Revenge is a universal theme that can improve any book, short story, or screenplay.
Because revenge is elemental to who we are as human beings, this is a genre that will always remain popular and never die.
We all know that two wrongs don’t make a right, and you don’t have to be violent or have inhuman impulses to sometimes think about revenge. It’s almost hardwired into us, that primal need to prove you won’t be walked all over in front of your tribe: If somebody wrongs you, you’re going to wrong them back.
I’m an amiable guy, live and let live and have been for most of my life. But when I was 18 years old, two employees who had worked for my family at our flower shop for a long, long time stole our clients and opened another competing flower shop a mile away from ours.
I was angry, young, and impetuous. So I opened several flower shops in a circle around their new one. My only goal for these new locations was to have the shops break even, just so I could put “my enemies” out of business.
It was really, really stupid.
I wasted a couple of years of my life doing that. This was more than twenty years ago, around the time I met my wife. Back then Cindy called me the Godflower, and so goes the tale of my misguided revenge.
These days the thought of revenge curdles my stomach. I just don’t see the point, and it’s never worked out as a means to improve my life, and the same could be said for everyone I know. Still, as a human I understand the thirst for justice and vengeance by my own hand, and acknowledge the power of revenge as a genre convention.
Stephen King’s first book, Carrie, Stephen King’s is ultimately a revenge story. The Count of Monte Cristo might be the best revenge story of all time. There’s Gladitator, Munich, and True Grit — a book that’s been made into a movie twice now, once with Jeff Bridges and the first time with John Wayne.
Old Boy. The Professional. Django Unchained. Death Wish. John Wick.
The list is endless, and it’s easy to see why. In an elemental revenge story like any of the narratives mentioned above, the audience is eager to see the protagonist get what they deserve, and to have their day with the antagonist.
Kill Bill isn’t just my favorite revenge movie, it’s my favorite Tarantino film, and one of my favorites of all time. I count both movies together as one story, same as the writer/director himself (there has been a long rumored cut of the film called Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair that strings the two films together with a few additional scenes). In my mind, this movie (or movies) gets everything about the genre right, and does a remarkable job of both playing into the tropes and conventions, while also turning some of them on their heads.
Sterling & Stone traffics in the art form. From a pacifist monk who goes on a bloody rampage of revenge, to a man who makes a deal with the devil in an effort to wage an attack on the monsters who murdered his daughter, the storytellers in our studio enjoy writing revenge stories because they tap into something human and primal.
But there is a danger in striking the wrong tone when writing about revenge. You never want cheese in your story on accident. This is a terrific genre to explore, but it must be done well.
So here is everything I’ve learned about writing revenge, so that your story will hit all the right notes, with the sort of narrative weight that will help it to endure.
1. Make sure your characters know what they are doing and why.
From beginning to end, your protagonist must have a clean and clear motive throughout the story. They can’t be wiping bad guys off the face of the planet simply because they’re blood thirsty. That kind of revenge story will always ring hollow. Even if it’s fun, that enjoyment is fleeting and a lot less likely to create the sort of story experience a reader remembers, wants to tell a friend about, or earns a spot on their list of authors they can’t ever miss, no matter what.
In Kill Bill, the Bride is (supposedly) murdered by her ex-lover on the day she is to wed another. He arranges to have her ambushed and killed by her friends — while eight months pregnant. Instead she goes into a coma and wakes up from her coma several years later. But from the second she opens her eyes, the audience knows that her revenge is deserved. She’s also been sexually defiled while comatose, so it’s easy to root for the Bride from the very first second we see her.
Try to avoid the expected. Your character’s motivation should have layers, and your reader should be kept guessing, either about what happened, or why it’s affected your hero as much as it has.
Please, no matter what you do, don’t base a serious revenge story on a simple misunderstanding. Your reader will never be able to trust you again.
2. Your protagonist requires a satisfying arc.
You don’t want your hero to wipe the floor with every enemy standing in their way as though their pins in a shooting gallery waiting for a rubber bullet. Unless you’re writing pure pulp, there needs to be risks and consequences and significant weight to the scenes in your story. Whatever your hero is forced to deal with throughout the narrative should turn them into a better person by its end.
After I was done with my own rampage of revenge, opening and closing five flower shops in a personal quest for vengeance, I finally had to grow up. I matured a lot in my misguided attempt. It turned me into a smarter, better person.
The best revenge stories are about consequences as much as they are about the act of vengeance itself. Your hero (probably) isn’t an insane psychopath, and they’re definitely not the villain, so tend to their emotional growth same as you would for the protagonist of any other genre.
A revenge story should push your hero to their emotional limits, so you need to show the reader how that reality has changed them.
3. Give as much attention to your villain as you do to your hero.
Great revenge stories are about the bad guy as much as the good guy. The more personal your narrative can be, the more visceral it will feel to your reader. Smart audiences appreciate the unexpected, so make sure to at least try that if it makes sense for your story.
The end of Kill Bill Volume II is so effective precisely because it subverts our expectations. After everything we’ve seen throughout the first film, and two-thirds of the second, we expect Bill to be monster. So we’re disarmed when we can clearly see that even if he is a cold blooded murder, he’s also a compassionate father.
Revenge stories are usually bloody tales of vengeance, and of course violent reprisals are certainly a staple of the genre, but an intelligent villain should demand more from your story.
