Is there a formula for writing compelling, engaging, and thrilling heist sequences?
The Mission: Impossible franchise is most known for its outstanding heist sequences. While the franchise’s genre is often identified as falling under the spy thriller genre, each of the films actually better represent the heist subgenre. Or perhaps we can refer to them as a hybrid subgenre — the spy heist genre.
The formula the video breaks down consists of three phases, each of which contains its own specific elements. We take the phases and their elements from this video and create a specific formula that screenwriters can use in their heist sequences.
Phase 1: The Goal
Every great heist film has a physical goal. And that goal is created by a desire.
The Protagonist wants or needs something. And that desire fuels the whole story. For the story — and heist — to be compelling, the goal has to be as difficult as possible to achieve. And with every great heist film, there’s a team.
Each team member has a specific characteristic that the Protagonist needs to achieve that goal. It enhances the story to inject conflict within that team. You can accomplish this with varying degrees. One method is the use of a Fake-Ally Opponent.
According to John Truby’s book The Anatomy of Story, “the Fake-Ally Opponent is a character who appears to be the hero’s friend but is actually an opponent. Having this character is one of the main ways you add power to the opposition and twists to the plot.”
This element can be fun to play with because you have multiple team members that could be the Fake-Ally Opponent. And the interesting thing is that audiences now expect this. It’s not always delivered, but they know that it’s possible because this is part of the successful formula of a heist film. And you, the screenwriter, can play with that.
Phase 2: Obstacles
Without conflict, the story doesn’t exist. And the more conflict you create, the more drama, suspense, and action there is to behold. And in a heist sequence, obstacles represent that necessary conflict. You reveal those obstacles while the team goes through the plan.
How you share this plan with the audience is up to you, but it’s best to find a creative or visual way to do so. The Mission: Impossible films usually show the visual implementation of the plan as the exposition of it is being explained in voiceover.
And those very same films change things up by showing the plan in different ways. In the first film, we see the key locations and obstacles that they need to overcome.
But the script keeps us in the dark as far as how the team is going to do this.
In Rogue Nation, we see their plan in the works, complete with the various ways that it could fail.
Whichever way you choose to creatively communicate the plan is up to you. Just make sure it’s not just characters talking. That’s the worst and most boring way to convey the information.
Once the plan is set into motion, the formula requires you to build tension.
Tension is key to a successful heist sequence. You want to keep the audience on the edge of their seats.
A ticking clock is the easiest way to enhance the tension of the plan. We know the characters will face obstacles, but when the time to overcome them is limited, the tension grows.
In Mission: Impossible, the ticking clock is the return of the employee who mans the high-security room.
In Rogue Nation, the ticking clock is a literal ticking clock.
You showcase this ticking clock with visual clues.
Visual clues are what reminds the audience of obstacles and the ticking clock. When we see the obstacles that were explained to us by the team as they hatched their plan, the tension builds. When we see reminders of the ticking clock, the tension builds even more. But then everything must go wrong.
Everything Must Go Wrong
Obstacles and ticking clocks aren’t enough to create standout heist sequences. When the plan goes awry, every pre-conceived notion of the heist is shattered. Now the audience doesn’t know what to expect. And this is where you engage them the most. This is when the characters are experiencing a crisis.
By showing the audience visual clues and introducing a ticking clock, you inform them enough to know when something is going to go wrong.
In Mission: Impossible, Ethan Hunt falls towards the sensored floor, missing it by inches. Then we watch as a drip of sweat runs down his glasses and falls towards the touch-sensitive floor. He catches it just in time.
When he recovers and achieves his goal, he’s pulled up by part of the team. But the noise-sensitive sensors are picking up the sound from his rope being dragged over the vent.
This crisis where everything goes wrong is set up through the visual cues that have already been established. And the ticking clock visual cue of the employee returning to the room is the final ingredient to the fantastic tension-filled sequence.
Phase Three: The Plot Thickens
In both Mission: Impossible and Rogue Nation, the first heist sequences fall right around the 50-minute mark of each film.
They feel like the climax of the movie, but there’s still an act and a half to go.
When the Protagonist gets what they want, they soon discover that what they thought was their main goal actually wasn’t. The plot thickens.
This is usually the point where the Fake-Ally Opponent is revealed, either only to the audience or to the Protagonist and the rest of the team. Or whatever variation.
Now the Protagonist’s goal changes. A new desire is created. And the first two phases of this heist sequence formula resets, only with new information, new questions that need to be answered, evolved or enhances obstacles, new obstacles, new team dynamics, and bigger stakes.
The Goal>Desire+Team+Fake-Ally Opponent+Obstacles>Plan+Building Tension+Ticking Clock+Visual Cues+Everything Must Go Wrong+Crisis+The Plot Thickens = Thrilling Heist Sequences.
That’s the Mission: Impossible Formula to writing thrilling heist sequences.
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