Tag Archives: writing heists

Q&A: The Villain In a Heist is reliant on the Wall

quietemptydiariess said to howtofightwrite: I’m writing a female lead heist film with two lead characters. The villain is one of the women’s best friends. However, I’m having writer’s block on creating the villain character. I haven’t come up with anything.

The antagonist of a heist film is the security systems put into place to prevent the theft of the valuable object the thieves want to steal, the villain of the narrative is either someone who protects the valuable object (like the art museum’s security director) or the owner of the object the thieves want to steal. They can be the owner of the object, another thief who stole the object first, a private collector, the runner of a museum, an interpol agent, an FBI agent, or someone like an insurance investigator put in place to protect the millions of dollars the insurance company will need to dole out if the valuable object gets stolen. Or, there can be multiple secondary villains/antagonists set in multiple positions in the narrative. We have the criminal who owns the piece the thieves want and will kill them if they catch them, the interpol/FBI/insurance agent who is investigating the thieves and applying external pressure, and the security director who is the primary head to head nemesis our thieves are working around.

With a heist narrative, the big antagonist is always the security systems put in place to protect the valuable object. If you don’t have that then you don’t have a story and you don’t have villains.

A heist narrative has two primary antagonists, one are the characters actively working to prevent your thieves from stealing the object and the security systems being put into place to keep the object from being stolen in the first place. The foe in the heist story has to catch their opponent, they can’t simply find and kill them. They investigate them.

The security systems are a wall antagonist, your characters have to find their way around or over a wall. The live antagonist is ultimately secondary to the security precautions, which is the problem your characters are looking to solve.

Heist films aren’t about a race against other people, but your characters are the ones setting the tempo. How do you get the information you need arousing suspicion? When you’re under suspicion, how do you ensure you don’t move too fast that you start making mistakes but also don’t move so slow that you miss the window of opportunity? Your characters are putting themselves on the clock, they need just enough time. They need to be precise.

You, as the author, are setting up a puzzle box.

If you’re having trouble with your villains, you’re having trouble with your puzzle. If you’re having trouble with the villains, you need to be spending more time on your puzzle. The live actor is not the driving force of the narrative, they are reacting to the actions of your thieves. The thieves are the ones who are pushing the story forward. The live actor, the villain, is someone who is just doing their job and the tension with them in the end is they either do their job or they don’t. It’s up to you to build the character drama on whether the best friend will turn one of your heroes in at the end of the film or give them a pass.

The heroes of the heist narrative are active rather than reactive. This can be difficult if you’re not used to working with the heist genre and female characters specifically can have issues with proactivity. Women in fiction tend to be passive (by design), in supportive roles or acting under the direction of an authority figure, they’re reactive rather than proactive. You’re going to have to fight against that impulse, which is to step aside and let someone else (usually male) set the tempo. The villain of a heist narrative doesn’t have to do anything, if your characters never make the first move then what they have isn’t under threat and they don’t need to defend it. Your characters have to get in first and keep moving because if they do nothing then the other side wins by default.

What do you want?

What do you need to get it?

How do you get it?

How do you avoid getting caught?

What are the complications?

This is a chess game. Your heroes are playing white, the villains are playing black. White moves first, black responds. If white doesn’t move, there is no game. You’re playing both sides, and occasionally trap doors will open to take your pieces. After all, this game is about winning and not about rules. White will cheat, but if black catches them cheating it’s also game over.

Heists are exercises in your characters’ creativity.

Your villains are reacting to your characters’ actions.

Relax, and focus on the circumstances surrounding the object the characters intend to steal and how this other character relates to that object.

Once you have your puzzle, you’ll have your solution and then your answer.

-Michi

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  deathisforsissies

Suppose you wrote Ocean’s Eleven with an all-female gang. How would it change?

Me? Ocean’s Eleven? I wouldn’t change much at all, if anything. Ocean’s Eleven is the kind of movie that’s only a boy’s movie because men are in it, not because their gender is plot critical. You could run the movie’s con almost exactly the same with an all female crew or a mixed gender one.  The only reason why you’d run this with one gender or the other is because it’s a Rat Pack movie. Part of the reason why the George Clooney remake of Ocean’s Eleven ran so well is because it was built off the actors’ friendships. In both the Sinatra version and the Clooney one, your essentially just watching a bunch of buddies mess around on screen. This is the main reason why the film is seen as a quintessential “boys movie” rather than the plot itself. The chemistry between the actors is what both movies run on.

