However, this doesn’t mean you can only write a thriller to successfully employ the theme of revenge. There doesn’t necessarily have to be a horrible crime taking place to incite vengeance. And there doesn’t always have to be a long and bloodied road leading towards a big bad villain.
Revenge in Different Genres
- It focuses on two female protagonists insistent on getting revenge against high-school peers who have wronged them.
- Whilst the wrong-doings to Drea and Eleanor aren’t the darkest of crimes, there is still enough substance to understand and recognize their anger.
- The comedic aspects also benefit the film. They allow the audience to enjoy being swept up in the dishonesty and deceit.
In Scream, Billy Loomis’s motive stems from him wanting revenge.
- Sidney’s mother had an affair with his father, which caused Billy’s mother to abandon him.
- Of course, there is way more to unpack from that. But the revenge-killing of Maureen incites the bloodbath.
- Furthermore, Scream 2 also uses themes of vengeance. Mrs Loomis’ reveal as one of the killers explains her motive of avenging the death of her son.
Notice how revenge is used differently in the films.
- It is overtly the main driving force for the plot and protagonists in John Wick and Do Revenge.
- Whereas, in the Scream films, it takes more of a back seat; used as a twist, connecting subplots and characters within the overall franchise, and explaining motives.
- Additionally, Do Revenge and Scream are very self-aware about their genre, allowing for a little more risk and teasing of tropes.
So if you have a general idea sketched out but you’re not entirely sure where you want it to go, or what genre you should place it in, this is the perfect opportunity to get creative.
You could, for instance, try writing a brief breakdown of your plot in the style of different genres. Explore your story’s potential by experimenting with the ideas that genre-bending can squeeze out.
Probably the most commonly recognized tale of revenge is Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Revenge stories almost always begin with a disruption to the natural balance – a shocking, tragic crime or injustice that throws the protagonist’s life into disarray. The fallout of the crime is a place you can start in revenge writing.
- Hamlet, for example, begins after his father’s murder, but still deals with the upheaval this has caused.
- If you intend to elicit a deeper reaction from the audience and further justify the need for vengeance, it may be more effective for the crime to be witnessed on screen (à la John Wick’s puppy being murdered).
Let’s look at a popular revenge film example and its plot.
Kill Bill: Vol 1
Tarantino is renowned for his non-linear narratives. But the opening sequence of Kill Bill: Vol 1 follows the classic establishing of a revenge plot. It’s barely three minutes long but it immediately aligns the audience with The Bride and sets up the plot of the film.
- The first image on-screen is the quote “Revenge is a dish best served cold”. This immediately signifies what the film is going to be about.
- There’s a close-up of our protagonist, The Bride, lying on the ground in her wedding dress, bloodied, bruised and breathing heavily. We are also introduced to the villain, Bill.
- At the end of the scene, The Bride reveals she is pregnant with Bill’s child, seconds before he shoots her.
- The plot situates The Bride, and her unborn child, as the victims. Subsequently, we follow her in a story of retribution and redemption as she seeks vengeance against those responsible for leaving her to die and the assumed death of her unborn child.
Witnessing the crime, and how it impacts the main protagonist, will certainly make it easier for the audience to understand the revenge motive. It’s important to get them to feel something, make them as outraged as the hero, and connect them emotionally wherever you can.
The protagonists in revenge stories help drive the narrative. But when you’re writing a character hell-bent on seeking revenge, it can’t be their only storyline. Don’t fall into the trap of making them completely one-dimensional in this respect.
- What kind of personality do they have? What’s important to them? What does their quest for vengeance put at risk?
- Look at your protagonist’s motivation. What is fuelling it?
- Are they a master strategist always several steps ahead? Or are they a bit of a loose cannon, more focused on getting revenge than the execution?
- Get to the root of your character’s emotions. The age-old advice of writing what you know still applies. Whilst you might have fantasized about getting revenge on somebody, you (most likely) haven’t actually done it. Still, you can see what would lead to a person committing an act of revenge; anger, grief, heartbreak, humiliation.
- Think about a time you’ve felt intensely about something. Look inward and tap into the strength of those emotions. They will guide you.
Your main character doesn’t have to be a perfect hero. In revenge stories, they’re going to get their hands dirty. So explore the varying degrees of morality within this.
Your characters should and will have flaws. They’ll make choices that aren’t necessarily good and honourable; ones which might force them to operate in a morally grey area.
- Which of their (or any anti-hero’s) qualities stick out to you?
- What are their good parts? What are their flaws? How do these balance out?
- Where do they draw the line? What can this tell you about which boundaries to push?
Certainly lean into the darker aspects of your characters. But still demonstrate their human side and seek to flesh out their world, what drives them and what circumstances influence them. As long as people can understand your character’s choices or at least where they might be coming from, they will continue rooting for them.
Ideally, the revenge should be multi-faceted and complex, rather than just a straight-up tit-for-tat exchange. Explore your protagonist‘s deepest motivations, backstory and nuance and you will find a revenge story that feels altogether more original and interesting.
The victims in revenge stories typically elicit sympathy from the audience.
