Writing Excuses 7.25: Writing Capers

Capers! They’re delicious on bagels with lox and cream cheese. Also, tricky to write well, and often called “heists.”

Dan explains the caper/heist format to us using Ocean’s Eleven as the model, so we can identify the key elements that are typically present. Brandon explains the key difference between the two styles: In the first, the reader doesn’t get the whole plan, and the plan goes off without a hitch. In the second, the reader gets the whole plan, but the plan goes wrong and the team has to improvise. Ocean’s Eleven is an example of the first. The Italian Job and Mission Impossible are examples of the second.

One challenge writers face, as opposed to filmmakers, is keeping the reader in the dark for an Ocean’s Eleven-style caper without cheating.

We talk about how the formation of a team of experts or specialists is critical to the form, but also works across lots of other forms. Beware using these teams as a substitute for character development, however.

The combined viewing time of our example films is, quite frankly, oppressive. Don’t watch them all in one sitting. But if you do, that was all part of our insidious plan to keep you busy while somebody else steals your stuff.

What is a Pig in a Poke: Basically, it’s a confidence scheme involving a substitution.


Your characters need to perform a reverse-heist, putting jewels into a safe without getting caught.

The Great Train Robbery, by Michael Crichton, narrated by Michael Cumpsty

35 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 7.25: Writing Capers”

  1. Dan got the Xanatos Gambit only half-right. From the Tropes page:

    “A Xanatos Gambit is a plan whose multiple foreseen outcomes all benefit its creator. It’s a win-win situation for whoever plots it.

    At its most basic, the Xanatos Gambit assumes two possible outcomes for the one manipulated — success or failure. The plan is designed in such a way that either outcome will ultimately further the plotter’s goals.”

    Excellent podcast as always. Keep up the good work.

  2. Brilliant podcast. I’d swear you guys jumped into my noosphere and made this one just for me. I”ve spent half a year now writing this novel involving a team of ex super heroes planning a terrorist assassination on the president. The beginning is kind of like the Ocean’s Eleven variety. But in the end it sort of flips and becomes more of the Italian Job. I’m doing a balancing act between keeping the mastermind’s Xanatos Gambit secret,while also revealing the antagonist’s hidden super power through his viewpoint. We as the audience know the president’s secret, but no one else does. I guess when they figure out who exactly they are dealing with, that’s when it becomes the ‘oh crap’, scrap plan A and improvise moment. It’s hands down the most difficult thing I’ve ever tried to write, but it’s also the most rewarding. Capers are a lot of fun.

  3. Interesting podcast and it got me thinking about the story I’m in the middle of plotting right now, which leads to a question.

    Are there any good examples of using the heist model as a sub plot instead of as the primary one? I can see it being a secondary plot to advance the primary plot in the second half of the second act and into the climax but not the core plan that goes the whole way, based on the plot structure I’m looking at now and who one of the two PoV characters is (and in fact the primary protag at that).

  4. My latest book is actually a caper–this was a really good podcast covering the topic. Although I will say that I’d differentiate a bit more between heists and capers. Heists are tense affairs. Lots of suspense. Things could go wrong. Capers are light. You know your main characters will always come out on top. Oceans Eleven is a caper. Rififi is a heist.

    One person I think you overlooked is Donald Westlake. You talked a lot about movies, but neglected the excellent stuff that’s out there on the book side of pop culture. Westlake wrote both heists and capers, and he did a great job of both. (One lesser-seen movie adaptation which I’d recommend is The Hot Rock, starring Robert Redford, and written by The Princess Bride/Butch Cassidy genius–William Goldman. The movie isn’t at that level, but it’s quite well done, and it depicts a caper where everything that can go wrong, keeps going wrong–taken to the nth degree.)

    I could talk about this for a long time. But I won’t. Thanks for the great podcast!

  5. Another caper film that I feel is worth mentioning is How to Steal a Million, starring Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’toole. They follow a more simplified version the Oceans 11 format (even though it precedes it by about 40 years) and as you discussed in the podcast, the simplified cast of characters makes the caper much more effective.

    One thing I would have liked to hear you speak more on is how to con the reader so that con/caper/heist story is more gripping and satisfying at the end. (Or in short, how do I re-create The Sting?)

  6. Yay for the Leverage shoutout! I was hoping you guys would mention it. I have learned SO MUCH about writing from listening to their DVD commentaries. (Also, very cool that Mary gets to be an extra sometimes.)

  7. @Kim The original Ocean’s 11 came out in 1960, six years before How To Steal A Million. Both are excellent films.

  8. The Thomas Crown Affair (the 1999 movie) came to mind when Dan suggested the writing prompt. That one had the heist running both forward and backwards.
    Just curious would Maverick, another film written by William Goldman, classify as a caper story?
    @Patrick Sullivan maybe Maverick would classify as your good example of a heist subplot although it was more of a twist at the end of the film.
    Great to see I’m not the only one who likes the TV Tropes site. I came across it by accident through Darths and Droids. This is a web comic that retells the Star Wars films as if they were a role playing game hosted by “a long suffering DM saddled with all too typical players”. Well worth a look and a quite legitimate excuse to not be writing. http://www.darthsanddroids.net/episodes/0001.html
    Apologies to everyone whose output suffers because of it :)

  9. Thanks for mentioning Maverick, Matt. That film is practically thirty different capers all going at at once as everyone tries to con everyone else. It even has the Xanatos Gambit going on with Cooper and the Commodore’s plan. Whether they won or lost, they won (or at least Cooper did).