As for the con itself? It isn’t gendered and doesn’t rely on a specific gender to pull off, rather it involves exploiting character motivations and personality.
All I’d need to do is make sure I did my research on the updates to casino security and the tech used for 2017 instead of 2001, which would lead to some minor plot
restructuring.

When it comes to the love triangle surrounding Tess, the motivations are love and jealousy. Danny is exposing Terry so Tess can see the kind of man Terry is, that’s part of distracting Terry in the con but the motivations don’t change when the genders are switched. It’s just a love story involving three lesbians, or a lesbian, a bi woman, and a man, or two bi women and a man, or a woman, a man, and another woman, or whatever you want. Beyond that conflict, none of the specialists parts are gendered from your hacker to your demolitions to your wheelman, the faceman positions like your eccentric high roller can be female just as easily as male and a female bureaucratic functionary is about as annoying (if not more so).

When thief Daniella Ocean is released from prison, she already has her next score planned: a simultaneous robbery of the Bellagio, the Mirage, and the MGM Grand. A plan so big, it’s never been done before. Together with her best friend Rusty Ryan and embittered casino mogul Varvara Tishkova, they put together a team of eight female specialists from card sharks and hackers to frontment in order to pull off the world’s greatest caper.

Their plan run smoothly until Daniella’s second goal comes to light. She’s got a motive other than money. Her ex-wife Tess is firmly ensconced in the arms of the casinos’ owner Terry Benedict, and Daniella intends to win her back. One way or another.

The issue with any kind of story genderswap doesn’t lie in the genders of the characters themselves, but rather on the part of the author or whoever is controlling the story. The question is do you believe a group of women could pull this off with nothing in the script changed except the pronouns? Are there aspects of the Ocean’s Eleven story you feel need to be changed based on the gender of those involved?

When you remember there’s nothing in this story gender specific, then these mix ups can be a great way to test your own gender biases. Those biases will insist the narrative be changed in order to “fit a woman better”, which will mostly involve changing the facemen’s cons into something more appealing. The old woman becomes younger. The bureaucratic functionary becomes sexy and flirty rather than just annoying. Though these changes will undermine the con itself, they’ll happen due to the belief they need to in order for the story to be believable.

This is the problem we face with any character filling in the role of a character who was originally another gender. It doesn’t matter whether your writing about a female action hero, a female conman, or a male librarian. There’s a knee jerk insistence to box them back up into their appropriate roles. Change the story to fit the outside gender roles.

This is an issue of human error and human biases, rather than a problem with female characters fulfilling a male narrative role. It includes a tendency to say certain qualities or approaches are “men only” when they’re not. The idea that a beautiful woman can only ever appear beautiful is silly. As is the idea a woman will always attempt to appeal to a man’s sexual preferences in order to gain access. There are plenty of attractive, annoying bureaucratic functionaries out there which we put up with but just want to go away. The handicap for female spies in a lot of fiction is the “sexy, pretty, beautiful” appeal to men rather than utilizing other traits usually considered negative… like being annoying or forgettable or suffering from hay fever and spewing germs all over the casino.

So, these are what I’d consider important to remember:

1) This is a buddy story, the character interactions and motivations are the all important narrative backbone. The con itself is fun, but flexible based on the emergent personalities combined with whatever research I pull up on Vegas casinos.

2) Remember to keep the character goals at the forefront, remember their different personalities, keep the point of the con front and center rather than have characters automatically run a gender specific approach. (The great thing about having lots of women in a story is you’ve got room to shimmy with a variety of personality types including the Flirt or Sexy Seducer without undermining the core narrative.)

3) Keep watch for specific changes I’d want to make based on my own gender biases that will self-sabotage the con.

4) Re-watch both Ocean’s 11 and Ocean’s Eleven to break down their specific cons and character interplay as motivating factors.

If we’re talking about the remake with an all female cast, then I’ve got no idea how they’re going to change it.

-Michi

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Any advice on how to write a heist story something like oceans Eleven?

