Master Plot #6: Revenge
If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?
—Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, III, i
Francis Bacon called revenge a wild justice. In literature the dominant motive for this plot is loud and clear: retaliation by the protagonist against the antagonist for real or imagined injury. It’s a visceral plot, which means it reaches into us at a deep emotional level. We bristle against injustice and we want to see it corrected. And almost always, the retaliation is outside the limits of the law. This is the wild justice that Bacon spoke about. There are times when the law cannot properly dispense justice, so we take the matter into our own hands. We have a Biblical precedent that we’ve heard quoted so many times that we can recite it in our sleep: “An eye for an eye, tooth for tooth; hand for hand, foot for foot” (Exodus 21:24). In the throes of righteousness it’s easy to overlook Jesus’s response: “If any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.” Fine sentiments, but obviously not human nature. If you hit me, I will hit you back. (There have been some fine stories about people who cling to their faith when tempted by revenge, but they’re better people than most of us are.)
Revenge is vigilante justice, which has as much power today as it had a thousand years ago.
The theme of revenge was a favorite among the Greeks, but it reached its highest expression in seventeenth-century Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy.
Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, written about 1590, is about Hieronimo, who wavers on the verge of madness after his son is murdered. Between his spells of madness, he discovers who has killed his son and why, and he plots revenge. Sound familiar?
Not yet? Then two more clues. The ghost of the murdered son calls for his father to carry out the revenge. Hieronimo then stages a play in which the murderers are killed. Figure it out yet?
Antonio’s Revenge, you say? In this play by John Marston, Antonio’s murdered father appears as a ghost and begs his son to avenge his murder, which he does during a court ball.
Or maybe you thought of George Chapman’s The Revenge of Bussy d’Amboise, when Bussy’s ghost begs his brother to avenge his murder? Or was it Henry Chettle’s Tragedy of Hoffman? Or Cyril Tourneur’s The Revengers Tragedie?
Most likely it was Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which is probably the most famous revenge story ever told. (Remember what I said earlier about Shakespeare’s originality?) Sure, others told the same story, but none told it so well. The talking ghost crying out for revenge, the feigned madness, the play-within-the-play, and the carnage at the end were all stock devices used in the revenge tragedy.
Most of our contemporary revenge stories don’t have the range of character and feeling that Shakespeare brought to Hamlet. Still, the pattern of the revenge plot hasn’t changed in the last three thousand years. At the heart of the story is the protagonist, who is generally a good person forced to take vengeance into her own hands when the law won’t give satisfaction. Then there’s the antagonist, the person who has committed the crime, who for some quirk in the natural progress of events has escaped punishment for his crime. Last, there’s the victim, the person whom the protagonist must avenge. As a character, the victim obviously is expendable; his purpose is to arouse our sympathies, for him and for the protagonist (who has been denied love, companionship, or the like). Sometimes the victim is the protagonist himself. The more heinous the crime (rape, murder, incest), the more the protagonist is justified in seeking vengeance. We don’t expect the character to go on a campaign of revenge for someone having shoplifted a quart of beer out of her store or for claiming an undeserved deduction on his income tax form.
The first rule of revenge is that the punishment must equal the crime—thus the concept of “getting even.” The Bible’s warrant doesn’t allow us to exceed that which has been received. “An eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth … .” And with our primitive sense of justice, we are content to exact that same punishment. No more, and no less.
The basic dramatic structure of the plot has changed very little over time. Its three dramatic phases remain consistent from early Greek tragedy to modern Hollywood melodrama.
THE FIRST DRAMATIC PHASE: THE CRIME
The first dramatic phase consists primarily of the crime. The hero and his loved ones are established when suddenly an awful crime intrudes, terminating the hero’s happiness. The hero is unable to defend against the crime. Either he’s not present or he’s restrained (and forced to watch, which adds to the horror).