  10. Excellent episode. I am now super psyched up for Valour and Vanity. A heist story w/ glamour is going to be really fun.

    Question: where are the “liner notes”? In several episodes (including this one, quote below), someone’s said they’d post something in the liner notes, but I can’t find where. I would assume the “liner notes” are the text right above all of these comments – but were’s Dan’s 3rd movie?

    Dan: … 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.

  11. Talamage, Marverick takes the whole Xanatos Gambit to the next level, the Gambit Pileup:

    “A Gambit Pileup involves two or more people with completely separate agendas each hatching complicated plans. The storyline is thrown into chaos and even the most Genre Savvy fans can’t predict how it will all end. Be prepared to make a flow diagram to keep up with everyone’s scheme. ”

    Which makes it more fun, and more challenging for the writer, if he or she can keep all the zany plans straight. In fact, any long running series with half-decent (as in half smart/half savvy) characters will end up like this, even if it is all behind the scenes. Also a good caper is right up the Plotter’s alley or a Panster who keeps meticulous notes.

  12. As others have said, a Xantos Gambit is a plan that is designed to ensure victory no matter what happens. Think the Star Wars prequels, where Palpatine secretly controls both the Republic and the Seperatists and no matter who wins, he ends up ruling the galaxy, slaughtering Jedi and destroying the Republic, even if a Seperatist victory is obviously Plan B.

    The Die Hard thing was a Batman Gambit (which is about giving the victim two options, but knowing them well enough to predict what they are going to do, and the plan involves them doing just that- the comic Tower of Babel is why it is named after Batman) and a Kansas City Shuffle (a misdirection con- the victim knows you are up to no good, but you trick them regarding the nature of your no-goodiness, so while they are busy worrying about your fake plan you are executing your real plan- like Lucky Number Slevin).

    Xanatos Speed Chess is for when they alter their plan on the fly in response to changing situations, to achieve the desired outcome. And if the plan is ridiculously convoluted and they needed supernatural powers or sci-fi tech to pull off (which they might have- we’re talking fantasy) its a Gambit Roullete. And as Rafael said, a Gambit Pileup is when two or more people have a bunch of such crazy plans running simultaneously.

    There are lots of other kinds of gambit too-http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/ThePlan

    That should cover it, and it should help anyone who wants know about different types of Caper-plot.


    Oh, and er, great podcast.

  13. Well, my mistake- its not a Kansas City Shuffle (the FBI would have had to think Gruber was conning them somehow for that to be). My bad.

  14. Just thought it might be apropos to point out that things did go wrong in Ocean’s Eleven (at least, the Clooney remake) which were not intentional. For the most part this was played up for a bit of drama and tension, and were easily fixed.

    But things can go wrong in an Ocean’s Eleven style caper, if you want. No need to make EVERYTHING tie back into the main plan.

    Personally, I think it’s more interesting to see things go wrong and watch them try to cope on the fly.

    As for Xanatos, from memory it was never that both outcomes were absolute victory. A lot of the time, it was more, “Well, I lost this… but I got THIS, which they didn’t even think I wanted.” Sure, he might like to get away with stealing the plans to the secret super weapon…. but while the good guys are stopping that, he’s actually putting something ELSE in place which is much more important for his overall goals.

    Basically, Xanatos was never really after the thing you think he wanted.

  15. Another very classic heist of the pure “things go wrong” formula is “Asphalt Jungle”.

    This is an example that fits well the character driven and no secrets from the reader that you mention as more important for the written form.

  16. I haven’t watched Gargoyles in a while, but from what I remember, the way Xanatos’s plans usually went was that what appeared to be his Plan A was really just a distraction. If it succeeded, that was great, but it was probably a long shot, and mostly in place to keep the heroes occupied while he pulled off something more low-key.

    I’m actually planning a heist-type story right now, as a D&D campaign that I’ll be DMing in a few months. The players are plotting to assassinate Lolth. I envision the opening scene looking something like the scene in Mistborn where they’re breaking down the seemingly-impossible task into a series of smaller obstacles and planning how to overcome them.

    Well, actually that’s probably the *second* scene. The first scene will be a combat, because everyone will be eager to test out their new character builds.

  17. Don’t forget Diggstown–great heist movie where a conman steals from a hustler.

  18. I was wondering about telling a caper story from the other side. What happens when the story is about the police trying to stop an complex caper like Ocean’s Eleven?

  19. A good example of keeping readers in the dark without cheating is Timothy Zahn’s ‘The Icarus Hunt’, which remains one of my favorite sf novels.

  20. Just curious if you’ve seen any of Melville’s other films besides Bob le Flambeur? Le Samurai and Le Circle Rouge are in my opinion the best movies of their type ever made, but neither of them really include a “laying out the plan” scene – they skip past that entirely. Does that mean they aren’t “capers”, or is that a 3rd approach to the genre?

  21. The big difference between a heist and a caper is simply that a caper is set almost wholly BEFORE the robbery with the emphasis on the team /characters and the skills/rehearsal while a heist is set almost wholly AFTER the robbery and places the emphasis firmly on the aftermath and the (usual) fallout from it. There are obviously exceptions to the rule but these are good guidelines.

    If you like fantasy novels then try The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch – it is truly brilliant – or its sequel Red Seas Under red Skies.

Comments are closed.