What makes a good revenge plot?
Revenge plots are structured pretty similarly to mysteries, when it comes down to it. Instead of solving a mystery, though, the main characters are plotting revenge, often in the form of murder. This involves a similar amount of investigating, especially if the perpetrator is in hiding or the main character doesn’t know their location.
A Strong Motive
First things first, we need a strong motive for revenge. You want the motive to more or less justify what our main character does in their pursuit for revenge.
You also want the motive to justify what the main character does when they get revenge—if the main character is getting revenge for a stolen lunchbox and ends up beheading the thief, we’re probably not really going to root for the main character’s violence.
The audience needs to see what the perpetrator did to justify this level of drama, and we need to believe the perpetrator deserves it. At least, this is the case if you want your main character to be perceived as morally good. If you want your reader to think your main character is bad, maybe the motive isn’t all that tempting. Still, it should be obvious why your main character feels the way they feel, even if the reader doesn’t agree.
For example: In John Wick, the story opens with a mobster stealing John’s dog. This dog is the last thing John has of his recently deceased wife. This thievery triggers John’s revenge quest to get his dog back—while some people might not have done the same thing in John’s shoes, the story is set up so that you understand clearly why John feels he needs to do what he does.
The Revenge is Difficult to Get
Second, revenge can’t come easy. In an action-adventure, it would be super underwhelming if the main characters just defeated the villain the first time they saw him, like it was no big deal. You want setbacks, obstacles, and mini-defeats to make revenge feel difficult. This makes it more satisfying when our main character finally gets what they wanted.
The Revenge is High-Stakes
Not only should revenge be difficult to get, but it should be vital. Again, this means the character needs to feel that they must have revenge in order to move on with their lives—dropping the issue isn’t an option.
It also means that, if possible, there should be stakes to getting revenge. Maybe the killer is going to hurt someone else if the main character doesn’t catch up to them in time. Maybe the killer is part of some bigger, more dangerous operation which needs to be taken down for the greater good.
This isn’t a must, but it can help up the drama and expand the story.
Compelling Characters — a good hero, victim, and perpetrator
A good revenge story needs a good cast of characters. At minimum, you’ll need some sort of victim (the person wronged by the perpetrator), the perpetrator or villain themselves, and the hero. The hero might also be the victim, or the victim might be someone close to the hero.
The victim should be someone with whom the audience sympathizes. No one cares if a terrible person gets avenged. You don’t want to make this character a one-dimensional defenseless little angel, either, but the audience should feel that the victim was wronged and want justice for that wrongdoing.
The hero should also be someone with whom the audience sympathizes. Even if your hero is more of an antihero operating in a moral grey area, the audience should still be at least interested in what they’re doing. If they just seem like a jerk with no real motive, it’s not going to be a good read—it’s going to feel like a miserable slog with no narrative substance.
Finally, you need a good perpetrator. Again, avoid making this character one-dimensional and plainly evil—a moustache-twirling supervillain will probably feel fake on the page. However, you do want your reader to feel strongly about whether our main character gets revenge on them.
For an example of this done well, look at season four of Game of Thrones. In this season, Oberyn Martell travels to King’s Landing from Dorne. We learn that the Mountain, who’s basically a massive killing machine, killed and defiled Elia (Oberyn’s sister) and her children. We have a sympathetic victim—if the audience doesn’t feel bad for Elia, for whatever reason, they certainly feel bad for her babies—and we have a sympathetic hero. Oberyn is, generally speaking, one of the kinder characters in the show. We also have a compelling villain in the Mountain, who has been awful since the start.
Revenge story structure
Let’s talk about how to set up a revenge story.
Start with the Wrongdoing
Revenge stories and mystery stories alike should open with a hook—we see the injustice happen, and it’s dramatic and interesting and we’re left with a need to see this problem solved. This might not necessarily involve your main character, and that’s alright. The idea is to create a problem, immediately, which the reader will want to see solved.
Plotting Revenge (setbacks)
We’ve had our wrongdoing, and now it’s time to get revenge. This is where we meet our main character and surrounding cast, and it’s where we learn more about them, what they want, and why they want it. This is also where they’re going to do their scheming, plotting, and pursuing.