In some stories, such as the older ones I’ve cited, a murder has been committed before the story begins. Hamlet’s father is already murdered. Generally it’s good advice for any writer to start a scene late and get out early; that is, don’t drag your reader through every detail leading up to the action, and don’t “hang around” after it. Confine your writing to the core of the scene. But I don’t recommend cutting the scenes so tightly that the audience doesn’t witness the crime, because it may be an important element for the reader to experience emotionally. If someone commits a wrongdoing against me or my family, and I want others to share in my outrage, the most effective way for me to gain your empathy is to make you witness the crime. These scenes are not only powerful because of their content, but because they create a strong bond between the audience and the victim. We feel for the victim. We are as outraged as she is, and we want justice as badly as she does. If the crime occurs before your readers enter the story, they are less inclined to feel empathetic. Sympathetic, maybe, but not empathetic. One of your primary goals in this plot is to build a strong emotional bridge between your readers and your main character.
The hero may rely on justice from other sources, such as the police, but that almost never gives satisfaction. He then realizes that if there is any justice to be had, he must dispense it himself.
THE SECOND DRAMATIC PHASE: REVENGE
The second dramatic phase starts as the hero makes his plans for revenge. He prepares for action. If the vengeance involves a single antagonist, the second phase may deal with pursuit (finding) as well as preparation for revenge. In the case of serial revenge, in which several people must pay for the crime, the hero may start dispensing justice in this phase. There is often a third party (to complete the triangle) who tries to stop the hero from achieving his intention. In Death Wish it’s the police officer investigating the case. In Sudden Impact it’s Harry Callahan investigating the case. In both cases, the police are sympathetic to the hero’s cause and end up helping in some way. In The Outlaw Josey Wales, the third arm of the triangle is an old Indian, who adds both a comic touch and historical proportion, since he too has been a victim.
THE THIRD DRAMATIC PHASE: CONFRONTATION
The third dramatic phase deals with the confrontation. In the case of serial revenge, the final criminal to get his due is the most important: either he’s the ringleader, or the most psychopathic, or whatever. This is the moment of triumph for the protagonist. Her motivation has been single-minded all along. She either succeeds or fails. In the case of Ulu, the powerful revenge film from New Zealand, the hero is a Maori man who finds his entire village massacred by the British army. He swears “ulu”—traditional revenge—and wages his own war against the British. One man against an army. His serial revenge is successful until the third phase, when he’s captured. He’s executed, but his death is heroic. In popular literature, however, the protagonist is almost always successful, and once the vengeance is accomplished, she can return to “normal” life.
Revenge is an emotionally powerful motivation; it tends to almost possess the hero. The drama has hard edges and can make some readers uncomfortable with the violence that it entails. Although violence isn’t a prerequisite of this plot, classical revenge usually involves violence, and an informal survey of stories in this category will show violence is a common motif.
But revenge can take nonviolent forms as well. What happens, for instance, when you want to write a comedy in this form? As with plots that incorporate violence, the punishment in a comedy must fit the crime. There are lesser crimes, crimes that don’t require violence to settle the score; for example, it would be appropriate for a con man to be conned in return, such as in the “sting” story. Not all sting stories are revenge plots, but many are. The Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist David Mamet is famous for his stories about stings and con artists. However, the best example of the sting as a revenge plot is the 1973 film by the same name starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Sting stories get their energy and appeal from elaborate cons that take a long time to set up (and usually don’t go as planned). These intricate inventions developed in the second dramatic phase delight us; they are complicated, unwieldy, and seemingly impossible.
Unfortunately, well-crafted revenge stories are the exception rather than the rule. Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Cask of Amontillado” is a wonderful exception. The story has only two characters, Montressor and Fortunato. Because it’s a short story, Poe had the flexibility to bend the basic formula.
Fortunato commits the crime. Montressor is the victim. The crime? An insult. Montressor tells the story, and we never find out what the insult was. He tells us, “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge.” We suspect the man has a screw loose.
Montressor plans his revenge. It must be perfect, one in which his victim will know exactly what is happening to him. During a carnival, a time of “supreme madness,” Montressor lures Fortunato into his wine cellar to taste some amontillado. He chains Fortunato to a wall and then entombs him behind a wall of stone, where he will wait for his death in darkness, repenting for his crime.