Well, you can start by watching Ocean’s Eleven, and Ocean’s Eleven, and then Leverage, and then Burn Notice, and then The A-Team, and then Mission: Impossible, and then all the other heist stories like The Italian Job or Heat. Watch, read, uncover as many stories about criminals as you can from fiction to nonfiction to reading security analyst blogs. Read the spy memoirs, the thief memoirs, the fake ones and the real ones. Check out magicians, hypnotists, card tricks, and sleight of hand. Watch the making ofs and director’s commentaries looking for clues behind the thought process of these stories. The hows and the whys as you look into the research they did. Burn Notice, for example, is famous for using stunt props and technological rigs that work in real life. Like using cell phones to create cheap bugs on the go.

The worlds of criminal fiction and spy fiction rely on being able to present (or convincingly fake) a world which feels real. A heist is all about exploitation. So, you need a world with security structures to exploit. You’ve got to know how things work before you can craft a way to break them. Social engineering, hacking, and every other criminal skill is about breaking the systems in place. So, you’ve got to get a baseline for how law enforcement and security analysts work. What security systems are set up to look like. The ways we go about discouraging thieves. Better yet how people behave. Real, honest to god human behavior.

So, you know, pick somewhere in order to start your research. Get an idea of what you want write about stealing, then learn everything about the object, the museum, the city, the country, and its customs as you can.

If you’re setting a heist in a futuristic or fantasy setting then luck you, you get to make all of it up.

Learning the plot structure and conventions of the heist genre is the first step. This means watching lots and lots of heist movies, shows, and reading books. Over time, as you become better at critical analysis, you’ll begin to see specific story structures and character archetypes emerge.

The Heist Story is a genre. Like every other genre, it comes with its own structure, cliches, archetypes, plots, and genre conventions which necessitate the narrative. The better grasp you have of those, the better you’ll be at writing a heist.

For example, a heist story like Ocean’s Eleven relies on a collection of thieves rather than a single individual. The character types are as follows:

The Pointman – Your planner, strategist, team leader, and the Jack of All Trades. Can also be called the Mastermind. They’re the one who can take the place of anyone on the team should they fall through. They’re not as good as a specialist, but they’re very flexible. Narratively, he plans the cons and subs in where he’s needed.

The Faceman – Your experienced Grifter, here for all your social engineering needs. These guys talk their way in.

The InfiltratorYour cat burglar or break-in artist. Basically, the conventional genre thief. Your Parker, Catwoman, Sam Fisher, or Solid Snake. The stealth bastards, they’re all about silent in, out, and playing acrobatic games with the lasers.

The Hacker – The electronics and demolitions specialist. Usually this is the guy in the van overseeing stuff remotely. Your Eye in the Sky. Their skill set can be split up and swapped around as necessary.

The Muscle – The one who is good at fighting. They’re combat focused characters, usually with mercenary and special forces backgrounds. Though, that’s optional.

The Wheelman – The one who handles the getaway. They’re your often overlooked transport specialists. It’s not just that they can drive, they’re skilled at getting lots of people around, figuring out how to move your valuables, and exiting hostile cities or countries undetected. They get the team in and they get them out.

For an example of these archetypes, I’m going to use Leverage. Nathan Ford, The Pointman (technically, he’s written like a Faceman). Sophie Devereaux , The Faceman. Parker, the Infiltrator. Hardison, the Hacker. Eliot, the Muscle. They all take turns being the Wheelman.

Other examples like Burn Notice: Michael Westen, the Pointman. Sam Axe, the Faceman. Fiona, the Muscle. They all take turns with explosives, Michael will invariably take all the roles during the course of the show.

Ocean’s Eleven has multiple variants of these archetypes, all broken down and mixed up.

You can mix and match these qualities into different individuals or break them apart like in Ocean’s Eleven, and more than one character can fill more than one role, but that’s the basic breakdown. For example, your hacker doesn’t need to be a guy in a van overlooking the whole security grid. One guy or girl with a cell phone can sit in the lobby of a building with an unsecured wireless network and crack the security. Welcome to the 21st century. The skills don’t necessarily need to take the specific expected shape.

What you do need is the basic breakdown:  You need someone to plan the con, you need someone to be your face or grifter, you need someone to break in, you need someone to watch the security/electronics, you need muscle to back you up, and someone’s got to cover the getaway.

