Heist plots: How to write a breathtaking heist

27 Nov

I have been recently striving to write about a heist (a robbery, a caper), and man it is tough. This has been the deepest research I have done so far, so I thought I should share my notes. This is basically a developed synthesis of information you can find in the sources I list at the end, plus the lessons I learned from them and from watching some heist movies.

The heist is a recurring plot in Hollywood, you can find a lot of good and bad heist movies. Famous examples I have seen and I will use here are: Ocean’s Eleven saga, The Italian Job, Inception, Man on a Ledge, Entrapment, The Score, and Maverick. If you want to avoid spoilers on them, stop reading and go watch them.

The two heist structure archetypes

If one is to focus on the reader’s role in the story, the amount of information she knows, a clear division can be made of the two heist story archetypes:

  • Obscured plan. The reader doesn’t know the whole plan, which will be revealed at the climax. Rather, she knows the main lines or the fake plans contrived to cheat anyone. This, however, is dangerous, because the reader might feel cheated too. The real plan must be properly foreshadowed. The examples that fall in this archetype are: Ocean’s Eleven saga, Man on a Ledge, and Maverick.
  • Failed plan. The whole plan is known beforehand, but something goes wrong, and characters must improvise a solution with the available elements. Examples: The Italian Job, Inception.

This is not a disjoint division. Some stories have elements of both (Entrapment, The Score). Each plan and part of a plan can be obscured or known. The point here is to note that obscured elements should be foreshadowed, and known elements should fail. However, expositional pacing must be respected: It’s not desirable to have all known elements fail. Some should work, so the stakes are risen by the time the important ones fail, and it gives more veracity to the story.

A case study: In Ocean’s Twelve, the plan was obscured and poorly foreshadowed. The movie drew criticism due to the fact that the viewers felt cheated by the ending. The real action was too hidden in the plot for the viewers to even realize there was something happening in the background.

How can we obscure the plan?

Obscuring a heist plan is like obscuring any plot: The reader can only have partial information on what will happen, and she has to believe she has complete information. At some point, the plot twist must show what was actually happening, and the reader should feel astonished and saying bravo. Easy, right? Hell, no!

An easy way to obscure little parts of the plan is to use jargon: Cool names for heist techniques that may be invented. When the reader sees the characters discuss about doing a “Mr. Charles”, she is more likely to think “I want to know what is a Mr. Charles” than feeling bored because she is noticing the writer’s gambit, as she would if the writer just bypasses an explanation. A good number of jargon expressions can be found in an Ocean’s Twelve scene after most of the gang gets cuffed, around minute 80.

The most used way to obscure the plan, nonetheless, is the plan behind the plan.

The plan behind the plan

An instance of the Xanatos Gambit, although usually used in profit of the hero instead of the antagonist, the plan behind the plan is a type of plot twist that works very well with this kind of stories.

This is a plan that has been designed to succeed both if the main plan fails and if it succeeds, or assuming it will fail. The Mastermind of this true plan may not be the same that the Mastermind of the original plan, leading us to many possible plot twists.

Additionally, more levels may be added, like a plan behind the plan behind the plan, though caution is advised: The more levels we add, the more foreshadowing we need to stage, and the reader will be more likely to feel confused at the end. We don’t want confusion, we are looking for an ironic realisation, a feeling that the plan was brilliant and the reader has been masterfully tricked, although not cheated.

Some examples are: Robbing the robber after the heist (Maverick); a betrayal during the heist / the escape (The Score); usage of replicas to allow the antagonistic force to falsely recover the stolen object (Ocean’s Thirteen, The Score); cheating the antagonistic force to make it blindly simplify or somehow help the heist development (Ocean’s Eleven, Entrapment by putting the stolen piece of art in the mail outbox); and, finally, Mr. Charles.

So… Who or what is “Mr. Charles”?

Mr. Charles is a distraction technique, and it is not arbitrary that I borrowed the name from Inception. Mr. Charles is a real or metaphorical man telling you “they are stealing you, they are stealing this, and you have to stop them”. But what Mr. Charles wants is far from giving you his help: One of the three is a lie, and it is never the third.

Usually, the presented heist is not the hero’s real goal. Many other goals, the real ones, can be achieved regardless of the heist’s outcome. Sometimes, it can be stealing someone’s heart (Ocean’s Eleven), proving someone’s innocence (Man on a Ledge), stealing something else, or even making a reverse heist, which is putting something into instead of retrieving it (Inception). By doing this, the plan may fail, but the hero succeeds anyway.

Apart from this, even if the heist is the actual goal, the story may hide it up to the end, or any point after the First Plot Point and so after the story has been put in motion. Therefore, the plot twist is the fact that everything in the non-heist plot was actually a heist (again, Man on a Ledge).

How can we make the plan fail?

In order to make a plan fail, first we have to make the plan, and that is the real headache that kept me stuck for a long month. Making a plan that can fail and we know how is the same that forcing the plan to fail, so we will kill two birds with the same stone.

Then… How can we make a plan, to begin with?

The plan, the heist, is what we have to invent, the stuff to fill the marvelous plot we already have. Its main goals are building dramatic tension, and giving the reader a vicarious and empathic ride through our characters enterprise. Everything in the heist scenes is about the stakes of the characters being caught, unable to get what they came for, dead, or worse.

