I'm working on a heist scene where five thieves are supposed to enter a corporate building and steal a few documents. It's supposed to be a major scene so it won't be short. I need the readers to visualize most of the parts of the building so that they can know why the sidekick is choosing a specific path even though it was not a part of the plan.

The question is, will describing the checkpoints 'on-the-fly' slow down the pace? Or should I describe the place before the actual heist starts in a scene where the protagonist is taken on a tour of the place so that he (and the reader) get accustomed to the place before the robbery starts?

Any other suggestions?

9 Answers 9


In many movies and novels there is a scene where the heist is planned. Bankrobbers don't usually spontaneously draw their guns when they pass a bank on their way to the supermarket. They have to have a pretty good idea of who will be where at what time, if the heist is supposed to work. So they plan. And this planning phase can be used to describe the (neccessary particulars of – see my other answer) the location.

This is a perfect method, because it keeps the action scene free of non-action elements. The reader already knows the location, so you can run him through it at full speed.

And it creates a riddle/solution scene (or however you play the planning) that can be entertaining and exciting in itself.

Finally, it allows you to play the actual events against the "blueprint", showing how the action deviates from the plan, how the characters are creative or fail.

A planning scene, of course, only makes sense, if the heist is complicated enough to make witnessing the planning entertaining. If all you need is a long corridor, that is something you can throw in when the person runs through it.

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    As part of identifying with the protagonists, you can follow their thoughts/emotions as they plan the heist and then their discoveries/impressions as it actually goes down. This is another way of looking at the same thing this answer addresses. What does it mean to the characters? How does it affect them?
    – Joe
    Dec 12, 2013 at 18:46
  • @Joe, Bingo! I was actually planning to walk on a similar path. Show a few elements of the planning in a prior scene, and then fill in the gaps as the heist takes place. One of the major challenges I have is the fact that the novel is in first person narrative. There would have been so many liberties if it was in third person. But I think I'll pull it off. If you guys know any caper scenes written in First person, please let me know. That'll be a tonne of help. Dec 12, 2013 at 19:34
  • @what, Thank you for the reply. I guess yours and Standback's ideas are the most engaging. Dec 12, 2013 at 19:49
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    You have to make sure your focus is on the primary plan for the deviation to be surprising. Don't include a detailed description of a pseudo-random side corridor or the reader is going to see the swap a mile away. Also, it might be in your best interest to describe the 'new' pathway as the character encounters it, since it will be new to him, too. He comes to an never-before-seen intersection and has to make a decision; describing the intersection chops up the flow of action for the reader the same way. If he blows through the intersection on instinct, a similarly brief description works.
    – Lazarus
    Dec 12, 2013 at 21:11
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    @AminMohamedAjani Modesitt's Flash, mentioned in my other answer, is in first person. It's a great book, but it is political SF and the focus is not on the "heist"/assassination and its planning, which are only small story elements. The assassination is not the best and most believable, and the planning is not a separate scene, but integrated into other events. I actually like that, because it is part of the story that the protagonist is busy with his job and doesn't really have time to kill his enemy, but it may not be a useful example for you. If you can, look at the book or read a preview
    – user5645
    Dec 12, 2013 at 21:42

Keep in mind that a book is not a movie (yes, this sounds trivial and stupid, but bear with me).

Movies uses images so they are easy imaginable. Opposite to that producing images in the reader's head is the hard part. And you want to produce these images and make them rememberable without the interesting, thrilling action (the heist) you need it for?

Well, either you have another exciting scene at the same place (where you have the same problem like you have now) and make the place visible and rememberable, or you describe what you need during the heist.

Be aware, that a reader could take his time. So if you use two scenes and the reader needs two days till he reaches the second scene (because he has not much reading time), will he still remember?

Two scenes or one, whatever you give the reader to read, make it interesting.


Write the scene where the protagonist takes a tour. That shouldn't take too long to do, and it'll probably help you firm up your idea of the layout of the place in your own mind as well.

Write the heist.

Now try putting the two together. There's at least 4 outcomes I can think of:

  • It works great with the separate layout descriptions first. Keep it like that.
  • The separate layout description is helpful, but having it all at the beginning slows things down too much. In that case you could try splitting the layout description and the heist itself up into sections, then alternate back and forth in time between the two.
  • Having a separate layout description doesn't work, but you like the way you wrote it. Cannibalise it, taking the parts you like and work them into the heist description itself.
  • The separate layout is entirely unnecessary. Discard it.

My point overall is that this is a difficult question to ask in an abstract manner. Sometimes writing a description first may work, sometimes it won't. I think your best bet is, if you feel led to write it, then go ahead and write it. Don't let worrying about the overall structure slow you down now - fix that later once you've tried writing it once and have a better perspective on the work as a whole.


Provide a map.

If the layout of the building is really important, give the reader a map to follow. It's an ancient and proud tradition in books of all sorts, not just mystery/heist novels. Doesn't have to be really detailed, a sketch of the floorplan is usually all that's needed. It's a skeleton on which the reader can hang the flesh of your in-text descriptions.

  • Meh. I don't think I've ever studied a map provided in a fiction book. Dec 10, 2013 at 12:28
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    @MartinSmith I always pore over them. I love maps :-) I'd say it depends on the type of book. Some come with lots of "material", others are pure text.
    – user5645
    Dec 12, 2013 at 12:25

Watch the show Leverage. (It's about five criminals who turn Robin Hood, and they spend quite a bit of time breaking into buildings and stealing things.) Watch the entire first season, at least. Take notes on how often you get the layout of the place before it's broken into and how often it's not necessary.