Fortunato, of course, is as much in the dark as we are. This revenge is for an imaginary insult or an insult so blown out of proportion that the punishment also is blown out of proportion.
One reason the tale works so well is that it’s told in the first person. Montressor assumes we will condone his actions and share in the grotesque perfection of revenge. Although he sounds sane for most of the story, he reveals his true self at the end, when Fortunato starts to scream from behind the wall that Montressor is building. He unsheathes his sword, thrusts it about in the air and starts to scream himself, drowning out the screams of his victim.
It’s a sketch of madness, little more. Diabolical, chilling, and clever. But we can’t sympathize with Montressor; we quickly despise him. It would have been next to impossible to pull off this story as a novel. Poe’s four pages is about as far as he could go.
Euripides went further with Medea.
Master Plot #18, “Wretched Excess,” arguably could be the logical place for Medea because the title character takes revenge to all-time extremes. But the plot is still revenge, and therefore I keep it in this category.
If Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, Medea is the personification of the scorned woman. When her husband deserts her for another woman, she swears revenge. But like Montressor, she has no sense of proportion, and she violates the first rule of revenge: She punishes her husband (and herself) far more than the crime would allow. Medea pays the price for her severity, but even so, she never becomes a sympathetic character. Medea is a cautionary tale that warns against excess of emotion and decries the price of bitterness.
Medea’s plan is to murder her husband, Jason; his new wife, Glauce; and Glauce’s father. But, like Montressor, she wants Jason to suffer for his crime against her. Killing him would be too easy. So she decides to kill Glauce, Glauce’s father, and her own children, thereby denying Jason everyone he loves.
Medea apologizes to Jason for her earlier outburst and asks if she can send her children with gifts for his new wife as a sign of her repentance. Jason is pleased, of course, and agrees.
Medea’s gift to Glauce is a beautiful golden robe, a present from her grandfather, Helios, god of the sun. But before she gives the robe to her children to give to Glauce, she douses it with a deadly drug.
When Glauce tries on the robe the drug sears her flesh and she dies in agony. Her father tries to save her and is himself contaminated and dies the same death.
Meanwhile, Medea’s children return to her. She has second thoughts about killing them, as her maternal instincts momentarily interfere with her plan of revenge. But, as Euripides points out, Medea isn’t a Greek—she is a barbarian—and she takes a sword and slaughters her children.
Jason is insane with grief and, as he pounds on the doors to Medea’s house, she appears at the balcony holding the bodies of her dead children. Medea escapes in a chariot sent by Helios, and as she carries away the bodies of the children, she taunts Jason with the loneliness and grief that await him. Even though she must suffer the same fate, it will always be tempered by the sweetness of her revenge.
The examples of Poe and Euripides are atypical of the revenge plot. The protagonists in both cases claim the rights of justice, but in excess to their due. They’re tragic, pathetic characters, but they don’t have, nor do they deserve, our sympathies. Their revenges are outrages in themselves.
In 1974 Paramount released a film starring Charles Bronson that created an uproar of protest. Social and political leaders denounced the film as neo-Fascist; the Catholic church slapped the picture with a “C” rating (condemned). And yet people from every race, age, sex, and economic class around the world lined up in droves to see it.
The film was Death Wish, film’s version of the ultimate revenge fantasy, that of the ordinary man seeking revenge as a one-man vigilante committee. The film was remade twice more with virtually no change in the plot, and still it continued to make big money at the box office.
Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) is a successful, big-city architect. He’s an upper-middle-class liberal with a beautiful wife and a beautiful home. Three out-and-out crazy punks upset his world when they break into his apartment, kill his wife, and rape his daughter, who spends the rest of the film catatonic. The police can do nothing.
Furious with the incompetence of the police, Kersey takes matters into his own hands. He starts haunting the cesspools of New York, inviting muggers to take a shot at him. And when they take him up on his offer, he takes a shot at them—literally. The press dubs him the New York Vigilante. He is a media hero; crime in the city drops while he stalks the streets.