Let’s identify the four main elements of a heist, plot-wise:

  • The Heist Crew. They are the team. They have specific roles, and they are characters on their own.
  • The Target. Anything that has to be stolen, or put, or done.
  • The Enemy. The antagonistic force’s dynamic assets, characters that may react to the heist crew’s tasks during the heist. They can be people who don’t want to lose the target, as well as other competitors for the target or anyone actively interested in ruining one of the crew’s members’ plans.
  • The Stronghold. The antagonistic force’s static assets. The predictable obstacles between the crew and the target.

Most of the times, the target may as well be a McGuffin within the heist context: Something the plot needs stolen, but we don’t care why. Of course, money and insanely expensive objects are the usual targets, but it could be different. Out of the heist’s scope, however, the target may be something important for the plot. And it will be, most of the times the heist is not the center of the story.

On another matter, the enemy is part of the usual plot construction, so I’m not going to talk about it.

Unless you want to do something special with the target, we can focus on the other two. You can start thinking the crew and thereafter think the antagonistic force’s specifics, or begin with the antagonistic force and think the crew, and repeat until you are satisfied.

The Heist Crew

The heist crew or caper crew (more information on the TVTropes web) is, apart from (most likely) a team of the main characters of your story, a group of characters that must fulfill specific roles during the heist. These roles are, in a short classification:

  • The bosses. The Mastermind, his or her sidekick, and the guy that puts the money fall into this category.
  • The specialists. It contains the hacker, the gadget guy, and all the experts that may be needed for certain specific tasks of the heist, such as electrical hacks or explosives.
  • The thieves. The actor or manipulator, the distraction, the burglar, and the pickpocket are here.
  • The helpers. This one contains the driver, the brute, and the man who gets you a man for anything.
  • Otherslike the inside man, the newbie, and the legendary thief.

When designing a plan, if you have characters you should assign them roles for the heist, and if you don’t, these roles may be a good inspiration. Try to think what they will need and you will be able to imagine what they need it for. After you know better what they really need, come back and optimise the roles.

The crew, however, is not only important during the heist, it is rather an element present before and after the heist perpetration. If the whole story is about the heist, it is likely it won’t start after the Midpoint, or exactly there. The rest of the story up to that point serves as a setup, and should group together the crew, as well as describe the plan arrangement.

This is not straightforward. Having a plot on setup during so long can be boring. One thing to take into account is that it should be deeply character-focused or driven, and the plan concoction shouldn’t be neat. There should be disagreement and conflict. Notice that a character that has been forced to agree to a part of the plan he or she doesn’t like is much more dramatic and fits more possible twists.

The Stronghold

The stronghold is made of the buildings, obstacles, security guards, armies, security locks, and countermeasures that stand between the crew and the target. They are there whether or not the heist takes place. The responsibility of the plan is to understand all of them and find a way through. They will act as expected unless something bad happens, and we need it to happen.

The only way for the stronghold’s elements to create dramatic tension, then, is to reveal themselves not acting as expected. This can be due to two reasons:

  • Flaw in the plan. The crew did a mistake or were missing important information on the element.
  • The enemy interference. The antagonistic force realised something was happening and acted in response.

When designing a plan, you can start thinking a simple stronghold that fits the story’s setting. Start with the target and the main obstacle, the last and hardest to get through. Then go to think which roles the crew would need. Are they enough to the story? Go back and add new obstacles that they can’t solve with those roles, add more roles or force the characters to solve an unexpected change with what they have. Iterate until you get what you want.

There is not much more to say about the stronghold. It relies on the setting and the story. Some examples of obstacles may be locks, security breakable patterns (from lasers to guards’ shifts), contingencies in case of robbery, alarms, procedures for normal access and so possibilities of “daylight” infiltration, automatic protections against the thieves, escape obstacles, etc. Even though I’m speaking of tech elements, notice they would apply in fantasy worlds as well (imagine an untraceable spell that turns the trespassers insane).

And finally… Think of the outcome

Regardless the heist is intended to work or not, there are several possible endings for it based on the outcome. A rude classification of the heist outcome would be as follows:

  • Perfect. The antagonistic force doesn’t even know the heist has occurred. Total stealth was achieved, and by the time they find out, the crew will be long vanished off the face of the earth.
  • Clean. They know it happened, but they weren’t in a position to react.
  • Violent. There was an active reaction and confrontation with the antagonistic force, but still the crew managed to succeed and escape.
  • Failed. The antagonistic force successfully prevented the heist. The target stayed there, or is now somewhere even safer.

We got it

This maybe was a perfect heist, because I stole you quite a valuable time. Nevertheless, I hope it was a reverse heist and you got more than you invested, and maybe you can use it to design a good heist. If you think I missed any important point or want to add anything, I will be glad to read your comments.



Posted by on 27 November 2013 in Patterns


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

7 responses to “Heist plots: How to write a breathtaking heist

  1. impracticalpraxis

    3 November 2016 at 10:12 pm

    I really enjoyed the post. I’m a huge archetypes and you did a great organizing this information.

  2. LS

    7 March 2018 at 2:03 am

    This post is AWESOME, thank you!

  3. Juan

    30 October 2019 at 3:27 pm

    thank you! very helpful in trying to write my heist story 🙂

  4. Dustin Bilyk

    21 January 2020 at 8:41 pm

    Fantastic work on this. Thank you for the breakdown!

  5. SP

    31 March 2021 at 9:00 pm

    Thank you for this, I’m trying to write a heist story but my main problem is creating the plan, and this helped me a lot!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: