How to Write a Heist Screenplay

A great heist movie gets adrenaline pumping with action and keeps audiences guessing with intrigue. They’re fun, mystery-laden thrill rides that are enjoyable to audiences and critics alike. They’re fun for writers, too. The screenplay for the original The Italian Job by Troy Kennedy Martin, for example, is a classic with memorable quotes and a literal cliffhanger ending.

As fun as they are, quality heist screenplays have common elements that are enjoyable to scope out and rightfully difficult to implement effectively. When writing a heist movie of your own, keep these tips in mind.

Introduce The Leader and Their World

Charlie Croker, Danny Ocean, Doug and MacRay are compelling leads in their respective heist movies. In The Town, writers Ben Affleck, Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard introduce the audience to the four bank robbers Jem, Gloansy, Dez and leader Doug in the opening sequence as they rob a bank. Immediately, we are hurled into their world as they rob a Boston bank with precision and we see how Doug is the calm level-headed member while Jem is the violent hothead whose actions lead to their eventual demise.

The leader of the heist movie is usually the audience’s guide through the plot. Be sure to make yours is an interesting one. Several heist movie leaders are humorous, capable, reasonably flawed, and strong. It’s a good idea to make them likeable so that the audience can enjoy watching them as the plot unfolds.

We follow them as they traverse the most interesting parts of the story, are involved with all the pertinent players, and navigate their own feelings, relationships, and motivations. Speaking of which:

Show Us What Motivates Them

Obviously, money motivates the crooks we cheer for in heist films. Gold bars in The Italian Job and several bags full of money in Oceans 11 and The Town. However, emotions and relationships are what make the characters in heist movies more than simple crooks.

Audiences enjoy seeing people be human (or at least become human): vulnerable individuals who are doing unordinary things while being pushed and motivated by relatable feelings. The Town is about Doug and his friends robbing banks, but is more so about Doug falling for a woman who could destroy the bonds that he and his best friends have, all while satisfying a debt to a mobster and staying alive. These ties motivate him to keep secrets, open himself up and rise to the occasion of leading his crew to complete one last big score.

Danny Ocean is motivated by revenge and spite, in addition to a large monetary score. His ex-wife, who he still has feelings for, is dating Benedict, who owns the three casinos that Danny and his crew aim to rob. Charlie Croker’s (The Italian Job) desire to avenge his friend’s death at the hands of the Italian Mafia by stealing gold from them in Italy is what motivates him. Conveying the driving forces that propel your heist characters tells interesting stories and gets audiences hooked. Create good motivators for them.

Include Unpredictable Plot Points

Without spoiling surprises, I’ll say that heist movies that have unexpected elements are enjoyable, such as the screenplays for the films I’ve mentioned. For example, the beginning of The Town shows an armored truck courier getting ready to load a bank with money. The screenplay reads:

He weaves through various PEDESTRIANS and LOITERERS, TRAVELERS, DRUGGIES, AND KIDS. We get the sense that something must be about to happen. It doesn’t. Sees a SUSPICIOUS PERSON, passes him, nothing happens. Wends around a work truck stopped in front of the bank. Still nothing.

The Courier reaches the bank doors. Safety. He opens the door and steps in.

As soon as the courier steps in, however, Doug and his crew assault him and the main bank robbery begins. Be sure to play with tension, suspense, and surprise in your heist screenplay. The audience will get a kick of being surprised and will be wired for the whole thrill ride you’ll be taking them on.

End It How You Want

The original Italian Job is more comedic than it is dramatic. Its ending isn’t a grim one, but it is thrilling and, as we see it, the whole crew survives. Dramatic heist movies like The Town and Takashi Bufford and Kate Lanier’s screenplay for Set It Off end with one member of the heist crew surviving. Depending on the tone you want your screenplay to have and the feelings you want to leave the audience with, end your heist screenplay in the way that suits it best, according to your judgment. You have control of your heist screenplay and should enjoy making decisions in the screenplay. Who knows? You might steal the affection of readers and audiences far and wide with your heist movie.