10 Steps To A Great Revenge Novel
A woman posted on social media that she was obsessed with getting back at her ex from twenty years ago. He had done her wrong and she was still fuming.
“Get therapy,” one woman advised. Sounded pricey.
Another chimed in: “Just forget him.” Easier said than done.
A third said, “He’s not worth the risk of re-engaging.” That comment I agreed with. No need for real-life revenge, with its attendant messiness. There is a better way.
“Write a revenge novel,” was my advice. “Check out Brilliant Charming Bastard for ideas.” The wronged woman loved that answer and I hope she reads my novel (I hope you will, too).
In case you have the itch, here are 10 steps to great revenge novel. To get you started on a tale of vengeance that entertains to the max… and gives your readers the catharsis they’re looking for.
Step One: Do Nothing.
As they say in the Klingon Empire, revenge is a dish best served cold. If your relationship ended fewer than five years ago, put your ideas on the shelf. Time will give you the perspective you need to create a great story.
In the meantime, Do Nothing also means: Don’t Throw Anything Away. You may be itching to delete those emails and ditch that pile of two-faced love letters. But the big catharsis is coming your way, and when you’re ready to write, you’ll need everything about that schmuck that’s on paper or in your laptop.
Step Two: Collect Your Materials.
Once you have time and distance, start digging. Did you keep a journal back then? Do you have emails in either direction? Letters? Divorce documents? Photos? Gather it all and look for the best nuggets: All the grandiose, self-serving, smarmy language you can find from that self-centered bastard. Now make a rough timeline of events and peg your best materials to your timeline.
Step Three: Raise the Stakes.
When it comes to revenge, maybe you’ve thought about slashing his tires or smashing her windshield. That’s small potatoes. We’re talking fiction now, and anything can happen on the page. So let’s raise the stakes: How would you like him to die? Given your history with her, what would be the most ironic, most fitting, dare I say funniest, way you could finish them off?
Only on paper, of course.
Brainstorm at least ten ideas. Keep in mind that their death need not involve murder. Your nasty character could meet their demise solely as a consequence of their own hubris. For example, in Brilliant Charming Bastard, the villain makes a clandestine sex video of the heroine, and after she dumps him, he sits down to watch it and chokes to death on popcorn. Many readers tell me that’s their favorite bit.
Now, look at your brainstorm death list, pick your three best ideas and write them up. Have fun with it. (There now, don’t you feel better already?)
Hang onto all three versions of your villain’s demise. One version will feature prominently in your novel.
Step Four: Gather Your Posse.
Your main character does not need to go it alone. In fact, she should not.
First of all, for whom is she taking revenge? It may be for someone else. For example, in Mindy McGinnis’ YA novel The Female of the Species, the heroine, Alex, avenges her sister’s death and then branches out to other deserving folks in town.
But beyond her empathy with the victim, a vengeance warrior should always have a posse. Here are some ideas:
- If you’re writing from your own experience, consider creating a sidekick character who possesses the wisdom you have now.
- How about modeling a character on friends who gave you good (or bad!) advice back in the day.
- Consider the various aspects of your own personhood: Your Inner Xena, your Inner Femme, your Inner Nerd. To lapse momentarily into psychobabble, a revenge novel can be about reintegrating the parts of the main character that shattered during trauma (check out Internal Family Systems Theory, if this concept isn’t too Berkeley for you).
Your main character is not alone in relishing vengeance. Revenge novels get a bad rap, mostly from male reviewers concerned about their writer exes. But many women love these stories. Revenge is sweet, and even sweeter when shared. Just think how popular movies like First Wives’ Club and The Witches of Eastwick have been, where a group of women support one another on their journey to retribution.
While you develop your posse, make notes on your main characters too. That means both your heroine and your villain. Who are they, and what do they want? How did their early experiences shape them? (Yes, your villain is a full character too—if they are a cardboard cutout your story will lack spark.) What do your characters fear most? What do they look like? Know your characters well enough to convey their gravitas: A sense of authority over their own lives. The better you understand your characters, the richer a tale you’ll tell.
Step Five: Choose Your Settings.
This is a good chance to mention autofiction, my favorite concept for writers over fifty. Autofiction means drawing on our life history to mix and match places, times, events and people. One of the joys of long experience is the many lives we access when we write. We have travelled, moved cities, worked different jobs. Your novel need not take place in its actual location; in fact, it’s better if it does not. Create setting details that highlight the motives of your characters. For example, in Brilliant Charming Bastard, the appalling state of the villain’s refrigerator shows us how he treats women: He serves the fresh food on top to his new conquests and the rotting food underneath to the women he takes for granted.
Another advantage of mixing and matching, whether it’s settings or the different attributes of your main characters, is that your story moves further into fiction. To paraphrase Anne Lamott, if people wanted you to write nicely about them, they shouldn’t have been jerks. Yet while the object of your revenge may deserve the worst, writers sometimes get into legal hot water for dissing recognizable people.
So move your story to a different setting. If it happened when you were teaching school, set it in your favorite veterinary hospital. Give your villain a career that is different than real life, more suited to their nature, in a place that is familiar to you but not to them.