These shift depending on your plan, but this is the expected lineup for a heist narrative. The first step of a heist narrative is not the plan because we don’t have one yet. We’ve got an idea. Pick your target. Maybe it’s a famous painting. Maybe it’s a casino. Maybe it’s a rare artifact from a private investor’s collection loaned to a museum for a short period of time. Maybe it’s art stolen by the Nazis during WWII. Whatever it is, figure it out.

The next step is simple. If you want the thing, you’ve got to find a way to get it. This is a big job, your standard thief won’t be able to pull it off alone. So, you gotta go recruiting. Get your team together. Make sure to establish the goals of the different members for joining. Who they are. Their pedigree. One might be an old flame or an old enemy. This is where we lay out some character driven subplots.

When everyone’s together, we’ve got to lay out the plan. Before we have a plan though, we need to establish where the object is and the issues in getting it. Why this has never been done before. So, what are the challenges? Invariably, an object worth a great deal of money will have a lot of security protecting it. Figure out what that security is, who the item belongs to, what sort of retribution do the thieves face beyond what they might expect. Lasers, pressure plates, cameras, security, other career criminals, mob bosses, the rich and powerful, whatever.

After that: How do you get it? Then you’ve got to plan the con, while taking everything into account.

Then, We prep the Con. There will be steps to take before the con can be put into place, your characters taking their positions in plain sight. Stealing whatever pieces you need to make it work. Casing the joint. Etc.

Then: Run the Con. This is the part with the actual stealing. Better known as the first attempt. Things go well, there may be a few mistakes, but things are going well and then we…

Encounter Resistance. While running the con, something goes wrong, pieces fall apart, the thieves come close to success but the object gets moved and they suddenly need a new plan. New information may pop up, it may be one of your artists was running a con of their own separate from the rest.
If there’s a double cross in the works then this may be when and where it lands.

We’re ready now, so it’s time hit up: Steal the Thing, Round Two. Your characters put their new plan into play and get about thieving the object of their desire.

Lastly: The Get Away. This is the part where your thieves make for the hills with their stolen treasure. This can be short or long depending on the kind of story you’re telling and other double crosses may occur here. It could be the end of the story or the beginning of a new heist.

Heist stories are like mystery novels. They’re all about sleight of hand and misdirection. You’ve got to keep just enough information on the table to keep your audience on the hook, and just enough information off the table to surprise them later on the twist. Yet, when they go back to re-read the novel again, they’ll find the answer was there all along. They just didn’t see it coming.

If anything, learning how to write a well-done heist or a mystery or any kind of novel in this genre will teach you a lot about how to manage your foreshadowing and create superb plot twists. Like any good con, you need to lay out all the conflicting pieces where people can see them, let them draw their own conclusions, withhold the critical context, and then hit them with the whammy.

Like lots of audiences, new writers (and even some old ones) can get distracted by the shock and awe. They see they’re impressed by the conclusion, not the lay-up. If you want to write any kind of fiction, you need to learn to see past the curtain and pay attention to the critical pieces leading into an important moment rather than the moment itself.

Good writing isn’t modular, you can’t just strip out pieces and run with them because you’ll end up missing the crucial, sometimes innocuous pieces that ensured the scene worked. Like the Victorian Hand Touch, every moment between the two leads and most of their scenes with secondary players are working for that singular instance of eventual, gleeful catharsis.

If you’ve got a plot twist coming in your novel, every sentence from the second you start writing is working towards it. You start laying out your pieces, funneling in your tricks, and playing with misdirection. You may have multiple twists, to cover yourself, divert your audience, congratulate them for successfully guessing your ploy, and reassure their initial suspicions before catching them again on the upswing.

The clever writer is as much a con artist as their characters. The only difference is the target of their con is their audience. The tricks in their bag are narrative ones, and they work with the understanding that it doesn’t matter if someone guesses the end so long as they’re entertained by the journey. A great story stays entertaining long after the audience has figured out all the twists.

So, don’t get caught up in Red Herrings and frightened about not being able to outsmart other people. Tell a good story with conviction and heart about a bunch of crooks out to steal their heart’s desire.

That’s all there is to it.

-Michi

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