Plotting Revenge: Using a Masterplot

RevengeIf you were with us last week for Heather’s post on productivity, you know we announced our Blogging from A to Z Challenge theme, Masterplots Theater.

Heather and I didn’t coin the term masterplot and I’m not sure who did. However, the idea comes from a familiar writing concept, namely that all stories have been told before. We can boil down every plot into some basic core elements. Once we find that core, it’s often contained under a simple heading: romance, quest or revenge to name a few. Our posts all next month will showcase 26 masterplots. We’ll have examples of books and films that use them. Plus each post will include common tropes and story elements you’re likely to find in each of the masterplots.

Story uniqueness is what every author hopes to achieve and hearing that there are no new stories causes some writers to get upset. Hopefully, everyone realizes each book is special. A writer adds their experiences, writing voice and personal spin to every word. Plus genre and target age range will affect the treatment of any masterplot. The way a story is written for ten-year-olds about getting revenge, finding love, or heading out on a quest is different from the same masterplot written for adults. Also two masterplots can be woven together to create more complexity and add layers to the story. However, for better or worse, all stories start with some core masterplot element.

It’s how writers makes small changes and critical choices that turns a masterplot into something memorable.

A few nights ago, I watched Conan the Barbarian (it was my husband’s idea), and the movie is a textbook example of a revenge masterplot.

The basic points of this masterplot are:

  • The protagonist experiences a wrong (or a perceived wrong) at the hands of the antagonist. Conan is a boy when his village is pillaged and burned by an evil warlord.
  • The protagonist can’t find justice by traditional means, which triggers a need for revenge (often referred to as justice) against the antagonist. In Conan’s case, there is no power higher than his antagonist.
  • The problem the protagonist suffered is personal. The death of a loved one is common. That’s the case with Conan: both his parents are killed in the village raid.
  • The protagonist and the reader should feel the protagonist has the moral high ground. This creates and justifies the protagonist’s actions. Conan’s bad guys are really bad!
  • The end of the revenge masterplot often includes a feel good moment, justice is served, and the bad guy goes down. Conan kills the warlord.

What if the film inspired me to write a revenge story for Camp NaNoWriMo? It didn’t, but it’s fun to pretend. Now that I know the basic elements of a revenge masterplot, I can start to mix them up for my story.

I forgo the typical linear story structure, used in Conan and most revenge plots, and I tell the story in reverse. I start almost at the big showdown and flashback to how the protagonist and antagonist got to this critical point.

Instead of the protagonist’s parents, my antagonist kills off the protagonist’s only child.

Since first person POV is common in revenge plots, I can put my project in third person.

Conan is a typical revenge hero: big, strong, capable and assertive. I can use one that’s frail and pulling the strings of revenge from the safety of his comfy home.

At the end of the big showdown, I could add a plot twist. When the antagonist steps from the shadows my protagonist learns his adversary is also his college roommate! The event that sparked this feud happened decades before the story opened.

Lastly, I can omit a major item from the revenge masterplot. Faced with the realization that he started the chain of events that eventually let to the death of his child, the protagonist lets the antagonist kill him. The protagonist’s revenge is never realized. The antagonist who plotted the protagonist’s downfall wins the day. Sometimes deviating from the masterplot is a great idea and it helps the story stand out, but it’s also tricky. The readers of my revenge story might be angered that I dumped the traditional feel-good ending.

By adding and subtracting elements and/or by weaving in a B plot, the story gets a fresh spin. The plot’s core is still revenge, but making changes helps mask that fact from the causal reader.

It’s up for debate on how many masterplots there are. Heather and I actually found the task of narrowing the list down to 26 topics rather difficult. Some of our favorite materplots fell on the same letters, and that forced us to make some hard choices. The revenge masterplot mentioned above is one we ultimately cut. Hopefully, you will join us all month as we blog our way through some masterplots.

Please share you favorite revenge novel or film. What about this story made it standout from all the other revenge plots you’ve seen or read?

Author: Robin Rivera

Robin trained as a professional historian and worked as a museum curator, educator, and historical consultant. She writes mystery fiction, with diverse characters and a touch of snark. She's currently working on two new manuscripts that started off as NaNoWriMo projects. You can follow her on Facebook( However, Pinterest ( is where her inner magpie is happiest of all.

7 thoughts on “Plotting Revenge: Using a Masterplot”

    1. Thanks! A to Z is a wild blogging month. Knowing we have a some friends along for the ride really helps. I hope you enjoy it.

  1. What a terrific idea for a series! When I review books, I look for their defining tropes. It would be so great to identify their masterplot as well.

    I’m not a film buff, and in fact see most movies from the decided disadvantage of that little seatback screen on airplanes. Recently I saw Bradley Cooper in John Wells’ BURNT. A mildly entertaining but ultimately forgettable movie, it did have an overall theme of redemption vs revenge, with one standout moment where a character (damn, it’s hard to avoid spoilers!) who has waited for years and indeed seems to have offered forgiveness, steps forward for a precisely timed jewel of revenge. It was easily the most cinematically stunning moment of the movie. Set against the angst and whining and general overacting of the rest of the film, this tiny perfect moment is a pure distillation of revenge.

    1. That sounds like a great story moment. I’ll have to watch that film just to catch it. Revenge is not an easy plot. I think the writer can over do it and end up with a main character that comes off as unhinged. I’m glad you like our A to Z theme, we’re having a lot of fun writing them.

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