Step Six: Construct Your Plot
You’ve already started the process of creating the plot:
- In Step Two you made a rough timeline of real life events
- In Step Three you raised the stakes with several versions of a villain death scene
- In Step Four you considered how the posse might help resolve the story
Now use the additional ideas below to construct your draft plot:
- Consider ways your story can overturn conventional assumptions about women after midlife. For example, one trope about romance and women after midlife is that women get taken advantage of. And while that can happen, it’s certainly not the only outcome of a late-life romance. What if the heroine ruins the villain financially, instead of the other way around? What if your heroine finds a new and better romance after dispatching the villain (as does the heroine in Brilliant Charming Bastard)? Try other counter-tropes: Maybe the heroine is a late bloomer who discovers she loves sex after fifty. Maybe she wears loud colors, starts lifting weights, or becomes a grey-haired dominatrix. She is, after all, not you, but a fully embodied character who springs from your imaginings (For more on Counter-Tropes, see my book, Aphrodite’s Pen: The Power of Writing Erotica after Midlife).
- Next, consider the Heroine’s Journey (as distinct from Joseph Campbell’s vision of the Hero’s Journey). In a revenge novel, the transformation of the heroine can be the main plot driver. What events could you use to show the heroine embracing the masculine side of her character, dealing with her inner conflicts, reconnecting with her feminine side, and becoming a spiritual warrior who celebrates all parts of herself?
- No discussion of plots could omit the famous Three Act Structure that has dominated Western plotting since the Ancient Greeks. Graph it out and the structure looks like sex: Rising action, followed by climax and resolution. Look at the plot events you have outlined, taken from life and from your imagination. Capture each event in a few words on a file card. Then spread out your cards and play with the order. Keeping the Three Act Structure in mind, where in the sequence is each event most satisfying? Where does the villain’s death happen in the sequence—in the middle, or closer to the end? And which version of their death best fits your overall story? (If you just want to humiliate your villain, not kill them, that’s alright too.)
If you’re really into planning, you could also write a detailed character arc for each of your main characters and sidekicks. But by now you’re likely itching to get on with it. Prepare much more and you’ll just be procrastinating. Instead, let’s write.
Step Seven: Write Your First Draft.
Don’t try to be measured and mature about your first efforts. You’ll never show this draft to anyone but you. The first draft of a revenge novel can and should be vengeful and petty, on top of the usual failings of any other first draft: cliché-ridden, repetitive, disorganized and incoherent. Give yourself permission to write complete trash. Write quickly, without editing, and ask your Inner Critic to take a back seat. She can have a turn when it’s time to proof read.
And by the way, there are great resources for your first draft at National Novel Writing Month. For binge writers especially, the whole idea of writing fifty thousand words in a month can be liberating.
Step Eight: Do Nothing. Again.
Yes, we are back to a reprise of Step One.
Only this time you have a full draft of a revenge novel and can pat yourself on the back about it, even if (especially if) that draft is total garbage.
Congratulate yourself and then stick your draft in a drawer for a month or two or three. Leave your draft alone until you can look at it objectively and pick out the diamonds amidst the coal.
Step Nine: Edit.
Whole books are written on editing, and its three main phases:
- Developmental editing, where you consider what to add and rearrange to make the story even stronger. A writing group can be very handy for this stage.
- Line editing, where you polish the language of a story until it sings. Reading your work aloud will tell you much about the changes needed.
- Proofreading, the last to be done, where you read the story ten times and are still finding typos. Invite your Inner Critic to have at it. Pro Tip: Trade proofing sessions with another writer. It’s almost impossible to catch every typo in your own work.
Here are my two cents on editing points that are especially relevant to revenge:
- Make sure your villain’s comeuppance is supremely satisfying. Look at all three versions of their demise. Are there elements you want to add to the version you chose to write about?
- Make sure your heroine has at least one great sex scene with a new and better partner, after the villain is vanquished. Remember: Anything can happen on the page. And great sex should happen.
- Revenge can be heavy slogging unless it is balanced by humor. Find ways to add levity to your story. It could be via a foolish sidekick character. It could be narrator commentary. In the case of Brilliant Charming Bastard, a newspaper gossip columnist who parodies plot events.
Step Ten: Share Your Story with the World
Your story is finished, edited, in the best shape you can make it. Now what? Do you need an agent? Maybe not.
Do you even need a publisher? Maybe not that either.
The rule of thumb is, the closer you move toward self-publishing, the more time you’ll put into the process AND the more control you will gain. One place to start learning is my blog series on the publishing process.
However you proceed, you’ve now written your revenge novel, created your alternate universe, and given yourself, and potentially others, a vision of rough justice. Congratulations! You have performed an exorcism, and you will be stronger for it.
Stories are powerful and, as I’ve written before, it is a significant responsibility to be a teller of tales. It is also a significant joy. May you revel in your tale of revenge.
For two other touchstones of writing that would educate any revenge novel, do not go through your life without reading:
“Crazy Weather” – Charles Longstreth McNichols
“Ceremony” – Leslie Marmon Silko
What you hate, you become …..