Guest Post: The Essential Keys to Constructing a Realistic Heist Scene

By Mariah T.

The heist scene is one of the most tried-and-true set pieces in modern storytelling. Typically, such a scene features a ragtag crew of criminals infiltrating a stronghold to seize a valuable item, such as a painting or jewel. Because heist scenes have so many moving parts, it pays to learn about their basic mechanics before writing one.

Preparing for Your Scene

Before writing a heist scene, research historical heists to get a sense for how they unfold in real life; they’re often messier, less dramatic, and more chaotic than fiction portrays. You should also read several novels and screenplays featuring heist scenes to pick up on their patterns and common shortcomings. Some films with critically acclaimed heist scenes include Ocean’s Eleven, Heat, The Italian Job, and The Usual Suspects. Novels with such scenes include Michael Crichton’s The Great Train Robbery and Jack Finney’s Assault on a Queen.

The Basic Elements

Heist scenes have strong dramatic potential in a story because they can exploit several layers of conflict, such as between different members of the heist crew or between the crew and its adversaries. To wring the most conflict out of a heist scene, give the heist crew members as varied a slew of personalities as possible, so they have reasons to bicker. The characters should clash over their strategies, morals, and ideals, not to mention how large a piece of the prize they deserve. It doesn’t hurt to have a saboteur or loose cannon on the team to shake things up.

The characters in heist crews often cleave to classic archetypes. For example, such crews tend to have a confident mastermind who drafts up the blueprints for the heist and gives the other crew members instructions. The mastermind is often the protagonist, though not always. Also, the crew may have an inside person, someone intimately familiar with the adversary’s stronghold. This character may be a turncoat of the adversary, and his or her job may be to sabotage the stronghold from within to make stealing the prize easier.

Heist crews in stories often have a rookie character who gives other characters a reason to dispense exposition; he or she is the audience’s window onto the heist world. Then there are all the specialist crew members who perform specific tasks during the heist: the hacker who disables the stronghold’s electric defenses from afar, the gadget collector who has a tool for every problem, the getaway driver who hauls the crew to safety at the last second, the demolition expert who blows open doors and vaults, the one who distracts the guards, the one who fights the guards, and the grizzled old pro who outmaneuvers the stronghold’s toughest defenses.

The key to making heist scenes exciting is to load them with surprises. The heist should never go as planned; some unexpected problem, such as a crew member’s screw-up or an adversary’s hidden gambit, should overturn the crew’s plans and force them to improvise. Nasty surprises don’t just add suspense and excitement; they bring out characters’ deepest strengths and weaknesses so the audience can enjoy them afresh. They’re also a good way to make the characters develop, ensuring a more satisfying payoff by the story’s end.

For the heist scene to be exciting, the crew’s adversary should be as formidable as possible; only by coming together can the heroes win. The adversary should also have smart, agile foot soldiers who can closely match the crew members’ skills. The adversary’s stronghold should be bristling with puzzles and traps. Also, you may want to have some characters injured during the heist to create an interesting moral dilemma over whether to risk the prize by saving them.

Heist Scenes in Unusual Settings

Although heist scenes frequently take place in banks, casinos, government buildings, criminal compounds and other modern fortresses, the basic structure of a heist scene is compatible with any setting. For example, you could write about the heist of a king’s castle in the Middle Ages and swap in horses for a getaway car, an archer for a sniper, the castle sewers for ventilation shafts. If it’s a 21st Century heist, then you’re going to need to get to know how modern home or museum security systems work.

The fantasy and science fiction genres are replete with heist stories in unusual settings. Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora, for example, involves a heist in a fantasy version of medieval Venice. Similarly, Brandon Sanderson’s novel Mistborn: The Final Empire features a fantastical heist in a dystopian world based on the 18th century. The film Inception has another bold heist setting: The main character has to plant an idea deep in the surreal dream world of an heir to a business empire.

Understand How Security Systems Work

Creating a believable stronghold for the characters to infiltrate requires knowing how modern security systems work. These systems tend to have many layers of protective infrastructure; tricking them is hard. For example, many modern security systems in buildings have motion sensors, closed-circuit television surveillance, panic buttons, sensitive alarms, and door and window sensors, some or all of which may be connected to a control panel. It’s also common for modern security systems to use safes, vaults, and underground cabinetry.

Walk-in scanners and parcel checks prevent people from bringing suspicious gadgets into buildings, and saturation motion detection throughout rooms can ensure the entire floor space is covered. These days, there are even vibration sensors behind objects to detect efforts to steal things, infrared and microwave motion detection, and doors that automatically lock in case of burglary. Naturally, most modern security systems also have guards. If you want to evoke classic heist scenes, you could do much worse than including lasers and tripwires as well.

Heist scenes are an excuse to give your story a fun, rollicking climax that brings out the most memorable aspects of your characters and gives your plot a suspenseful feeling of culmination. Although heist scenes typically succeed the heist crew, the range of outcomes for the adversary can be broad. The adversary may never know the heist has happened if the crew is stealthy enough, or it may know but be unable to reclaim its stolen valuable. Perhaps the scene ends in a confrontation between the crew members and adversary, one they can lose if it’s in service to the story. In the end, all that matters is that the heist scene is good. And of course, once you’ve written your heist, be sure to check out other resources from Digital Pubbing for some more valuable info.


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