Storium Theory: Inverting the Trope

This post originally appeared at Gaming Creatively on May 18th, 2017.

We’ve seen it before.

A young hero has an older mentor, who taught the hero everything the hero knows. The mentor takes on a mission, and is captured, or killed, or goes missing, or what-have-you. Now the hero has to step up and save the day.

It’s a trope.

It’s a trope for a reason. It’s a pretty powerful story. There’s a personal connection between the hero and the mission – a need to carry on after a person the hero respects, perhaps, or redeem the person’s reputation, or even rescue the person. It ties the hero more deeply to the tale than if the hero had simply taken the mission himself in the first place.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with tropes, even with tropes that are used extremely often. Frequently, tropes are tropes because they are powerful and beneficial to stories. They give additional emotional impact. They create interesting character types. They give us connections to stories.

But for all those reasons, they can also be extremely powerful when inverted.

Consider the above trope. And consider these others:

  • The combatant has to save the non-combatant.
  • The parent has to rescue their young child.
  • The lawyer has to figure out the conspiracy entrapping their client.
  • The detective has to discover the secrets of the corrupt corporation.

You’ve seen all these stories. And oftentimes, they’re good stories. There’s nothing inherently wrong with using these tropes – they can lead to gripping, emotionally affecting tales.

But let’s look at taking each of the tropes I’ve mentioned and turning them around:

  • The older mentor’s successor takes a mission and is captured/killed or goes missing, and the mentor must now take the mission in his place.
  • The non-combatant has to somehow rescue the combatant.
  • The young child must figure out how to rescue their parent.
  • The client must figure out a conspiracy that has even enveloped their lawyer.
  • The corporation is being menaced by a corrupt detective, and an employee must figure out how to clear its name.

These sound interesting, don’t they? In some cases, they give us natural questions that are inherently intriguing. Take the “non-combatant has to rescue the combatant” one…if the combatant, i.e. someone trained in battle, is in trouble…it’s going to be extremely dangerous for a non-combatant, i.e. someone not trained in battle, to come to the rescue. We’ll wonder how this person is possibly going to accomplish their goal against such odds.

And sometimes, they’re interesting just because they play with our usual sympathies. In a battle between a corporation and a detective, we’re pretty hardwired to sympathize with the detective – large organizations are generally things we mistrust instinctively. If one’s being investigated, there’s always a background thought of “well, there’s probably something going on there, right?” So if a story plays with that, and has the corporation innocent and the detective corrupt, it twists our sympathies around.

Sometimes, these inverted tropes can become so popular that they then become tropes themselves (I’m sure that you’ve seen at least some examples of each of the “inverted” stories I mentioned, too). But the point stands: When you find yourself thinking about using a trope, consider for a moment how you might invert it. Sometimes, an inversion of a trope can be just as powerful, or more powerful than the trope itself.

When you’re creating a story concept, or a character concept, tropes are going to come into play. You’ll find yourself slotting characters into recognized boxes, consciously or unconsciously. And that’s fine. But take a little time to think about what you might be able to do if you turn the trope on its head instead. Maybe it won’t fit your story, or maybe it won’t give you the ideas you need…if so, that’s fine. Write your story the way you write your story. But maybe, just maybe, an inverted trope will give you some inspiring story or character ideas, something that excites you and will excite your fellow players and readers.

So take some time. Look at the tropes you find yourself using, and think about how to invert them. When you walk a well-trodden path, look for the points where you can step off or make it lead to a different destination. You can get some excellent stories from tropes…but you can get some excellent stories by twisting them around, too.