The Big Idea: Dan Koboldt

Heists! Dan Koboldt has been thinking about them — strictly for fictional purposes, honest! — and in this Big Idea for Silver Queendom, Koboldt gets into the nitty-gritty of what makes them work.


I love a good heist movie. It probably says something about me that my favorite film genre involves cleverly stealing something that’s worth a lot of money. Whether it’s another installment in a long-running franchise like Mission Impossible and Ocean’s Eleven, or a one-off job like Ronin or The Italian Job, I’m down for it. Imagine my delight when I recently found one on Netflix I hadn’t seen: a Gene Hackman film with the dead-on title The Heist. We truly live in a golden age of entertainment.

A few years ago, I decided I wanted to write a heist book. When I thought about my favorite heist stories from film, television, and books, and I realized that they all a few key things in common. Much like romance, mystery, and other genres, the heist story has a number of recognizable tropes. However, it seems to me that all great heists boil down to four key ingredients:

  1. The Score

It starts with the big score, obviously. Gene Hackman is a classic actor and his character goes after a classic prize: gold bars. Gold is heavy, which makes for some complications, but you can’t argue with the market value. Other favorite scores include jewelry (Reservoir Dogs), priceless artwork (Entrapment), incriminating evidence (The Inside Man), or the plans for the Death Star (Rogue One). Whatever the score, it’s usually something life-changing. 

Of course, it bears mentioning that things which are extremely valuable tend to be well-protected. It’s why celebrities have bodyguards and bank vaults aren’t made of balsa wood. So a big score often has an opportunity window. Maybe it’s being moved from one secure facility to another. With high-end art, often a piece becomes vulnerable when it goes out for restoration or a special exhibition. From a storytelling perspective, an opportunity window is a useful element because it adds urgency. When something about the window changes, the stakes can get even higher.

  1. The Crew

Arguably the best part of any heist is motley collection of characters who are necessary to pull off the job. It often starts with the mastermind, who’s often the protagonist of the story. He or she is usually an experienced con artist, excellent at the grift and a total mess in their personal lives. Danny Ocean is a great example. There’s usually a facilitator – often the mastermind’s number two — who brings all the right people and equipment together. Other members of the crew usually have specialized skills – safe cracking, hacking, demolitions, etc. – required for the heist in question. Recruiting the necessary talent is often a major plot point. Seeing them work in their element is absolutely my jam. 

  1. The Pressure

Great heist stories with compelling characters usually give us a deeper reason for the heist. We’ll make this big score and then we can retire is always a popular motivation. I guess that once you start dabbling in the criminal life, it’s hard to get out. Revenge is another common reason for trying to steal something. Usually, that means your big score is your enemy’s big loss. Yet I really like stories where an otherwise sympathetic criminal is forced to pull a heist by someone with leverage over them – blackmail, debt, or good old-fashioned threats of violence. 

  1. The Escape

Okay, this is the part most people love about a good heist movie. The dash for freedom with treasure in hand. Cut to the chase! It could be a high-speed boat chase or Mini Coopers zipping through subway tunnels. All you need is a great driver and a souped-up vehicle of some kind. It had better be fast, because the heat is coming just around the corner. 

Then again, one of my favorite escape scenes doesn’t involve speed at all. It’s in The Thomas Crown Affair (1999), when the master thief disappears into a crowd of body doubles all dressed the same and carrying identical briefcases. Clever getaway plans are usually a good idea, because your adversaries probably have a fast vehicle, too.

The Twist

I could have gone ahead and written a heist book that hit those four notes. But this is the Big Idea, not the Regular Idea. Nothing amps up a story like a good plot twist. So here’s mine: my book is an epic fantasy heist. Think crossbows instead of guns. Fast horses instead of fast cars. Dirt roads instead of subway tunnels. No one needs a burner phone because phones haven’t been invented (neither has electricity). The fantasy heist is almost becoming a subgenre itself. Six of Crows (Leigh Bardugo) and The Lies of Locke Lamora (Scott Lynch) are two of my favorite examples. I knew it could be done. All I needed was a supremely valuable thing that someone would want to steal in a society that hadn’t yet discovered gunpowder. 

Naturally, I went with alcohol. Not just ordinary booze, but a magic-imbued wine with highly coveted hallucinogenic properties. Imperial dreamwine. Ounce for ounce, it’s the most precious substance in the Old Queendom. Never duplicated, never stolen. If you boosted a shipment and got away clean, you’d be set for life. But as my characters find out, there’s a good reason that no one has managed to steal imperial dreamwine.

Silver Queendom: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound

Visit the author’s website. Follow him on Twitter.

7 Comments on “The Big Idea: Dan Koboldt”

  1. Ordered! This sounds awesome! And as a DM planning a homebrew D&D heist, I could always use a little more inspiration!

  2. Fastest order from a Big Idea post. I usually put it on my TBR list, but this one went straight to the top and is my next read.

  3. Wow, sounds fantastic! Usually I try to find the Big Idea books I’m interested in at the library, but I had to order this one.

  4. hmmm…

    I’ve been randomly reading chunks off this ‘n that news site all day looking for distraction and/or inspiration…

    now? I thank you for making me take a second look at something I read earlier, the odd fate of “Batgirl”…

    what if a bunch of crazed fanboys (and fangirls) go after that archived movie? hmmm… a caper… a heist… what to make it more immediate as well as outrageous… and… and…


    not so simply fanboy/fangirl… fanboi… there’s a rather intense sub-section of LGBTQ fixated upon comics ‘n fantasy… who can blame ’em? hot babes in skin tight spandex kicking arse and defeating evil…!

    but what about seeing the Hollywood establishment as not only corrupt in its gender abuses but blandifying creativity? complaints about MCU are well deserved… Marvel used to be edgy and Dark Horse was nothing but graphic novels with emotional razorblades on every third page…

    so a bunch of out-of-work (yup, idle-hands-are-devil-tools) twenty-something LGBTQers decide to jailbreak Batgirl… and of course they do it with sweaty grit and overclocked motorcycles and fabulous hair and raging music and… and…

    okay… so now I got me something that is not just a book but basis for a sixteen episode Netflix mini-series… “Batgirl: Jailbreak”

    excuse me whilst I madly type two hundred thousand words of purplest of prose…

  5. Ohhhhh, I hope you know Donald Westlake’s work, especially the Dortmunder novels . . ..

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