Maybe your villain isn’t even the bad guy. They almost for sure don’t see themselves that way. So ask yourself, what’s their story? Perhaps your reader doesn’t discover until the final confrontation that the villain feels just as wronged as your hero. Maybe the identity of this story’s victim isn’t as straightforward as she had believed, and the antagonist has been casting blame in the wrong direction.
Play with motivations, expectations, and characters all you want, just make sure to keep the essential elements all in place. Your villain’s behavior should be as easily understood as the person seeking revenge. Your antagonist might have done something terrible in the past, but it’s possible that they did so for a justifiable, or at least understandable reason.
Considering your villain’s arc will help you to clarify what your story requires for a satisfying reader’s journey.
4. Every revenge story needs a victim and an incident to se everything off.
All stories need an inciting incident to get the story going, but in a tale of revenge this part of the premise is often almost absurdly straightforward. Your antagonist will be the character who has committed whatever heinous act have gone unpunished and driven your protagonist into his quest for revenge.
The story’s victim could be the hero, or it could be someone your hero must protect or honor, perhaps arouse sympathy or ire in your audience. No matter what, the stakes must be personal or it will be harder for your story to have weight or meaning for your reader.
The more heinous this initial act, the more justified your hero will be in their quest (and thirst) for revenge. The more you can make your antagonist’s new world grate against their everyday reality, the more dramatic the story will feel for your reader.
That’s why we chose to make the hero of one of our first revenge stories a pacifist monk, because it’s such a glaring opposite from what the audience expects.
5. Thoughtful revenge is always more interesting.
Again, unless you’re writing a pulpy Death Wish style revenge piece, your story should have rhythm and flow. There should be a rise and fall to what you are drawing for the reader. Every scene can’t be balls out with your hero constantly quenching his craving for revenge.
Vengeance can be thoughtful. Give your antagonist time to research, train, and prepare to meet the antagonist. Have him or her slowly putting their plan into action rather than rushing right into things, unless barreling forward stumble or fall and maybe lose the upper hand.
6. Revenge stories should have steady escalation.
Your hero will eventually have to confront the villain, but that can’t happen on page one, in chapter one, or even anywhere near the first act. Unless the villain is wiping the floor with you hero, the two should stay very far away from one another until the end of the story.
That doesn’t mean the antagonist won’t have their presence felt. That negative force should be constant. Your story doesn’t have to play out like a video game where every boss leads to an even bigger boss, but the villain’s existence should infect the hero’s present, making them constantly aware of how little control they actually have … until the situation has ratcheted up enough that they are finally able to turn the tables.
7. Revenge isn’t always the answer.
Sometimes the best ending to your revenge story is to keep the vengeance out of it. That’s not always the right thing to do, far from it, but sometimes the emptiness of revenge delivered as an epiphany is what’s best for your narrative.
Your hero has learned that no matter what she does, nothing will ever rewind the clock and give her what she has lost. The damage is done and the original crime will always exist. Since your antagonist can’t return to her normal world — the one she had to leave before the awful incident that made everything start to go wrong — she can still return to a better version of who she was.
We’ve all craved revenge at some point in our lives, even if it was for something petty and almost entirely irrelevant. Ask yourself what you learned in the moments you were big enough to ignore the thirst. One of those times when you realized what an empty craving it was.
8. Keep your hero relatable.
The bigger your revenge story, the more likely it will be to find your antagonist operating outside of the law. Still, you want to keep your reader on the righteous side of things so your reader never leaves their corner. Empathy is earned, and if you expect that emotion from your reader, then you have a few responsibilities as a storyteller that you simply cannot ignore.
First off, make sure that your hero is morally justified. Maybe they tried to engage law enforcement first, but the police they contacted were corrupt or indifferent, so that forced their hand. Your hero must operate outside the law because they have no other choice.
And no matter what, the punishment your hero dispenses on their enemies must fit the crime, or else you risk your character being as bad as the person or people who wronged them. If innocents are murdered on your hero’s way to justice, you revenge story sucks — unless that’s the point, in which case, more power to you.
Yes, your reader wants a catharsis, that’s why they’re reading a revenge story. And it’s your job to craft that, but you need to do it without going overboard or diluting your hero’s virtue.
9. Revenge is a journey, not a destination.
Your hero might win or lose in their quest for retribution, but the most important thing is that your antagonist tried regardless of the odds, and ultimately grew from the experience, even if they were unsuccessful in executing the vengeance itself.
Revenge can be the basis for a great plot for storytellers of every skill level. Some of our most basic books are based on trading an eye for an eye, as is one of our most complicated, by far. The device works in every genre, and will help any writer to focus on the story being told between the expected conventions and tropes.
Revenge stories force you to focus intention. They require the kind of well-developed antagonist that will stretch your storytelling muscles, while keeping you on a well-defined path.
A character craving revenge is like a person in lust, driven to act at the slightest provocation. This motivation is easy for the reader to understand, and straightforward for the author to execute because the hero is driving the plot.
The best ending to your revenge story (like the ending to any well told story) should feel surprising yet inevitable. Ideally, your hero will reach an epiphany that leaves them forever changed and gets your reader thinking.
That’s how you write a revenge story that readers can’t stop thinking about. And even if you’re out of the revenge business once you’re onto the next book, if you’ve made it into your reader’s head, she’s more likely to follow where you want to go.