- It usually means that, if they are not the protagonist themselves, they are close to the character in some way. It could be a family member, friend or romantic partner.
- The important thing is that there’s a personal stake, something that forces the main character to act. There should be an emotional and meaningful tie-in, a connection that justifies the journey of vengeance.
In John Wick, for example, it’s the murder of his puppy Daisy that sparks his revenge journey.
- The audience understands why this makes him snap – she’s the final gift he received from his late wife. So this weaves in not just one, but two grief plots.
- In addition, the film establishes Daisy as, essentially, the last thing he has left to live for.
- This situates him as a man with nothing to lose. The audience aligns with John and can fathom why he takes the actions he does.
Audiences want to feel that the victim was badly wronged and deserves to be avenged. This usually means the victim is a largely innocent person. Perhaps it’s even a misunderstanding, or an accident – a wrong place, wrong time scenario – that has led them to need vengeance.
Taken and Easy Empathy
Taken is a well-known example of this. In the first film, the motivation for the arc of Liam Neeson’s character, Bryan, rests on the abduction of his daughter Kim.
- Her kidnapping scene is terrifying because it plays into one of every parent’s worst fears.
- The audience is almost immediately on side. We don’t care what he does to get her back, we root for Bryan and Kim the entire time.
Not to mention, we get that epic line.
“I will hunt you, I will find you, and I will kill you.”
It’s also worth noting that your victim doesn’t always have to be completely clean. Don’t be afraid to add complexity and nuance into the mix. This will typically lead to more interesting and original characters after all.
It’s important to keep challenging how we automatically label and determine people’s worth based on stereotypes. Your victim can be authentically human and still be undeserving of whatever horrible fate is handed to them.
Injustice is the inciting incident in revenge stories. It sets off the chain of events.
- If you want to begin with the fallout of the crime, but are eager to establish a deeper connection between your main character and victim, you could implement this through a non-linear narrative (for example, using flashbacks).
- People don’t like to see injustice go unpunished. So use it to align the audience with your main character. Their feelings will be heightened when something directly impacts the protagonist.
- If the victim is the protagonist, spend time on the effect of the incident. Daisy the puppy may be the catalyst that sparks John Wick into action, but he is also a victim himself of robbery and a man marred by grief.
- Is the main character forced to take justice into their own hands? If they don’t do something, will the villain strike again?
Since revenge tends to go outside the limits of the law, if your character resorts to vigilante status, show they have tried at least to go through traditional means, but are left with no choice but to go elsewhere.
Injustice is a powerful motivator for any audience to understand. However, the more you’ve justified your protagonist‘s desire and means for revenge as the only solution to their problem, the more the audience will be on board and the more likely they’ll be to enjoy the journey.
Motive is one of the most important ingredients in writing revenge stories. The reason for revenge must be well thought out.
- Motive will drive your protagonist. So ensure that it makes sense and fits your character.
- It can determine how the audience will interact with the storyline. A strong motive will make it easier for them to follow along with the suspension of disbelief.
- If the main character’s motivation does not carry much weight, it will be harder to connect and root for them.
- Don’t neglect the antagonist either – what’s their reasoning behind what they did?
Your audience needs a motive to know that the protagonist‘s quest for revenge is justified. It perhaps isn’t quite as important if you have a morally bad character. However, we still need to recognize why they feel a certain way towards something – even if we don’t agree with the actions being taken.
Contrastingly, if you’re writing the hero archetype, their vengeance shouldn’t go overboard. If their behaviour and punishment make them worse than the antagonist, you might start to lose audience support. By all means, that scenario could potentially work with an anti-hero, or perhaps if the intended journey is the hero losing themselves and becoming like the villain.
Furthermore, the quest for revenge typically needs to be about more than just the action at hand. If revenge is the tip of the iceberg, what lies beneath?
Motive allows Carrie White to remain the victim in Carrie, despite her murder spree.
- The antagonists are still her abusive mother and school bullies. The novel and film demonstrate how these people destroyed her life in emotional and physical ways.
- Therefore, her motive builds tension in the narrative. It establishes that she wasn’t getting revenge for something small or petty; it was years of unjustified torment until she eventually snapped.
If you’re going for a more unsettling approach and purposely want to remain vague, you could omit motive to heighten suspense. Keep the audience partially in the dark for a while and have them guess the reasons for revenge and why it has impacted the protagonist so much. Do be wary though that it can be much harder to connect with these characters. And often vagueness can act as a mask for a weak motivation.
An interesting and arguably successful example of this technique in a revenge and redemption film is Bullet Train.
- We aren’t offered a lot of information. The protagonist is a former assassin assigned to retrieve a case on a train.
- We’re also introduced to a man seeking revenge for his son being pushed off a building, and several other mysterious characters/antagonists, many of whom are pulling strings behind the scenes in their own revenge plots.
- As the movie unfolds, we realize how each individual story interweaves. True motives and the ultimate revenge plot eventually take shape.
In this instance, withholding motives to develop the bigger picture works and benefits the story. This is partly because the multitude of different arcs makes the motive of revenge bigger than the sum of its parts.
A fundamental rule of any dramatic writing is having conflict. Your protagonist will need an opposition to assign blame on and want to punish. When writing revenge stories, the antagonist is usually the person who orchestrated or committed the original act.
So, who are they and what’s their motive?
- Are they inherently evil? Make sure you don’t lean too hard into a caricature moustache-twirling villain.
- Can you explore a multi-layered, complex antagonist? Not one reduced to being one-dimensional and perhaps even one not entirely deserving of revenge.
- You could take it another step further – maybe they weren’t unjustified in their actions, for example?
Antagonists don’t have to be the villain of the story by default – the same way protagonists aren’t always the automatic hero. The initial desire for revenge might be easily justified, only for the plot to reveal more complexity as it goes on.
As a whole, the antagonist‘s credibility is key in making the revenge feel engaging in the first place. If they seem two-dimensional then it’s likely the revenge itself will seem two-dimensional. In this way, the antagonist‘s depth is just as important as the protagonist‘s. What are the stakes for the revenge and what is the motivation? The strength of the antagonist‘s characterisation will provide convincing answers to these questions.
Revenge is not an easy task to achieve. Therefore, there must be a persuasive level of obstacles and conflict for the protagonist to achieve their revenge:
- What are the obstacles on this journey? The narrative needs these to raise the stakes, build tension and propel the story further.
- Let the protagonist encounter problems. Show them navigating these issues. Demonstrate how pushbacks can transform your character. Does the slippery villain keep narrowly escaping? Do the parameters or stakes of the revenge constantly change? Allow for frustrating failures that will help them grow.
- Again, don’t neglect your antagonist; obstacles should impede their progress too.
- If you’re struggling with rounding a character, forcing them to solve problems will help you discover more about how far you can push them.
- Is there a third party who tries to stop the hero?
- This could be anyone who doesn’t believe in the protagonist’s methods of justice. This will heighten the stakes – especially if it’s law enforcement going after them.
Keep delaying the gratification of the protagonist achieving their goal and build the tension for its payoff. That way, when the resolution finally comes, it will be far more satisfying. But more importantly, it will make the journey of revenge all the more believable.
Nothing worthwhile is ever easy and so the revenge should prove illusive, difficult and multi-faceted. Don’t think of the journey as a straight line but a twisting graph, forever riding peaks and troughs until the eventual pay-off, which, in and of itself, might not be as straightforward as initially believed.
This is the moment everyone is waiting for. The part where the confrontation happens and when the hero and villain go head to head.
- This is when binary oppositions collide and are put to the test. Good vs Evil. Hero vs Villain. Life vs Death.
- Twists are typically revealed here. For instance, if your hero has mistaken the villain for somebody else, the true villain of the story will make themselves known.
- Revelations will help up the drama and expand the story. This is the perfect time for a betrayal moment, for instance. Has somebody your protagonist is working with actually been on the other side the whole time?
Crucially, the climax of revenge stories will deal with the two possible outcomes; the protagonist‘s moment of triumph, where they complete their goal and get justice, or their failure. This will resolve the main conflict of the story. What was the quest for revenge really about? How did it serve as a Trojan horse for the true desire.
In The Revenant, for example, the main character Hugh Glass succeeds in his quest to avenge his son’s death. But despite the long and unrelenting journey, he does not deliver the final blow himself. The last line antagonist Fitzgerald delivers is harrowing and encapsulates the whole feel of the film.
“Well, you enjoy it Glass because there ain’t anything that’ll bring your boy back.”
Revenge stories don’t always have to tie up neatly. This could mean the protagonist not succeeding, or simply demonstrating that revenge has a harsh price – whether that’s in death or showing that the events will torment your character for the rest of their life.
If the protagonist doesn’t succeed, it could be because they decided not to go through with the act. This comes with a message about revenge not always being the best way forwards. Be careful with this. It can be frustrating to follow a character through such an intense journey only for them to have a sudden change of heart. So this change of heart, in fact, can’t be sudden – it has to be seeded throughout the plot.
If the protagonist fails, this tends to culminate in their defeat; usually, the villain escapes or the protagonist dies. Equally, this can be frustrating. But sometimes stories aren’t meant to have a happy ending.
- If the main character succeeds in their quest, deal with the concoction of emotions victory unearths. It’ll be complicated and bittersweet.
- Your protagonist might have gone down an exhausting and bloodied road to achieve their goal.
- After succeeding, they could have the dreaded realization sink in that revenge doesn’t solve everything and won’t bring back what they lost along the way – just like Fitzgerald suggests to Glass in The Revenant.
Crucially, this still fulfils an important purpose for a screenplay – for the protagonist to learn a lesson. Revenge may be a cipher, a way of the protagonist searching for something that revenge seems like the answer for but isn’t. This demonstrates how revenge can be a fantastic motivator for a plot in the context of a thriller. It allows for a relatively simple arc, jam-packed with exciting action and a clear end goal.
But true satisfaction from a revenge story lies in what the protagonist gains from the revenge other than the completion of the act itself. What have they learnt and what has the story truly been about? This is a vital way to give your revenge story a distinct meaning and purpose, helping it stand out from the crowd.
This article was written by Molly Hutchings and edited by IS Staff.
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