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Writing Excuses 7.25: Writing Capers

Writing Excuses 7.25: Writing Capers


Key Points:
-- Capers, or heists. Start with a job to do, a mastermind/leader, a team of experts to collect. A talk to set up the plan, and the execution. And then there are twists and breakdowns.
-- Two big variations: don't tell the reader the whole plan, and then twist it into something different at the end, OR reveal the whole plan, then have something go horribly wrong.
-- Almost inverse: knowledge of the plan and degree of things going wrong. Note: not revealing the whole plan can be difficult in writing tight third person.
-- Capers have plenty of witty banter and dialogue, partly to carry the reader through the large amount of setup. Use jargon to make readers feel as if they know more than they actually do.
-- Heist plots aren't always about stealing -- it's the team, plan, preparation, and execution.
-- Don't overload the characters, but give them clear roles.
-- Consider the Xanatos gambit, turning evident failure or things going wrong into victory.
-- Plotting can be complicated, because capers require characters and plan to interlock. One approach is to figure out the plan, then work backwards to the necessary characters. Another is to start with characters, then tailor the plan to their skills.

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Season Seven, Episode 25, Writing Capers.
[Howard] We've only got 15 minutes, guys!
[Mary] Because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] I hope we're smart enough.
[Howard] We've got the right team. We can do this.
[Mary] I love it when a plan comes together.

[Brandon] Okay. Capers. By this we mean the classic heist plot archetype. We're gonna talk about how to do it. We all love it. And as we've determined, we all basically have done it before.
[Mary] Actually, to correct you, I'm in the process of writing one.
[Brandon] Process of doing it.
[Dan] Okay.
[Mary] Which is why I was like, "Let's talk about that, because I need help with it."
[Brandon] Dan is our resident expert on capers. I want you to start explaining the caper format and the concept.
[Dan] Okay. The classic caper that modern audiences tend to be most familiar with is Ocean's Eleven. Okay? That's a great model of the archetype. You have the job you need to do, the mastermind/leader gets a team of experts... You are very good at X, you are very good at Y... Gathers them altogether. They have like a chalkboard talk where they walk them through this is what we're up against, this is what were going to have to get past. Then they do it. Depending on how much con artistry there is in the story, there could be a big major twist, or it could just go straight through without any hitches.
[Brandon] I've noticed, and I was telling Mary about this, two major archetypes for telling heist stories. This is just my own research into it, when I was working on my own. One seems to be, in the storytelling narrative, they outline the plan. That happens with both. In one, they don't actually tell you the whole plan. They give you chunks and pieces of it, so you feel like you're getting the whole plan, but at the end...
[Dan] It turns out to be something else.
[Brandon] The real plan is revealed to you. This is actually what they do in Ocean's Eleven. Even some of the characters aren't always in on the full plan. This is actually what I did in Mistborn. That archetype. The other archetype is we outline the whole thing, we give you all the pieces, and then something horrible goes wrong. What they usually end up doing is taking all those pieces they prepared to use in a special way, and rearrange them to face different problems in the heist. The Italian Job is a great example of this.
[Dan] That's true.
[Brandon] Something major goes wrong. All... They take... But all the things they'd already researched to do, they use in new and different ways to pull off their heist by the seat of their pants.
[Howard] This makes me wonder if there's some sort of sliding scale along the lines of the more the audience knows about the actual plan, the more things are going to go wrong.
[Brandon] Yeah, it seems like...
[Mary] Yeah. Well, one of the things about the Ocean's Eleven, because I've been watching all of them right now, is that it looks like everything goes wrong, like part of the plan involved looking like things are going wrong so that pieces that you have already been introduced to, it looks like they're using them in a different way, but it's the way they had planned all along.
[Howard] In Ocean's Eleven, I thought that was done brilliantly. In... I think it was Ocean's 12 with Julia Roberts, when they get into the explanation of why...
[Dan] Well, she's in the first two, but...
[Howard] Well, the one where she is actually part of the heist, part of the scam. When they get to the part where oh, this is what actually happened, it felt like a complete cheat, because it was something that the audience had... There was just no clue at any point that any of these people had been in this place at any time.
[Brandon] Right. But it, I mean it is... It can be a very effective storytelling style.
[Howard] Oh, yeah. I'm just saying, that if you do it right, the audience feels like, "Oh, that's what that gap was that I was wondering about..."
[Dan] If you go back and re-watch Ocean's Eleven, you can see them laying all the pieces down. With... Knowing what their plan actually is, you can see that they give you all the hints you need, on a re-watch.