The police capture him but instead of arresting him tell him to leave town. (Sounds a lot like a stock Western plot: The hired sheriff cleans up the town, but the townspeople get fed up with all the violence associated with the clean-up and ask him to leave.) Kersey leaves New York for Los Angeles, where he takes up his crusade in Death Wish II when his Mexican maid and teenaged daughter are raped and killed. (Don’t ask where the daughter came from.)
As an action melodrama, the Death Wish series manipulates our emotions expertly. We’re fed up with crime in the streets; we hate the vermin that inhabit our cities, and we keep waiting for some knight in shining armor to emerge and clean up the town the way Marshalls Earp and Dillon did in their day. We’re also frustrated with a system that either has too much red tape or is just incompetent.
Along comes Kersey. Give him a justified cause (he loses his family to scum), give him a gun, and let him loose to do his own thing. And then let us participate vicariously in his victories. When I saw Death Wish in the theater, the audience applauded and cheered when the bad guys got it. I also saw it in a video club in Moscow, and the Russians loved it. For a moment, Bronson’s character was our defending champion. We immediately side with Kersey’s anger and frustration; it’s our anger and frustration. And as Kersey scours the streets, we feel cleansed. This is the heart of catharsis, of cleansing.
Critics were concerned the movie would spawn copycat vigilantes. It didn’t happen, of course. It did, however, spawn copycat versions of the film worldwide, proving its appeal to a wide audience and the power and depth of the emotions we bring to it.
Interestingly enough, the author of the novel Death Wish wrote a sequel called Death Sentence, in which he proposed alternative solutions to vigilantism. To date no one has optioned the book for a film.
Paul Kersey and Hamlet are both bent on revenge. But the similarities stop there. Paul Kersey is a sketch of a man, a type. In the beginning of his story he detests violence, a typically liberal attitude, but by the end of the story he is addicted to it. He does change as a character, but the change is without any real depth or soul-searching. He just goes with the flow.
Hamlet struggles from the beginning of the play to the end. When the ghost of his father tells him he didn’t die accidentally but was murdered by Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius, Hamlet doesn’t go storming off to dispense justice. He is a thinking person. Is the ghost real? Is it a demon sent to torment him? He doesn’t know whether to believe the ghost. He needs proof.
Hamlet becomes depressed. He isn’t a violent man, and the thought of running a sword through his uncle turns his stomach. Unlike manipulative plots like Death Wish, in which characters enter into the notion of revenge easily once given a provocation, Hamlet suffers tremendously. He doubts the ghost. He doubts himself. He wants to do the right thing, but he truly doesn’t know what it is.
When a troupe of actors arrive, Hamlet comes up with a plan to find out if Claudius is guilty. He has the actors play out the scenario of his father’s murder as the ghost related to him, and he watches Claudius for his reaction.
Claudius gives himself away. He’s so unnerved that he must leave the performance. Hamlet now is certain the ghost is his dead father, and that Claudius had murdered him. The task of vengeance now falls squarely on him.
And yet when he comes upon Claudius while he’s praying, Hamlet can’t kill him. He rationalizes, believing if he kills Claudius while he’s praying, Claudius will be in a state of grace.
Claudius is no fool. He thinks Hamlet is plotting to take the crown away from him and hatches his own plan to kill Hamlet. But the plan backfires.
Hamlet wavers between sanity and madness, destroying the people around him. This has become a true disaster in the making, involving the entire court. He kills the old man Polonius (thinking he was killing Claudius), which causes his son, Laertes, to swear to avenge his father’s death. Claudius seizes the opportunity and sets up a duel, betting on his nephew, but poisoning the tip of Laertes’s sword so that even a scratch would be fatal to Hamlet. Then, to hedge his bets, Claudius also puts a cup of poison near Hamlet in case he should get thirsty during the duel.
But Hamlet’s mother drinks from the cup and dies.
Laertes wounds Hamlet, poisoning him.
