The crows heist episode Shadow-and-Bone

How to write a heist episode for TV – Shadow and Bone

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The new hit Netflix series Shadow and Bone has brought us a lot of good things: a chosen one with the power of light, a brooding soldier, a hot and bothered 100+ years old baddie, and most importantly a band of charming thieves.

While the A plot of the series focuses on Alina and her struggle to go from desk lamp to a really bright searchlight, the B plot gives us a heist episode. Or, to be more specific, multiple heist stories within the season.

What is a heist episode?

I have to admit that I’ve always liked the stories about the thieves getting away with it to the stories about the cops catching them.

There’s something really satisfying about watching a TV show with a good heist episode and seeing the shock on people’s faces when they realize that the thieves got away with it in the end.

The bank manager opens the vault only to find it empty, the noblewoman realizes that the jewels are gone, the powerful CEO sees that his account balance amounts to 0,01$. No matter where or when the story is set, the heist episode is always my favorite.

How does it work on a TV show?

In a movie, the heist (sometimes also called the caper) is the whole plot. A band of people with different skills and motivations is united by a common goal: steal something. That “something” might be an object, an asset, or even a person.

Regardless of its nature the “something” is very heavily guarded and the team will have to use their creativity and resourcefulness to reach it.

In a TV show, on the other hand, the heist might not be the center of the plot, but rather a brief event that is loosely connected to the story.

Shadow and Bone is unique in the sense that it does both things: there’s a bigger heist in the overarching plot that is made of various smaller heists.

The Crows need to kidnap the Sun Summoner in order to pay their debts, that’s the bigger heist. In order to reach Alina Starkov, they need to con and steal their way into the Little Palace, those are the smaller heists.

Elements of the heist episode:

1 – Motivation

By definition, a heist is a crime which means that everyone who attempts one is a criminal. Who would ever root for a criminal? And, more importantly, how can you make an audience root for a criminal?

In a heist episode, the motivation is the most important element. Why the characters are so determined to complete the heist and what happens if they fail is the hook that makes the audience start watching and rooting for them.

The Crows initially pursue the job for greed. Inej tells Kaz about a wealthy man who’s offering an absurd amount of money for someone to kidnap Alina Starkov, the Sun Summoner.

Kaz is initially presented as the cold cynical type who only cares for himself and his wallet, but as he finds himself in the situation of having to choose between his friends and his club (The Crow Club), he shows his true colors.

Inej agrees to help him because she needs to repay her debt, but as the story progresses she is forced to choose between her faith and her friends.

Jesper is a happy-go-lucky gunslinger who goes along for the fun and the money, but just like the others, he will prove to be a loyal friend.

The motivation of each character interests giving all 3 of them the same goal: kidnapping the Sun Summoner.

The various motivations also help us understand what is at stake in case the characters fail. Kaz will lose his club and become an enemy of the worst gangsters in Ketterdam, Inej will be forced to go back to the Menagerie, and Jesper will be left with no money.

In this, just like many others heist stories, the team is made of underdogs who are simply trying to right a wrong. This is what makes us root for them to succeed.

2 – The team

In a heist episode though, the protagonists aren’t random people that just happened to wander into the vault of a bank. They are a team, either one that’s already formed or one that’s about to be created.

Each member has a specific “talent” that will be useful to the group as a whole during the job. Those talents are usually complementary in the sense that one team member’s abilities can compensate for the lack of someone else and vice versa.

For example, Inej is basically a ninja who can hide, kill, steal, and follow from the shadows; meanwhile, Jesper is as loud as they come but he’s also a “people’s person” who can easily persuade, con, seduce, and trick his targets.

Even their weapons of choice compliment their personalities: Inej hides her knives in her clothes and quietly throws them to take out an enemy, Jesper has his guns permanently on display and he is noisy and flashy when he’s fighting an opponent.

Let’s take a look at the three Crows that form our band of thieves:

Kaz Brekker: he’s the mastermind. The owner of the Crow Club and the brain behind the plans. He is the one who convinces Jesper and Inej to go through with the job.

Despite his cynical and cold demeanor, he deeply cares for and respects his friends. And even if he has the habit of bossing others around, he is a good leader that doesn’t hesitate to risk his life for his companions.

Inej Ghafa: she’s the agile thief. She was “bought” by Kaz from the owner of the Menagerie. She steals objects and information for him in exchange for her freedom.

Inej reluctantly goes along with Kaz’s plans despite being a religious person who considers the Sun Summoner a Saint. during the job she also commits the “sin” of killing for the sake of saving Kaz.