[Mary] One of the things that is challenging about what we're talking about right now is that we're discussing films. Films can easily withhold that information from the viewer. It is much harder to do that when you're writing, especially if you're writing tight third person. Which is the challenge that I'm running into. I should say that when I'm working on right now is book 4 in The Shades of Milk and Honey books, which we've described cleverly as Jane Austen writes Ocean's Eleven. I'm kind of cursing myself for that, because the plot structure...
[Howard] Because you set the bar pretty high.
[Mary] Well, the plot structure for Ocean's Eleven is that the viewers don't know what's going on. My books are structured in tight third person.
[Brandon] Right. So you may prefer Jane Austen meets The Italian Job. That's one I haven't done as much, but I still think it can be really effective. Because I like that concept of here, we've introduced you to all the pieces that we're going to need. We just need to find new ways to use them. It's a very sort of fun storytelling archetype.

[Mary] The other thing that I noticed about most heist and caper things is that there is a high degree of witty banter and dialogue. That the level of interpersonal relations needs to be as dynamic as the action.
[Brandon] Yeah. I'll definitely agree with that. It's a big piece of it, because a lot of what you're doing is set up. When action happens, it's because something went wrong. Little things will go wrong along the way, but these are people who are experts at not getting in trouble in this sort of way. We should probably bring out that a heist doesn't need to be stealing something.
[Howard] See, that brings me to my own work, in Schlock Mercenary. It's almost always about we are going to position ourselves so that when we open fire, the maximum amount of damage has been done. It's not like The Italian Job or like Ocean's Eleven. Be warned, fair listener, I didn't do any studying of heist stuff. I didn't look at these archetypes as I was building it. I built it around I want to put together a fun plan that sounds exciting, I want to put together a fun team so that there will be lots of action. Then, well obviously, things have to go wrong, because it's funnier that way. So I kind of blundered into the Italian Job style archetype, only instead of minis, they've got flying tanks.

[Brandon] Well, another big thing that does The Italian Job type would be something like Mission Impossible, which is...
[Howard] That's a good point.
[Brandon] We are going to do something. It doesn't have to be stealing something.
[Dan] A great example is Michael Crichton. Almost every book he's written is a caper formula, even though he's not actually stealing something. So you've got like the Sphere. It's a team of specialists, who are assembled to do a job, and then do it, and you've got all of those pieces in the right place.

[Brandon] Yes. Exactly. I think we will go ahead and stop for our book of the week this week, which is actually going to be... A Michael Crichton book!
[Dan] Woo Hoo!
[Brandon] Thank you, Dan, for giving us this wonderful segue, because he writes quite a few caper type plot archetypes. I'm going to choose the one that's actually a caper, which is The Great Train Robbery. One of his very early novels. It's one of my favorites of his. It is, as it sounds, a great train robbery. It's one of his, there's no fantastical elements, it's just a caper. It's a really well done one.
[Howard] Okay. Well, jump into your Cooper Mini, and head over to
[Brandon] [chuckling] I love this new thing you've come up with.
[Mary] I think it's amusing for the readers... Listeners.
[Howard] I hope it's amusing, because I'm working so hard at it. Writing excuses... Excuse me,, you can start a 14 day free trial membership over at audible, and download a copy of Michael Crichton's Great Train Robbery.

