Today we’re honored in having author Rob J. Hayes show up here on the blog 🙂
The Art of Writing a Heist
My It Takes a Thief… series of books follows a couple of thieves as they blend into high society and perform complex heists to steal off with the loot, preferably without getting caught.
I’ve done some pretty extensive research to get ready for the task of writing heists. It was grueling. I had to sit through films like Ocean’s Eleven, the Italian Job, Heat, Fast and the Furious 5 (say what you want about the franchise but the fifth installment is definitely a heist film). I read a few books such as The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch. I also did a bit of research into real life heists. The more deeply I delved, the more I realized that writing heists was gonna be hard work.
Now any good heist consists of two parts: you have the planning and you have the job. Sometimes the planning section will come first and sometimes the two run together. Both options have their ups and downs but most of it boils down to tension.
If the plan is explained from the beginning the audience already know the big drama moments, where the plan is likely to fail. The anticipation of whether it will or won’t during those moments is what keeps them on the edge of their seats.
If the plan is told concurrently with the execution of the plan it keeps the audience in the dark, splitting the heist up into sections. This keeps the audience guessing, wondering where the job is gonna go next.
I opted for the second approach, to tell the planning and the job at the same time. I did this because both It Takes a Thief… books open on a heist and I didn’t want them to open on twenty pages of planning with no action. Structure wise this means that the first chapter in each book is split into a planning stage that takes place in the past (denoted by italics), and an execution stage that takes place in the present.
You don’t want to give away all the details in the planning stage unless things are going to go monumentally wrong. If the execution is going to go to plan for the most part, it’s best to keep details light. As my major heists are located at the beginning of each book I use the time to give a few details of how the heist should go and then also give time to character building. There’s a lot of witty dialogue between the characters in those sections that sets up relationships and history, and gives a good bit of insight into who the characters are.
If the heist is going to go wrong at every turn, leaving the drama to how the characters recover from the mistakes, then it’s best to give a lot of time over to reveals in the planning stage so the audience can see just how badly the job is going.
Every heist needs an interesting crew to perform it. Some crews can be massive like Ocean’s Eleven, or some can be relatively small like my own books. It’s important to have specialists. You don’t want every character able to perform every part of the heist. Why? Because it helps to add tension when things go wrong. For example let’s look at Shaobo Qin’s character, Yen, in Ocean’s Eleven (the 2001 version). When Yen is injured before the job, it adds tension because no one else is able to take his place and do his part of the job. It still all relies on him despite his injury so the audience is left knowing that there’s a good chance it could all fail.
Specializing your crew becomes a lot harder with fewer members. It Takes a Thief to Catch a Sunrise has a crew of just two for most of the book. This means that both members of the crew need to have a broad range of skills, many of which will be interchangeable. This doesn’t mean it’s impossible though. I gave my male protagonist, Jacques, a knowledge of alchemy and a much more acrobatic flair. I gave my female protagonist, Isabel, more of an acting background allowing her to blend in better. Isabel also happens to be the calm anchor to the duo while Jacques is more wild and given to panic when things go wrong.
It’s strange to say it, but the loot is probably the least important bit of the heist. Whether it’s cold cash or an artifact of unspeakable value, the biggest part of the loot is that it gives the crew a reason to be where they are and performing the heist. The location of the loot is important, the logistics of how the crew will secure the loot is important, even how the crew is going to sell the loot is important. But the loot itself isn’t important. Writing a good heist really isn’t about the destination, it’s about the journey.
Are there any great heist books or films you like? Let us know in the comments.
Bio: Hailing from all over England; north, south, and everything in between, Rob J. Hayes is the author of the dark fantasy series The Ties that Bind and also the steampunk caper series It Takes a Thief… He’s also an avid card gamer, reader of books, watcher of things, and player of video games.