Hamlet runs Laertes through. But before he dies, he tells Hamlet that Claudius was responsible for poisoning the sword.
Hamlet runs Claudius through, and then, in the true tradition of the revenge tragedy, Hamlet dies.
End of story, a total wipeout. (You can see that Shakespeare was still influenced by the Greek version of the revenge tragedy, such as Medea.)
Although revenge tragedies are still as bloody as they were during the Greek era, the hero now survives the ordeal. The point of the old revenge tragedies is that there’s a heavy price to pay for revenge. Innocent people get swept up in it and die, and the hero almost always pays the price for revenge with her own death. There was never any satisfaction at having accomplished vengeance.
Today, however, the hero seems to bask in self-righteousness. She feels justified and liberated by the act of vengeance. She walks away at the end, somehow a better person, and if there’s a price to pay, it’s small in comparison to the suffering the old heroes went through.
Revenge is an emotionally powerful (and one might say dangerous) plot to work with. You manipulate powerful emotions in your reader by creating a situation that cries for justice. We respond at a deep level when someone violates us or anyone else who doesn’t deserve violation. In many cases, victims are like Everyman. It’s as if you say to the reader, “If it could happen to this person, it could happen to you, too.” Chilling. And to protect ourselves from that kind of outrage (murder, rape, mayhem, etc.), we demand swift and complete justice. You put yourself in a strong moral position as you write this plot. You say what is proper and what is improper behavior. Be careful. What you recommend may be wild justice, but that too may have its price.
Now let’s say you want to write a story about a bookkeeper who cheats on the books. As readers, we may not feel offended by the crime. The call for revenge wouldn’t seem justified. What would you do, turn him in to the I.R.S.? You certainly wouldn’t cut off his head. Limit your revenge story to a grievous crime—one that does major physical or mental damage to your hero. Even in The Sting, Redford is avenging the death of his close friend.
This brings us back to the discussion about motivation and intent. Revenge is the intent of your hero. But what is your hero’s motivation for wanting to get revenge? Be careful how you develop this aspect of your protagonist. Do you want the reader to remain sympathetic, or do you want to show how seeking revenge distorts the values of the character? Understand both the cause (the crime) and the effect (how the crime affects the victim or someone close to the victim who wants revenge).
This plot examines the dark side of human nature. Don’t lose your character amidst the turmoil of the action.
Keep in mind the following points as you develop this plot:
1. Your protagonist seeks retaliation against the antagonist for a real or imagined injury.
2. Most (but not all) revenge plots focus more on the act of the revenge than on a meaningful examination of the character’s motives.
3. The hero’s justice is “wild,” vigilante justice that usually goes outside the limits of the law.
4. Revenge plots tend to manipulate the feelings of the reader by avenging the injustices of the world by a man or woman of action who is forced to act by events when the institutions that normally deal with these problems prove inadequate.
5. Your hero should have moral justification for vengeance.
6. Your hero’s vengeance may equal but may not exceed the offense perpetrated against the hero (the punishment must fit the crime).
7. Your hero first should try to deal with the offense in traditional ways, such as relying on the police—an effort that usually fails.
8. The first dramatic phase establishes the hero’s normal life; then the antagonist interferes with it by committing a crime. Make the audience understand the full impact of the crime against the hero, and what it costs both physically and emotionally.
Your hero then gets no satisfaction by going through official channels and realizes he must pursue his own cause if he wants to avenge the crime.
9. The second dramatic phase includes your hero making plans for revenge and then pursuing the antagonist.
Your antagonist may elude the hero’s vengeance either by chance or design. This act usually pits the two opposing characters against each other.
10. The last dramatic phase includes the confrontation between your hero and antagonist. Often the hero’s plans go awry, forcing him to improvise. Either the hero succeeds or fails in his attempts. In contemporary revenge plots, the hero usually doesn’t pay much of an emotional price for the revenge. This allows the action to become cathartic for the audience.
About the Book
Learn more timeless plots for your fiction in 20 Master Plots by Ronald B. Tobias.