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Things I Wish I'd Said on the Story Grid Podcast: John Wick

Often, after we've finished recording all 4 episodes of the Story Grid Podcast, or worse, after I listen back to them, I have a flood of ideas, additional thoughts, or parts of my notes that I forgot to mention. This blog series is just an opportunity for me to fill in any blanks I feel I've missed or share any insights I had after the fact.

Haven't heard all the episodes yet? Listen to them wherever you get your podcasts, or at

On Revenge Plots and Objects of Desire

One of the things Tim and I discussed on the Story Grid Podcast was, basically, how Revenge plots are a bit weird. One of things we didn't have the chance to discuss was the problem of a cautionary versus a prescriptive revenge story. The revenge plot really centers on how you handle the Object of Desire, so whether it's prescriptive or cautionary, it's something you want to get right! Not writing a revenge plot? That's okay! In any story, your protagonist should be in pursuit of something (that's what we call the "Object of Desire"), so substitute the word "goal" or "object of desire" most times you see the word "revenge" and you'll get the same idea :)

When it comes to thinking about revenge, or any object of desire, and how you plan to present it, I think it's most helpful to scale all the way back to the basics of your story and ask, "Is this story prescriptive or cautionary?" That is, by the end of your story, is your protagonist someone to be admired, or whose example should be followed given the circumstances, or did they make the wrong choice(s) throughout the story and are someone whose example should be avoided?

When it comes to revenge plots, I think cautionary tales can be a little more straightforward. We generally uphold revenge as something we shouldn't do in most cases. If your story is Cautionary, then Story Grid's Internal Genres can be super helpful here. What is the blind spot your protagonist has that is causing them to pursue revenge, or pursue revenge in this way? It helps if we can see why the protagonist wants revenge and feel the emotional weight of the protagonist's desire for revenge, but then at key moments, see that the protagonist is going down the wrong path. Each time, that "wrong decision" should be dictated by whatever blind spot you identified in your protagonist based on your internal genre. In the podcast, I refer to the movie The Prestige, which is a revenge story like John Wick, but a cautionary one. Angier is driven by an obsession that (spoiler alert) he ultimately pays for.

But what if it's prescriptive? Then your job is going to be to show us that the protagonist is acting rightly in their pursuit of revenge (alternatively, in the end, the protagonist releases their desire for revenge, which is a more common version of a prescriptive revenge story. Internal genres will help there too!). Again, in the case of John Wick, John is following all of the rules in his pursuit of Iosef. Iosef is part of the Underworld, so John is well within his rights to pursue retribution, and he does it in the right way. You might also consider, for your story, under what kinds of circumstances one ought to pursue revenge, and if so, what are the limitations? Barring the protagonist releasing the desire for revenge, you want to make very clear that, if your story is prescriptive, your protagonist is justified in their revenge and that they go about it the right way.

But there's one more trick that the creators of John Wick had up their sleeves, and it's one you're going to need: We also want revenge. In the beginning of the movie, we see John grieving the loss of his wife. After the funeral, the dog is sent to his house with a note from his wife, which bears a message of love and hope for John. He says in the third Act, "It was my chance to grieve unalone." Even the dog's name is significant: "Daisy," his wife's favorite flower. When Iosef comes for the car, he doesn't have to kill the dog, but he does. Worse, he drags the dog's body in front of John so that he wakes up to find it, and still worse, we see that Iosef is thoroughly amused by what he's done. The result? When John puts on his suit and starts packing heat to come after Iosef, we're downright cheering for him. The point here: whether or not the audience also wants revenge, specifically, it's imperative that the reasons for your protagonist's pursuit of revenge go deep, and that the audience feels the importance of those reasons.

Whether your story is prescriptive or cautionary, make sure we feel the weight of your protagonist's reason for revenge. Even if we disagree, we should understand.

A Final Note: The Right Questions

This is a brief aside to capture another, slightly different possibility: maybe whether someone should or shouldn't pursue revenge isn't precisely question we're meant to be asking. Rather, it's what drives our kick-ass protagonist to use their skills and get the job done. I think John Wick falls into this category -- we aren't meant to be asking whether he should or shouldn't be pursuing revenge, it's a given that he will. The rule still applies: make sure the reason the protagonist is pursuing revenge is strong and established enough that we don't question it.

The point here is knowing what questions you want your readers to be asking. In the case of John Wick, we're not meant to be asking that question because the context has already dictated that this is how the world of hitmen works: An eye for an eye as long as you do it within the bounds of the rules. And this goes to something that Tim jokingly mentioned in the first episode of the John Wick series: "What about the 79 guys that got killed? Some of them probably had someone that loved them." Which, of course, he follows by observing that that isn't the point of the story, so the story doesn't deal with that question. Viggo's men are intentionally impersonal because asking questions about them isn't the point. Even named antagonists, outside of our primary forces of antagonism, are given relatively little background. This is a bit easier in heavily external genres like Action, Crime, Thriller, or Horror, where we suspend our disbelief in favor of the action that is happening. If your story has wider reaching implications, then you want to make sure you focus on the primary questions that you want your readers to be asking or considering to keep the scope of your story from sprawling beyond what you can deal with in a single novel.

Questions to Consider:
  • What is your protagonist's goal or object of desire? (If you don't have an answer to this, start with this question!)

  • Why does this goal matter to the protagonist?

  • How will you show the audience how, how much, and why it matters? What specific scenes will bring this to the page?

  • Should the protagonist even have this goal?

    • If yes, what do they need to overcome or realize (internally) in order to achieve that goal?

    • If no, what is preventing them from properly assessing this goal? What should they be focusing on instead? What truth do they need to understand in order to redirect their attention to a more worthy goal?

    • And then: do they do they change or persist in their pursuit of their goal, and was this the right or the wrong choice?

  • What questions do you want your audience to be asking or considering?

Is the story you're writing prescriptive or cautionary? What other questions do you ask yourself about your protagonist and their goals for the story?

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