6 Elements for Writing a Heist Story

A heist story is a narrative that focuses on a bank job or theft masterplan. OceansEleven2001-Still1The most famous heist is The Italian Job and the Ocean’s films, which began with Ocean’s Eleven.

The heist is a well-trodden path in the world of film, but less so in novels. There’s no reason why this should be, as it offers the perfect framework for engaging characters, tension, action and excitement.

Without further ado, here are the key elements for writing a heist novel or script:

  1. The Leader – you’ve got to have a strong protagonist, who is there to lead the team and convince them that they need to do this job. They need to be charismatic and the most memorable are suave and charming too.
  2. The Team – the opening of the story is about meeting the team and understanding the skills they bring. The leader calls on them one-by-one to bring them on-board and they can’t do it withoout them. There’s the safe cracker, the driver, the hacker and the front of house distraction (usually the token woman), but you can devise your own experts. Each member of the team needs to have a key role, which makes the heist work.
  3. The Motivation – your leader needs a compelling reason to pull off this job. It could be for that final haul, so they can go into retirement or just because the newspapers say it’s theft-proof and our hero wants to prove them wrong. And the team needs to have a reason to risk it all too
  4. The Plan – every heist has the scene where the leader tells the team the plan and they show how their expertise will make the impossible possible. This is where the reader understands the hurdles and the risks, allowing you to build tension.
  5. The Fake – then it’s time to put the plan into action, but because the reader knows how it should play out, you need to mess with their expectations. Build tension for the hard parts, only to have them get through it with ease and then sock ’em with a surprise fail or a consequence they hadn’t planned for. Keep the reader guessing and put the team through hell.
  6. The Ending – most heists end in success. I can’t think of one that doesn’t, off the top of my head. Coming back to The Italian Job, they get away with the gold, but they’re literally hanging off a cliff at the end. So you can throw in some ambiguity, as Christopher Nolan does in Inception. The heist is successful, but something’s not quite right. Or you can just have it end on a high, with everyone enjoying their ill-gotten gains. It’s up to you.


Notable heist stories are:

Inception, a twist on the traditional heist, as the team are trying to plant something inside another person’s mind, in this sci-fi caper.

Mad Money is a film that’s notable because it features an all female team (unusual for a heist) of janitors at the Federal Reserve, who decide to steal the old dollar bills that are destined for incineration.

Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson. Proving that you can put a heist into any genre, Sanderson writes a caper that’s wrapped up in an epic fantasy, set during the reign of a Dark Lord.

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch. Another fantasy novel, this time set on a planet, in a city that resembles Venice. It centres on the leader of an elite group of con artists called the Gentleman Bastards.

Neuromancer by William Gibson is the seminal cyberpunk novel and may even be the inspiration for Inception. Hackers enter cyberspace to try and steal someone’s consciousness.

The Lock Artist by Steve Hamilton is an award-winning heist novel and proves they don’t have to be pulp fiction. The POV character is a mute who is a genius safe cracker and the story is told in flashback.

7 thoughts on “6 Elements for Writing a Heist Story

  1. Do you have any tips on how to make the Plan scene interesting? I’m trying to write this particular scene, and it feels so much like an information dump, that I can’t see it being interesting.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Good question. I wasn’t ignoring you, I was thinking and then went on holiday. I think the best way is to make sure the characters have a conversation. Reservoir Dogs is a great example of a plan scene that’s one of the most memorable moments in the film – the whole Mr Pink, Mr Brown thing. I know it’s a film, so it seems like it would be easier to keep it snappy, but I think dialogue is the way to go. Let the heist team dip in with questions that reveal something about their character and add humour.

      Hope that helps.


  2. Pingback: 6 Elements for Writing a Heist Story | thewritealice

  3. Another good ‘heist’ film , but with a twist, was The Ladykillers – the original UK film, not the later remake. In this case the gang was already formed, the old lady, their short term landlady, became the unwitting collaborater, but the gang fell apart leaving the old lady as the survivor

    Liked by 1 person

Join the conversation

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

WordPress.com Logo

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

Google photo

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

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s