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    Completed the first season. Thanks for the tip! It gave me a clear idea. I don't know why they stopped airing it. It seems to be a decent show. Dec 13, 2013 at 9:56
  • @AminMohamedAjani Leverage is a great show, and they went five seasons. Admittedly, by the end of five, it was starting to creak just a bit; the formula was starting to age. I think five seasons was perfect. John Rogers, the show's producer, has a great blog with many writing tips at kfmonkey.blogspot.com and also contributes writing 101 posts at Thrillbent thrillbent.com/blog Dec 13, 2013 at 10:44

If you want that in deep detail, provide a tour. If you want to cut on detail a little, make a scene of pre-heist briefing (or security briefing if that's the narrator's side).

The leader describes key elements, may show footage - photos or video of more important elements, may show images - that way you can fine-tune the amount of detail you convey as you like - filtered through three layers of narration (1. preparing materials for the briefing, 2. actual briefing, 3. your own narration) the amount of detail conveyed to the reader can be as fine-grained as you only desire.


I think a good rule of thumb would be: Up-front, in preparation, the story can characterize one or two major challenges the heist will need to overcome.

That's enough to whet the reader's appetite and to build anticipation. It's also enough to allow you to write very quick explanations while the action is happening. If we know the bank is patrolled by robotic guardian leopards, then you don't need to explain ahead of time how the team is going to sneak in through the decorative fountain and then remotely detonate a catnip distraction. For these smaller details, you can shed light on the explanations as you go along with the actual action:

We were leaking water out of our boots, but it had worked - the robo-pussies never went near the water, and hadn't noticed us. Yet.

"You ready, Brenda?" I muttered. She was taking her sweet time opening up the watertight bag. She didn't answer immediately, and for a moment, I was afraid the bag had sprung a hole, and we were all dead meat. But then she breathed out, and raised the detonator out of the bag. "High and dry," she said. "Hope the pussies like their catnip."

...and so on.

For heist scenes, the reader generally is willing to accept that he won't be privy to the full plan before it goes down. If he had to wade through all the details when the protagonists do, they'd be ridiculously boring, and then there'd be a big long heist scene which'd be boring because now the reader knows what's going to happen. So revealing the details as you go is a great way of avoiding a huge infodump, and it does a good job of conveying the suspense, the meticulous planning, the careful consideration of branching possibilities - just as they become relevant.

What you do need to do is have those major obstacles in place already, familiar to the reader - otherwise you'll have your characters climbing out of the fountain and then stopping for a long explanation of robo-leopards.

  • Yes. Yes that clicks with me too. After I posted the question, I kind of thought that maybe if I can show a few important hurdles and I can then proceed with the action. But I guess that's the problem with me, various ideas and not a single gram of confidence to choose which one to work on, which one will be apt. But thank you Standback. It seems I accept all your answers by default. I wish I could accept this answer too. Glad to have you guys around. It's so much help. Dec 12, 2013 at 19:44
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    The corollary is that if you the reader does get all the details of the heist beforehand, that is practically a 100% guarantee that the heist will not go as planned. Dec 13, 2013 at 1:10

Location, in a novel, is a protagonist. Protagonists act. If they are not taking part in an action, they don't appear in that section of text. If the location does not take a meaningful part in the action, it must not appear in the text.

Example with person:

Your novel is about John and Hannah. In the present scene, John goes to the supermarket alone. You will not write:

John when to the supermarket alone. John entered the supermaket, Hannah didn't. John picked up some apples, while Hannah, who was not there, picked up nothing. John paid for the apples without Hannah.

Example with location:

John has an accident. You will not write:

John slowly drove along the road. The steering wheel was black, the upholstery was a dark blue. The lights on the dashboard were red. The windshield was a bit dirty at the edges. The road was straight, the asphalt faded to a light grey with age. Yellow lines ran along the curb on either side, glowing softly in the fading evening light. Birds were crossing from left to right on their way to their roost. ...

What you will do is describe only what the protagonists do, in relation to the story.

If the lights on the dashboard irritate the driver, say so, otherwise don't mention them. If the road marking distracts the driver, who is from a country where they have a different color, say so, otherwise don't mention them.

In most actions scenes, you don't need a lot of description of the location where that action takes place. I just read Flash, by L.E. Modesitt, Jr., a SciFi thriller, and there is a scene where the protagonist enters a building and assassinates another character. He pretends to be visiting one person, but on his way to her kills another person by pretending to going to the toilet (which will explain the time he spent in the builing). All I know after reading that scene is that there is a building, it contains offices, there is a porter, a toilet, an elevator, and hallways. I have no idea what the layout of the building is, how far it is from the toilet to the elevator, or even in which floor the action takes place. Because that is not part of the action the location brings to the story!

Of course there are novels that wallow in pages of detailed description. But I guess that using the word "heist" you are not writing in that genre. In your case (as I imagine it) I would reduce the description of place (and characters!) to the bare essentials. That way, the reader will create the place (and person) that for him or her most fits the story.

My favourite example is beauty: If you want your protagonist to be beautiful, just say she is beautiful. Don't add any details. That way every reader will see the person he or she finds most beautiful, instead of reading a description that will be hard to transform into an image and that might not be attractive for that particular person, destroying the impact of your plot.

  • "while Hannah, who was not there, picked up nothing." Hahaha! Extra points for the example of beauty. I totally get what you meant. I practically believed it all this while. Never applied it though; I thought if it is not commonly done, its should not be done. Thanks for standing up and assuring me that I was not the only one. Dec 12, 2013 at 19:28

I don't believe description "on the fly" will slow the pace. It's more likely to keep the action immediate. Your characters will have done their research in advance; consider using the research scene(s) to lay the geographical groundwork without going into huge detail. (One or a few points will be challenging because...) Then, in the event, the group's collective problem-solving skills can highlight the salient points.

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