal significant plot elements or a means to uncover elements that foreshadow later events. Make sure it causes as much harm as good and put your protagonist through their paces in trying to deal with the after-effects.
A not overly common but highly memorable trope of comedy movies is the body swap. Two characters, by some sort of magic or pseudo-science, end up living in one another’s body for a limited period, and much hilarity and self-discovery ensue. It’s a tough one when it comes to coming up with great dialogue because you have to believably write a character the audience can recognize by their ‘voice’, even if they look entirely different. Almost every long-standing TV series would have touched on this trope at least once. Or, as is the case with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, twice.
Reverse it: While it’s true that it’s hard to reverse the roles in a body-swapping story, there are still other ways you can reverse the narrative to the audience’s surprise. Traditionally, it’d be a 1:1 exchange, where character A inhabits the body of character B and vice versa. So how about swapping an entire family, or swapping an entire town in chaotic and unfortunate ways?
Subvert it: The audience knows the beats leading up to a body swap very well. The failed science experiment, the slow morning after, the shocking revelation. They expect the swap. Imagine their surprise if it doesn’t work, and instead, something entirely different had been swapped? Obsessions, emotions, addictions, skills. It could be anything!
Improve it: Use a body swap as a poignant tool to say something about choices and privilege. What would happen if one of the people involved was in a coma, and both would have to learn to time-share one body? What would be the ramifications on loved ones?
As you can see, these examples could go on and on through every trope ever seen. If you’re stuck, write down a list of how you can differently use the props, the characters, or the setting to say something deeply personal to you and the themes and messages in your script. Learn to do that, and soon your only worry will be how to protect your imaginative screenplay ideas.
Are you reinventing any tropes in your screenplay? Tell us a little about them in the comments below!
“Others claim that tropes are not only the foundation of genres and always will be, but also that using classic tropes, as well as reinventing them, is a crucial tool in any screenwriter’s arsenal.”