Jesper Fahey: he’s the “muscle” of the group. A charmingly dumb gunslinger who seeks adventure and money. He proves to be a talented sniper and a loyal companion who often gets the group out of trouble by being a distraction, a spy, or a driver.

Despite the lethality of his weapons, he usually chooses to simply injure his targets instead of killing them. Multiple times during a fight he would also use his witty humor to lower the guard of his opponents.

3 – The heist episode

As I’ve said before, the whole Crows storyline is a giant heist divided into many smaller hests and cons.

However, in order to break down the structure of a heist episode, we have to take one specific caper and break it down. So let’s talk about The Kribirsk Archives.

In episode 4, the Crows need to obtain the blueprints of the Little Palace in order to devise a plan to kidnap Alina. The Kribirks Archives hold exactly what they need but the building is heavily guarded and the blueprints are locked in a vault.

This is a great setup for a heist episode because it gives the viewers all the information they need:

  • Motivation (why are they doing the heist?): they need the blueprints to access the Little Place
  • Team (who is doing the heist?): the Crows, characters we already know
  • Obstacles (who is standing in the way of our team?): lots of guards and a complex security system

Motivation, Team, Obstacles are the minimum amount of information that the viewer needs to receive in order to understand the story.

A heist episode doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it has to be tied to the overarching story of the TV series, or else it wouldn’t make sense to even HAVE a heist episode.

For example, it makes sense that an action/adventure series like Shadow and Bone might have a heist episode, but if you take the same concept and dump it into a series like Brigerton you’ll have more than one fan scratching their heads.

4 – Structure of the heist episode

The plan

Heists can get complicated really quickly so we’ll need to find a way to explain to the audience what exactly is happening and why.

Shadow and Bone goes for the “heist in progress” trope where the mastermind of the group explains the plan in voice-over while the scene shows us the action.

Getting inside

Unsurprisingly, in order to steal something in a heist episode, you’ll have to get close to it. This brings its own set of problems since the precious “something” that the team is trying to steal has to be heavily guarded.

In episode 4 of Shadow and Bone, the “something” is the blueprint and the obstacle is the most secure building in the city.

The plan goes like this:

  • Kaz, posing as a famous artist, will infiltrate the building and, using the clerk at the reception, leave a trail that brings exactly to the location of the blueprints
  • Jesper, disguised as a guard, will turn off the lights creating a distraction and providing his friends with the cover of darkness at the same time
  • Inej will use the opportunity to sneak into the archives from the roof and follow the trail left by Kaz

The first phase of the plan usually goes smoothly and it’s a chance for the writer to show the skills of the team and the genius of the mastermind.

Stealing

Now let’s get to the “crime” part.

The object of interest is usually hidden, secured in a locked chamber, or guarder. This means that the team will have to get creative with its approach to the target.

In Shadow and Bone, the target is a set of blueprints of the Little Palace. The blueprint itself is simply stored in a drawer, however, it is frequently used by the customers of the archives. So much so that that the clerk says that he’s tired of having to get the blueprints “every day”.

Essentially, if they just take the blueprints the Crows will be discovered the next day.

So Kaz’s plan is to make a copy of the blueprints on site and leave the original there as if it were never stolen.

Inej follows his instructions and everything goes smoothly… until it doesn’t.

Problem

This is kind of a clichè of every heist episode. Right when the caper seems over and the thieves seem to be safe, something unexpected happens and the plan goes bye-bye.

Inej has the blueprint’s copy in her hands and she’s about to leave the way she came in, just as she was supposed to. Suddenly, the lights are back on and a guard comes in to inspect the room.

She manages to avoid getting spetted by playing peek-a-boo using her stealth ninja abilities, but there’s still some trouble. Now that the lights are back on, she can’t leave through the ceiling without getting spotted, and the exit door is locked from the other side.

That’s when Jasper comes and saves the day. Kaz told him to not use his guns since this was supposed to be a stealth mission. But now the plan is out the window and the two Crows are inside a locked vault.

So he waits for the clock to tick until midnight and as the belltower signals the time, he shoots the lock, prying open the door.

The two of them meet up with Kaz right outside the archives and the heist is over.

A heist episode can be good after all

A heist episode is always a good challenge for a writer. You need to come up with good motivation, a good set of obstacles, and a creative way to get around them. It can showcase the abilities of the main cast and their dynamics.

Also… it’s just fun.


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