Certainty of death, small chance of success… What are we waiting for?

Heists are weird, but they’re crazy fun.  Ocean’s Eleven, Inception, and Mistborn are some of my favorite stories.  A team of specialists in different fields, all working for something which could be construed illegal, but for genuine purposes that we can’t ignore?  It’s delicious.  That is, until you try to figure out what makes it tick.

You can’t map a heist’s structure according to conventional ideas like the Hollywood Formula.  They have important parts at each important point, but those parts have nothing to do with what the Formula says they should.  The main character’s choice is skewed.  The team is always acting, always answering questions, always dedicated— where’s the midpoint?  And they always seem to be in control, so while the low point seems to be present, it’s false because nothing ever went wrong— everything is still going according to plan.  It’s maddening to know a structure that works for so many stories, but is at once followed and ignored by capers.

Then there are the characters themselves.  The characters always know what they’re doing; they’re always capable.  No matter what gets thrown at them, they seem to bounce back and get past it without even changing plans.  They seem far too perfect, able to solve any problem.  That is called the Superman flaw.  Superman is strong, smart, has X-ray vision, and can fly.  He can solve any problem that faces him.  Unfortunately, he makes a lousy main character because he’s always in control.  It seems like it ought to be the same way with the characters in a caper, but somehow it works.  No matter how many impossible feats they pull, we still worry for them.

Not even plot twists are sacred.  Some things surprised even the masters of this intricate plan, but everything major was expected or even staged.  We get this enormous shock as something big happens, and then it’s all relieved during the denouement when we realize it was set up.  They make no sense.  According to the Laws of the Audience, we should be really miffed by now.

But somehow, we aren’t.  Although everything seems wrong, heists just laugh at us and follow their own paths, worming their way into our affections whether they logically ought to or not.  Obviously, this path of theirs works for them, but what makes it work?

First of all, the structure.  The midpoint is an extremely important spot, as I said in my recent post about it, but it’s more than simple changes.  The midpoint is where the audience starts to question that about which they’ve suspended their disbelief.  The main characters have been perfect up until now— if they continue to be perfect, they lose their audience.  Plot twists have been almost nonexistent until the midpoint.  This is far too easy for everyone… unless they turn it around now.  Instead of changing from reaction to action, or being the point of no return, the midpoint becomes the switch from a perfectly-laid plan to something that’s in danger of falling apart at any second.  This is when things start happening that endanger the process, endanger the relationships inside the team, crack that perfect shell around the main characters.  They are fallible, whether they seemed like it or not.

The choice, at the beginning, is odd because the main character has always known what he’s wanted to do.  He’s already made his choice, long ago.  Instead, the point where the choice should happen is devoted to convincing the important people that he’s not crazy, that this can be done.  Once he’s convinced them, he can move on to collecting his team, introducing them all promptly before the end of Act I.

The characters seem flawed at the beginning— that’s how the Superman flaw is kept down— then they appear to have it all under control.  But if that behavior continued through the story, the Superman flaw would win out in the end.  We have to believe that though these characters are awesome at what they do, they can still lose this game.  The way they do that without making the characters unable to complete the caper is by fooling us.

It’s a cheap shot.  It’s a very cheap shot.  They trick us into believing that these are circumstances no one can survive, then they make the characters survive by things we didn’t know they had… which sounds an awful lot like a Deus Ex Machina.  But one thing that always bugged me about heists is their constant foreshadowing.  They’re always saying things or showing the audience sequences that make absolutely no sense— why is any of this important if it makes no sense?  However, it is important, because as you know from my post on Deus Ex Machina, foreshadowing is the way to victory.  They rely on our short memories to translate something that annoyed us into an amazing revelation.

The low point is the weirdest part of it all, however.  Just like they fool us into thinking the characters can’t possibly succeed, they fool us into a low point that isn’t actually there.  By creating plot twists like this that we think are impossible, they put us in a low point the team actually planned for.  We, and the antagonist, think the main characters are done for because, well, they’re probably about to be caught and killed— but in reality, the main characters planned for it.  They probably bribed the people trying to catch and kill them.  Things seem to be spiraling out of control until suddenly someone turns the lights on and we see what really happened.  Since a lot of it has to be told in flashback or weird explanations, it can get annoying, but at this point, we’re so deeply involved in the story that we don’t care.

Just like the fictional characters, the writers of capers get awfully close to a whole lot of dangerous stuff.  They fool us constantly.  Heists remain some of my favorite stories, but I think it’s wise to understand how they’re messing with my mind.

Disclaimer: Inception actually has some normal plot points, like a choice for the main character and a true, unexpected low point.  In Mistborn, Vin has a completely normal plot structure while Kelsier has a heist structure as I described here.  This type of structure is bound to be different from heist to heist, so be careful about applying it to every heist you see.  There are exceptions.

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23 thoughts on “Certainty of death, small chance of success… What are we waiting for?

  1. Methinks I need to watch Ocean’s Eleven again. And keep reading Mistborn.

    A thought on the MC’s choice… it might be that it’s not the MC who is choosing to have a story. It’s the team members he’s trying to recruit. They have to decide if this guy is nuts or if he’s really on to something. Even then they have to decide if it’s worth the risk. As the title says, they may not succeed, they may even die.
    And as my mom points out, writers can break rules, but they have to make it so you like the story so much that you don’t care. Think about that Deus ex Machina at the end of The Hobbit. We didn’t realize it was there before. Did we really even care? No.
    I’m sending this one to my Kindle and I’m going to read it again. See if I can let all this structure-breaking to settle itself in my mind. I may comment again later.

    1. Actually, there are usually two characters who are above the rest. They make the plans, they organize everything. One of those has the idea and pitches it to the other, and at the choice portion, the other gets to choose, even though he’s not actually the main character. After that, they start rounding up the team. They all get differently-placed choices, but they’re all introduced by 1/4 through the story.

      Indeed. For the Hobbit, I guess the foreshadowing that these eagles and bear people exist was enough to justify the Deus Ex. But you’re right– if you love the story enough, you can get away with almost anything… but that doesn’t mean you should. Even with a beloved story, a single mistake can make you hate it forever. Gregor the Overlander, I’m looking at you.

      Excellent. Let me know what you think on the second shot.

      1. I will never forgive her for her stupid ending to Gregor the Overlander, nor her stupidity in the Hunger Games trilogy. Nevertheless, she writes good books. I never would have cared so much about her stupidity unless she had made me care in the first place.

      2. No, thanks.
        I might read The Hunger Games, but that’s it. I have no intention of reading the rest of that trilogy. (I should probably add that I read it in May when I was with my cousin. She owns the book and she handed it to me. Handing me a book that I have never read… that’s like handing a small child candy.)

      3. It happens. When you read something like I Am Not a Serial Killer, it actually gets freaky. You can’t tell if you’re a budding sociopath or if the writing is just really good.

      1. It’s actually called Dream is Collapsing, but yes, watching the movie does help you appreciate the song’s greatness.

      1. Whatever anyone else may say, I thought it was good. It brought in elements from the Appendices, but nothing unnecessary. If the movie was going to have an independent plot (which it had to have, because any true single adaptation of the hobbit would be really dense and would cheat on the story), it had to include that stuff.

  2. The title of this post reminded me of Ernest Shackleton’s advertisement in a newspaper, trying to recruit men for his arctic expedition: “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in event of success.”

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