Ah, the villain’s master plan, a tried and true technique that most writers will need at some point in their careers. A master plan gets the story moving and gives the heroes something to fight against. It builds anticipation for the audience. What will happen if the villain succeeds? The master plan is so common that some writers get complacent when using it, which leads to plots that feel forced or incomplete. When crafting the perfect plan for your villain, be sure you know the answers to these five questions so that your villain may twirl their mustache with pride.
1. What’s Stopping Them From Carrying It Out?
Unless your villain’s goal is simply to mess with the protagonist, there needs to be something stopping the evil plan from coming to fruition on page one. Too many stories act like the bad guys are completely inactive when the hero isn’t around, and this leads to audience frustration.
In Star Trek: First Contact, after a massive battle with Starfleet, the Borg reveal their true plan: go back in time and attack humanity before anyone knew what a phaser was.* This raises a serious question: Why did they wait until Starfleet was shooting at them to activate the time travel device? Why not fly to the edge of Federation space, go back in time, and waltz over to Earth without resistance?
There must be something stopping the villain from putting their plan into motion, or your story will end on the first page. It could be a simple time issue. Maybe the brownies of doom won’t be finished baking for another few weeks. But it’s more satisfying if the villain has to get off their butt and do something; preferably, something that makes the hero’s life hell.
The villain might need several important devices to complete their plan, or they might need to eliminate a group of powerful guardians. This will mean your villain is out and doing something from day one. That lets you build up the threat they pose and inject a little mystery into what they’re planning.
In Deep Space Nine, the Dominion’s master plan is to conquer the Alpha Quadrant. There’s only one problem: the Alpha Quadrant is already full of powerful space nations who don’t want to be conquered. So the Dominion plots and schemes, baiting the Romulans and Cardassians into a disastrous preemptive attack and goading the Klingons into starting a war of their own. The Dominion even attempts to destabilize the Federation by spreading fear and misinformation on Earth. With these smaller goals to build on, the Dominion is properly set up for season six, when they unleash their full might upon the Alpha Quadrant.
2. Why Do They Want to Do It?
Knowing the villain’s motivation is important and doubly so in regard to their master plan. If you don’t know why a villain does what they do, your audience will get confused. The villain’s motivations can be sympathetic or not, so long as it’s a deliberate choice. This will be immediately important if your villain is a POV character, but even if they aren’t, you’ll probably want to reveal what drives them eventually.
One problem with Netflix’s Daredevil is that they don’t seem to know why Kingpin, the big bad, does what he does. Kingpin goes on at length about how he wants to save Hell’s Kitchen and how he’s a using evil means to a noble end. But when we actually see his plan in action, it mostly consists of kicking poor people out of their homes so he can build new developments.*
So, his plan is to throw everyone out on the streets? Kingpin seems like a smart guy; he must realize that his actions are only hurting the people he’s trying to save. Does he only want to save the physical area of Hell’s Kitchen, not caring at all for the people he grew up with? That could be the implication, but it’s an inconsistency that’s never resolved.
Unless you’re building an intentional mystery or contradiction, the audience shouldn’t see the villain say one thing and then do something entirely different. It creates confusion, which is rarely good. Daredevil had enough other positive qualities to make up for this problem, but that’s hardly something you can count on.
A positive example is another show in Netflix’s Marvel run: Killgrave from Jessica Jones. Killgrave is a terrifying villain, and one reason for that is his motivation. His elaborate plan to ruin Jessica’s life is all based on his need for control. Jessica defied him, and no one is allowed to do that. For the sake of his monstrous ego, Killgrave devotes all of his resources in an attempt to force Jessica back into his service. It’s a thrill to watch.
3. What Will the Results Be?
Imagine the hero fails in their quest, and your villain’s plan goes off without a hitch. What happens? Is it everything your villain expected? If not, was that a deliberate choice on your part? All too often, stories feature a villain whose plan has not been fully thought out. Authors will sometimes go with the first idea that pops into their head, unaware of how audiences will see right through their flimsy setup.
The Dark Knight Rises is particularly bad in this regard. As best I can tell, Bane and Talia’s plan is to take over Gotham for… some reason. It’s either to get revenge on Batman or to fulfill Ra’s al Ghul’s plan to destroy Gotham, or both, depending on the scene. Whatever the precise reason, the two villains concoct an elaborate scheme to take control of Gotham, and it works, but it’s not clear what they expected to happen after that.
Once in control, they mostly seem to sit around, waiting for Batman to escape their prison and try to stop them. So why did they do any of that? What did this look like in their minds?