[Brandon] Now, one thing you told me, Dan, when we were planning this podcast, is you mentioned that a lot of the weaker capers are ones that do not make the roles of the characters really effective. In fact, you pointed out this is one of the weaknesses of Ocean's Eleven.
[Dan] Yes. Ocean's Eleven has, because that name is so cool, too many characters. They don't actually need 11 people to pull off that job. So while some of them are obvious -- we need the guy who can set off the EMP, and we need the guy who's in the right place to do this particular con, and so on and so on, there's a lot of other guys that are just kind of there to pad out the team. An example that does this really well is the TV show Leverage. Leverage's plots are occasionally ridiculous, but their characters are all very clearly defined. There's the hacker, the guy who beats people up, there's the con artist, there's the cat burglar, and then there's the mastermind who puts them all together. You knew within the first 5 minutes of the first episode exactly what their jobs are and exactly how they will respond to any given situation.
[Mary] As a side note, you can occasionally see me as an extra on Leverage.
[Dan] Really?
[Mary] Yeah. It's in Portland. The A-Team is another example of clearly defined roles.
[Howard] [humming the theme song]
[Mary] Yeah. It was a TV show that was a series of [inaudible -- high-speed?] capers. But this actually goes back to the dialogue. I think one of the reasons that the snappy banter, as we're talking about it, is there is because of the amount of setup that you have to do. That is what is maintaining the readers' interest during the entire setup section.
[Howard] A lot of things...
[Brandon] Yeah. Well, it's going to be... Really, a lot of these are going to be really character driven up until the snappy plot at the ending.
[Mary] Right.
[Howard] I think that, just generally speaking, if you want to establish a plot point, having two characters talk about it in agreement until they reach whatever decision, is not nearly as interesting as the two characters arguing about it, and arriving at a decision, and one of them's unhappy. Because yeah, we now have a decision, we've reached this point in the book, and we have tension remaining because one of the characters does not have what they want. That allows you to keep the story moving on another level.

[Mary] Something that's also occurred to me that Ocean's Eleven does, and I think some other films as well. Like Aging... Aging is not a film. But... Is that they use jargon to mask the fact that they are not giving you the full plan.
[Brandon] Right. Right. Well, they do that. And the level of jargon involved... For instance, a lot of the capers, each of the roles will have its own jargon name. This heightens...
[Howard] What's the football movie?
[Brandon] What's that?
[Howard] The football movie with George Clooney. I don't know what a pig in a poke is, but everybody who was playing on those football teams knew what that trick was. All we needed to know was that everybody was familiar with that trick.
[Mary] Yeah. That occurs to me as a way to make the reader feel like they are in on what's going on, but it's a place to not use exposition.
[Brandon] Yeah. Though I will note, I did the Ocean's Eleven style plot in Mistborn. I did the you don't know the whole story, and here's what happens. I had to cheat a little bit. It's one of the times where I acknowledged to myself I was cheating because... There's a main character, Kelsior. One of the main characters knows the whole plan, and the rest of them don't. He worries that what he's planning is just too much for them, that they would never go along with it. So he has a plan behind the plan, sort of if we need it, we're going to do this. Because of that, I couldn't let the reader in on it, because that was the whole story. The last 10% of that book is here's Kelsior's plan, that you seen him putting together piece by piece, that you didn't know what the pieces of it were.

[Dan] The plan behind the plan that you see crop up in a lot of these Ocean's Eleven style capers is sometimes referred to as the Xanatos gambit. That's the TV Tropes name for it, based on a character from the Gargoyles cartoon show. The basic description of Xanatos gambit is something goes wrong, but I need it to go wrong on purpose, in order for my real plan to work. A great example of this is the movie Diehard, which from the villain's point of view is a caper movie.
[Brandon] Exactly. That's brilliant.
[Dan] Alan Rickman is coming in, his whole plan is to get the FBI to shut down the power grid. Just at the moment when you think he's lost, he's like, "Oop. That was the plan all along. They opened the safe for me."

