A heinous murder. A jilted lover. An angry hero determined to get justice. Revenge stories are a vital part of the human experience. Let’s take a look at how to write one of your own.
Willa Cather famously said, “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.”
I don’t know if the number is really two, three, or ninety-seven, but her point that humans keep doing the same things over and over throughout history is sound. We act, strangely enough, according to human nature and our stories reflect that. Consequently, there are patterns that recur time and again in the stories humans write and read, because that’s what resonates in our souls.
I’ve long been a believer that, as writers, we should concern ourselves less with finding a story that’s never been told before, and more with expressing our story ideas with our own unique voices and perspectives. That’s what makes it ours, and that’s what will draw readers to our version of a story pattern they’ve surely read before.
A dish best served cold
One of the oldest story patterns is the revenge story. Revenge is visceral—it grabs us by the gut, sending feelers deep into the bed of our emotions. We hate to see a grave injustice go unpunished and most of us, as law-abiding as we may be, can get behind a little vigilante action in our fiction. We itch to see the scales balanced, the savagely maligned victim avenged.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet is probably the most famous example of the revenge plot, and makes use of some of its stock devices—the ghost crying out for vengeance, the feigned madness, the play-within-a-play, and the ultimate carnage that results—but the Bard was not the first, or the last, to use this pattern. He simply wrote it in a way that made it undeniably his.
If you’ve got an idea for a revenge story, and want to write it in such a way as to make it undeniably yours, I’m here to help.
Assemble your cast
You’ll need a hero. Make your protagonist a basically good person who’s forced to take justice into his own hands when the law fails to provide satisfaction. Take care to round your character and make him real and likeable because you’ll want the reader firmly in his corner.
You’ll need a villain. The antagonist is the character who committed the unpunished act. Keep in mind the range of crimes that might apply and the fact that it may be real or imagined. Maybe the hero is placing the blame on the wrong culprit. Maybe the hero has bought into a false portrayal of the situation. There are all kinds of twists you could throw into the works to cast a different light on the story.
You’ll need a victim. The victim’s purpose is to arouse our sympathies and ire. The hero could double as the victim, as in The Count of Monte Cristo, or it may be a family member, love interest, or even someone the hero barely knows but whose situation inspires him to action. However, you must give the hero a personal stake of some sort, an emotional tie to the victim.
Behold, a heinous crime
The more monstrous the central act—murder, rape, torture, and so on—the more justified your hero is in seeking out and dispensing revenge. And it strikes a nice balance if the punishment fits the crime: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.
The desire to overstep those bounds may eat at your hero, may comprise his inner struggle, but if he can exercise a degree of restraint in administering the proper punishment, he’ll gain reader respect and provide a nice catharsis—that final release of tension that leads to reader satisfaction.
Typically, you want to start by firing up your audience with a portrayal of the crime. You present happy people, going about their own business, whose lives are interrupted and forever changed by the commission of a shocking crime that goes unpunished.
In some cases, the crime occurs before the story begins. Done right (as Shakespeare did in Hamlet) this can work, but it’s a safer bet to actually dramatize it for your reader and let her experience the pain and indignities first hand. This allows the reader to form an emotional bond with your characters, getting good and outraged, wanting revenge as much as your hero does.
The hero may try to go through official channels, such as the police, but these efforts fail and he realizes that if there’s to be any justice administered, he must do it himself.
This is the planning and preparing stage of the story. The hero researches, trains, tracks down the antagonist, or whatever needs to be done to put his plan into action. If your story involves multiple villains who need to be dealt with, as in The Ghosts of Belfast by Stuart Neville, your hero may start dishing out revenge during this phase.
To add even more conflict, you may introduce a third party who is trying to stop your hero from exacting revenge—a law enforcement official, family member, or religious personality, perhaps.
This is where the confrontation happens, when your hero and the villain go head to head. If your protagonist has been dealing out serial revenge to a list of offenders, this is the final confrontation and involves the most important villain.
This is your hero’s moment of triumph! Or his ultimate failure. Readers will be most satisfied, of course, if your hero prevails in dispensing the requisite justice, but there are instances where failure is called for at the end. If this is the case, keep in mind that it doesn’t release you from the responsibility of providing satisfaction for your readers.
Think of the movie Braveheart. In the end, William Wallace is viciously executed, drawn and quartered, but he goes to his death with such dignity and courage that it drives home the point of the movie and delivers a fitting conclusion that viewers can live with.
Usually, though, it’s best to conclude the story with a sense of mission accomplished.
A twist ending to die for, or not
Sometimes it’s possible and fitting to build right up to the point of revenge, that culminating moment the protagonist and reader has anxiously been waiting for, and then let your hero reach an epiphany that drives home an aching truth: vengeance will not call back the original crime, undo the damage, or restore the hero’s world. It will only serve to inflict further damage on those who are left.
Though our hearts sometimes rage with a desire for revenge, deep down we know it can’t bring real or lasting relief. We strengthen our families and enrich our societies when we go beyond the “eye for an eye” mentality and remember the injunction to forgive seventy times seven.
Never easy and never neat, it can nevertheless provide a heart-rending and satisfying ending to a revenge story, and is certainly an option you can consider.
The lighter side of revenge
Most often, revenge stories involve horrific crimes and violent reprisals, but the patterns of revenge can also be used to write comedy or other types of lighter fare. The same basic tenets apply, but violence doesn’t usually rear its ugly head. For instance, The Sting, where con men are beaten at their own game, is a revenge story. Other examples include John Tucker Must Die, 9 To 5, and The First Wives Club.
Everyone loves a well-told tale of revenge with a cleansing cathartic ending. Why not try your hand at writing one?
How about you? What’s your favorite book or movie revenge story? Have you ever thought about writing your own? Tell us about it in the comments.
Today we’re going to practice patterns of revenge to get the hang of the three phases and how they work together. First, choose the tone you’re going for—dark crime, comedy, sting—and come up with a suitable crime to kick off your story. Write it down.
Sketch out rough details for your hero, villain, victim, and possibly a third party character who tries to stop the hero from accomplishing her vengeance. Brainstorm ideas for phase two—the planning and preparation for the revenge—and phase three—the confrontation. Write all these things down and expand on them for fifteen minutes.
When you are finished, you’ll have an outline for a revenge story. Post it in the comments and be sure to give feedback for your fellow writers. Then go write the story!