The Dark Knight Rises illustrates the danger of a poorly thought out master plan. It received far less positive reviews than the previous film, the Dark Knight,* and made the same amount of money despite a larger budget. While the Joker’s plan was also somewhat nonsensical, at least he had a suitably twisted psyche to go along with it. Bane and Talia are both portrayed as completely rational.
When plotting out a villain’s master plan, you don’t need to be a mastermind yourself. Just consider how the factors you’ve set up will interact once completed. If you’re not sure, this is a great place to run the master plan by a friend and see what they think would happen.
Moriarty from Elementary does this really well. Sherlock’s nemesis lays all manner of complicated plans. These plans have more plans hidden inside them, and inside those is a scheme or two. Despite all the complication, Moriarty’s machinations always have concrete results at the end, although they aren’t always obvious until Sherlock lays them out.
4. How Can the Hero Stop It?
Spoilers: The end of Mad Max: Fury Road.
If your villain’s master plan is so great, how is the hero going to stop it? This is a question you need to answer early; you can’t trust heroic pluckiness and spunk to save the day. If it looks like your protagonist has no chance, the audience may decide not to stick around. Why bother to read something that’s predetermined? This is true even if you’re planning an ending where the villain wins. The audience needs a bit of hope to lure them to their doom.*
In season seven of Supernatural, a new enemy appears on the scene. These are the Leviathans, and they’re bad news. They’re super strong and more or less immune to any weaponry the hunters Sam and Dean can muster. The Leviathans’ master plan is to lace all the food in America with mind-control drugs, so that hungry monsters everywhere can have an all-they-can-eat buffet.
The Leviathans’ plan should have worked, too. Sam and Dean do eventually find a weapon that works against them, but it will only work once, so they have to save it for the big boss. When they go to Leviathan HQ, they should get handily beaten, but for some reason none of the Leviathans they run into have guns, even though they’ve used guns in earlier episodes.* When Sam and Dean close for melee, the Leviathans’ super strength is nowhere to be seen. While the Leviathans might be defeated, the audience are the real losers.
To maintain believability, your hero must have some quality that allows them to credibly stop the villain’s plan. This can be a special power, friends in the right places, or even just a unique mindset. You should set this up in advance, so it doesn’t feel like it comes out of nowhere. Subtlety is fine, so long as the moment clicks.
In Mad Max: Fury Road, the titular Max figures out an unexpected plan to defeat the evil Immortan Joe by doubling back and taking over Joe’s Citadel. The Citadel is defenseless because all of Joe’s warboys are out chasing Max and Furiosa. While hints of this twist are planted throughout the film, few in the audience see it coming because the heroes spend most of the story literally running away from the Citadel. It took someone with Max’s unusual thinking to come up with the plan.
5. Why Can’t Anyone Besides the Hero Stop It?
Your protagonist had better be the center of stopping your villain’s plan, or the story is going to get boring fast. That can be a problem in settings that have organized law enforcement or any other powerful groups who’d be interested in stopping evil plans. Few authors are so silly as to end their climax with a SWAT team swooping in to arrest the villain, but if the audience thinks it should have happened that way, the story suffers.
Some of the Dresden Files books have this problem. In that setting, the White Council is the governing body of magic. One of their jobs is to stop sorcerers and monsters from murdering people. Of course, magical murders are exactly what Harry Dresden, wizard and private eye, investigates. So why doesn’t the White Council, with all its resources and power, solve those crimes instead?
At first, the books explain that the White Council doesn’t trust Dresden. He has to solve magical murders because if he doesn’t, the Council will assume he’s the murderer. But that excuse wears thin after a while, and it makes the Council look incompetent. We later find out they are anything but incompetent, so why was Dresden out facing down magical danger alone? Having a team of wizards backing him up would have ruined the drama, that’s why. This is hardly a satisfying answer.
The best way to make your hero the only one who can stop the villain’s master plan is to bake that requirement into your setting. If your protagonist is the sheriff of a remote mining station, or the only sorcerer in a city of mortals, then you’ve got nothing to worry about. If that’s not an option, then the key is to build the justification early in your plot.
The video game Baldur’s Gate II starts with what looks like the magical police riding to your rescue, capturing your nemesis and carting him off to magic prison. So you go about doing random quests for a while, only to find out that your nemesis, a mage named Irenicus, has corrupted the magical police from within. He’s in control of all their resources now, and you’re the only one with a chance of stopping him.
The master plan is too important to leave to chance. Villains drive the drama, so your story may hinge on whether their plan pleases the audience. While asking these questions doesn’t guarantee a good plan, they’ll give you a strong foundation to build on.