[Brandon] But to do this, I had to actually have a viewpoint character in a tight third person, who every time this moment would approach, where he'd start thinking about this, had to back off and say, "Well, I can't think about that right now. It's too worrisome. I hope I don't need this." It's cheating. It really is cheating a little bit. If you go back and read Mistborn again, you'll see the moments where I'm doing this. It's the only excuse I could come up with to allow the foreshadowing to be there and still use him as the character. I don't know how bad of a cheat that is. I'm cur...
[Howard] Well, if the reader feels cheated, then it's a horrible, horrible cheat. If the reader feels like... If the reader enjoys the book, hey, you got away with it. It's fine. I mean, that's...
[Mary] I would say that I thought you handled it gracefully. I did... I was aware that you were doing...
[Brandon] You are aware of the cheat.
[Mary] But I'm also reading at times for that kind of thing. I was aware of the cheat, but I thought it was handled gracefully. It is one of those things that can backfire horribly wrong.

[Mary] One thing before we run out of time that I'd like to talk about is actually how to plot one of these things. Because what I'm finding... Normally I plot fairly linearly, except I can never say that word. What I'm finding with Valor and Vanity is that I'm having to plot back and forth, because I actually have to figure out what the plan is, and then go backwards to figure out who the characters are that I need to pull off the plan, and then how do I introduce them in such a way so that they seem like they are... So that they serve another function in the story. That's... I don't know if...
[Brandon] Yeah, that's tough, because I actually approached it the other way. I said, "Okay, what are the classic pieces of a thieving crew, and how can I design a plot that each of them will be vital to what needs to be achieved?" I actually designed my heist to make use of their skills.
[Mary] Did you do that the same way in Alloy of Law?
[Brandon] In Alloy of Law, I mostly freewrote. So, no. But, Alloy of Law isn't a true heist story, because Alloy of Law is actually the reverse heist, it's a detective novel. It's a...
[Mary] I was thinking of...
[Brandon] Someone else is pulling off a heist, and we're finding the pieces of it. So it's the other side. So, yes, I needed to figure out what they were doing on the other side, but I could use fewer people in the heist, and make it centered around one charismatic villain, and then focus on him.
[Mary] I was actually thinking about the dramatic ending.
[Brandon] Ah, the dramatic ending.
[Howard] The reveal was very heisty in that we did not know the whole plan.
[Brandon] Right. The villian's plot. Yeah, the villian's plot, I did do that, but it was basically just one guy's... There's a... Something... Whatever gambit?
[Dan, Howard] Xanatos gambit.
[Mary] Yeah, there's a nice [inaudible]
[Brandon] Gambit by the villain in that one, to be a little reversal from the first Mistborn book.

[Dan] We don't have a ton of time, but I want to very quickly say, if you want to see the very basic structure of a heist movie without any complications, there was a whole string of fantastic movies made in France in the 60s that were heists, just straight through. The two I remember the names of are Bob le Flambeur and Rififi. There's another one that's really good, and we'll put it in the liner notes. But go watch those. They almost break the formulas we're talking about, because in some of them, the plan doesn't actually go wrong. But you get to see all of the pieces...
[Howard] We get the whole plan, and then the plan goes right.
[Dan] Yes, but they use these things like setting up overexposition...
[Howard] But this was the early genre.
[Dan] So that then the actual carrying out of the plan is incredibly tense as you wonder, "Will this actually work?" and things like that. They're really fantastic.
[Brandon] Okay. The movie Inception was also a heist movie. A great use of it because their roles were completely fantastical roles for a heist. They came up with their own. They don't need the standard heist roles. It was great because of that.
[Mary] Needing the architect.
[Brandon] Needing the architect, and needing the person who... Anyway...
[Mary] The sting.

[Brandon] But we're out of time. So, Dan, give us a heist...
[Mary] Related writing prompt.
[Brandon] Sort of writing prompt.
[Dan] Okay. Your characters need to perform a heist in reverse, and put jewels into a safe without anyone seeing them.
[Brandon] Nice. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.
Tags: caper, dialogue, heist, jargon, knowledge, plot, roles, setup, what can go wrong, xanatos gambit

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