The Big Idea: Dan Koboldt
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.