In a mystery, authors include red herrings to throw the reader and the main character off the perpetrator’s scent. In a revenge plot, authors include missed opportunities. Maybe the protagonist came to the wrong town, or maybe they got so close to cutting the villain’s head off before the villain made a narrow escape. This is where you make the revenge difficult to get.
This is the climax of the revenge plot—finally, the hero comes face to face with the villain. This can go one of two ways: they get revenge, or they don’t. If they don’t get revenge, it’s usually because the hero has a lesson to learn about how revenge isn’t always the best way forward and won’t actually solve anything. If they do get revenge, it’s usually treated as a bittersweet victory. The hero won, but it was a long, bloody road to get here—the hero might get revenge and then learn that revenge doesn’t actually solve anything to make the victory bittersweet.
Your hero rides off into the sunset! Or maybe they don’t. However the story shakes out, this is where we see where everyone ended up, and it’s where our themes are hammered home. Is our hero finally at peace, having gotten revenge on her assailant? Is she harrowed by the murder she’s committed and still feels incomplete despite her revenge? Here’s where we talk about that!
How to find revenge story ideas
If you’re looking to write a revenge story of your own but don’t know where to start, here are a few tips to help you find an idea:
Read revenge stories
As with any other genre, you’ll want to read widely. Check out other revenge stories. There’s plenty of classics (I’ve got a few for you later), but there’s also plenty of contemporary examples in both book and television form. Get a feel for how these stories play out, what sorts of tropes are used, and how the endings work, and let them inspire you.
Dig through the news
Turning to real-world events is a fantastic way to spark your imagination. The news is full of stories about crime, from small-town robberies to white collar crime and everything in between.
You don’t want to use real, literal people and the tragedies they’ve undergone, but you might find some patterns or trends which inspire a story of your own. Reading how these things are treated by the news might also give you a realistic idea of how difficult it might be for your main character to get justice in their case. For example, there are real obstacles and difficulties for women in getting their sexual assailants convincted—we see this happen over and over again in the news. Knowing how that works will matter if you want to make your novel believable.
Try out a writing prompt
If all else fails, turn to a writing prompt. Writing prompts can help you get your creative gears turning, and even if you don’t love the prompt on its own, they can be a jumping-off point for other ideas. Try taking a prompt and twisting it to make it a revenge plot. What could go wrong with the prompt you’ve been given? How would the protagonist seek justice?
Examples of revenge stories
I’ve included here a list of revenge stories for you to read—some of these are more recent reads, and some of them are classics, but all of them have revenge at their core.
The Princess Bride by William Goldman
Even if you haven’t read this book, you’ve almost definitely heard the famous revenge quote from the movie: “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”
Carrie by Stephen King
This is a classic example of a horror rooted in revenge. Carrie is tormented by bullies at school, and finally, she decides she’s had enough. Some scholars consider this to be a revenge tragedy, considering it doesn’t exactly go brilliantly for Carrie in the end.
Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Hamlet is another great example of tragic revenge. Hamlet spends the entire play obsessed with killing his uncle, and this obsession ends up consuming him.
True Grit by Charles Portis
True Grit follows a fourteen year old girl who wants revenge for her father’s murder. She seeks out a Deputy Marshal and finds one in the drunk, one-eyed Rooster Cogburn, and the two head out in search of the killer.
“The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allen Poe
If you’re looking for a shorter read that doesn’t skimp on the drama, this is for you. In the Cask of Amontillado, our completely oblivious protagonist wanders deep into a wine cellar, where he’s entombed alive. This piece is fantastic because it uses the oblivious nature of the first person protagonist to amp up the dramatic tension—we feel like something is wrong, but our main character just can’t hear us yelling at the page.
What is the greatest revenge story?
Taylor Swift said on her album Speak Now that there is nothing she does better than revenge, and you’d be hard-pressed to prove that “Better Than Revenge” isn’t a banger.
But seriously, the greatest revenge story in literature is up for debate. Many consider Hamlet to be one of the best, while others will give that award to The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. Both are powerful examples, and you can’t go wrong with either. But which do you think is the greatest revenge story of all time? Is it one of these two, or one we haven’t listed here?