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.