Nothing hits the literary palate with quite the delightful punch of a well-spun revenge story. Not the third-act, Scooby-Doo reveal that a killer did it all for revenge, or even the author’s personal vendetta against some person(s)—no, I’m talking of revenge plots where the actions unfurls around a quest for comeuppance.
The Elizabethan revenge tragedies of Shakespeare and Thomas Kyd are some of my favorite dramas of that period (even the pie-baked venom of Titus Andronicus). Now, whenever I find the world particularly disappointing, as I did this week, I reach for the alpha and omega of revenge stories: Alexander Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo.
The first time I read Dumas’s popular work was when I was about twenty. Full of youthful intellectual arrogance, I decided to tackle it in the original French. Even though I read it alongside a translation dictionary (and a notepad to keep track of characters), I was still swept up in the twisting tale of justice. Dumas published the novel in serial form, which might account for all the turns and mini-climaxes. But however it is read, it’s a perfect guide for those who might want to take a stab at their own revenge tale.
Unless attempting an unsettling vagueness, like the oenophile at the core of Poe’s “The Cask of Amantillado,” motive is crucial in a revenge plot. The audience needs to understand the protagonist’s need for justice, even if they don’t agree with it. Edmund Dantès, the wrongly imprisoned protagonist at the center of Monte Cristo is betrayed by not one, but three men, all acting for selfish reasons (romantic jealousy, occupational jealousy, and ambition). Dumas gives the reader a wide variety of characters in the three antagonists—the love-crazed, cruel Fernand, the petty Danglars, and the well-intentioned, but ultimately self-serving Villefort.
Of course, a revenge plot doesn’t need the complex patterns of betrayal Dumas provides: the Kill Bill films are based on the quest for revenge for a jealousy-fueled massacre. Clean and simple. Even the psychological tornado at the center of Gone Girl, another revenge plot, gives a relatively simple motive.
The Set Up
Part of the fun in a revenge plot is the set up. How creative can one person be when serving up justice? Call it karma or what goes around comes around or an eye for an eye: whatever the phrase, there is something poetic and satisfying about a punishment that fits the crime. Edmund Dantès transforms into the Count of Monte Cristo (and several other aliases), a master strategist who manipulates people in ways that boggle the mind. Fake telegrams! Staged Kidnappings! Coerced deathbed confessions! These things do not just happen on their own. You have to get up very early in the morning for that kind of scheming.
Revenge can go many ways at this stage—you can have the master strategist like Dantès who is five steps ahead of everyone else. Or you can have the wild improviser who is more focused on the goal than the execution. Hamlet, for example, spends much of the play vacillating on not just how to enact his revenge, but if he is really capable of it.
One of the central discussions surrounding Hamlet is that the character seems to do nothing for most of the play. I fall on the side that argues he does a great deal. Just because he’s not working from a prewritten “Make Them Pay” Playbook, as Dantès does, doesn’t not mean he is without action. As long as reader sees your character focused, physically and/or mentally on the revenge, the set up works.
The Pay Off
The primary selling point of any revenge story is renewing the audience’s faith in justice: we want the world to be put right once more. There is something so satisfying in knowing that—even if only in the fictional world—a price must be paid. We want the emotional payoff so much in our revenge stories because the chances are that in life we won’t get them.
Does that mean that everything has to tie up in a nice little bow of punishment for bad guys and happiness for good guys? Absolutely not. How boring would that be? Think of The Bride at the end of Kill Bill, Vol. 2. Even though she has dispensed her justice and reclaimed her daughter, she breaks down in tears. Revenge, no matter how warranted, has a price on the soul. Even Dantès must return to Chateau d’If to remind himself of his suffering when he becomes worried that he is too far gone in his quest.
Elizabethan revenge tragedies usually end with the implied tragedy—the protagonist may get his revenge, but at the cost of his life. Moby Dick looks at how revenge can consume and destroy a person when not checked. The motive and the set up are integral in the plot of a revenge story, but the pay off—namely how it ends and what the price of revenge is on the human soul—is crucial in the character development.
Whether a calculating master plan or a violent id-driven rampage, a revenge plot is a treat for reader and writer alike. Spin, twist, shake it—just make us cry for justice and then give it to us . . . one way or another.subscribe to Ploughshares?