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Six of Crows: A Damn Good Heist

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Audrey's Corner If you can write an excellent heist story, I can all but guarantee that fame and fortune will come knocking on your door. Everyone, and I mean everyone loves a well-constructed caper. Oceans 11, The Italian Job, The Thomas Crown Affair, The Lies of Locke Lamora, Mistborn, etc. The list goes on and on. As consumers of fiction, we love the feeling of the story shifting beneath our feet, of being outsmarted but reveling in the fact that we could have figured it out if we'd only been clever enough. Everyone knows the joy of a good twist, or a great mystery, and heist novels are chock full of both.

Writers beware: it's one of the more difficult plot-lines to pull off, right up there with time-travel and unreliable narrators.

But when done well, the industry adores it.

For a recent example of this phenomenon, look no further than Leigh Bardugo's breakout bestseller, Six of Crows. On the surface, this is a pretty typical YA fantasy. It features six point-of-view characters, all teenagers, all suffering from various romantic and interpersonal angsts. However, the thing that makes Six of Crows stand out in the crowded YA fantasy field is that the story centers around a high-stakes, high-concept, epic and death-defying, you-know-where-I'm-going-with this... heist.

I won't go into the brilliant details of the theft itself here. To do so would take ages, not to mention spoil the bulk of the novel. But there are a few things that we novelists can learn from the clockwork construction that makes Six of Crows tick.

First: The characters. Every single character in the story has a specific purpose, use, and arc that's story-critical. Even though there are six—six!—protagonists, Bardugo finds a way to make each of them matter. They all have a specialty that's utterly necessary to pull off the grand plot, not to mention a character trajectory that's important and meaningful. This makes the reader feel like the author knows what they're doing, that nothing is superfluous. The novel is a machine, well-built and expertly finessed.

Second: The stakes. Any writer who's spent time on this website can't deny the importance of big stakes. There needs to be a reason for the story, especially a story about thieves, beyond simple enrichment or fame-seeking. Six of Crows makes the heist matter to the characters, and so the reader, by making the object of the heist an addictive magical drug that would radically shift the balance of power in Bardugo's world. This makes the heist important on the grand scale, but Bardugo goes further than that. The heist also matters on an interpersonal level, in specific ways to each of the characters. It's about more than money. Bardugo does the work to make the reader first care about the people and then care about why they must do this. And so the reader is hooked into...

Third: The twists. Now, it's easy to understand the foundation of a well-built heist novel (although very, very difficult to actually build one). It needs to be intricate, surprising, and clever. The leader of the team must be smarter than the reader, the mark, and, quite possibly, the writer themselves. Not easy to do. But the real challenge of a heist novel is to not make it easy. This brilliant mastermind must construct a genius plan that fails, at least in some way. This is where so many writers drop the ball. The gimmick of Sherlock Holmes being all-knowing is fun for about 10 minutes, but the story of Sherlock Holmes only happens when he's outwitted, or distracted, or surprised. If your mastermind is smart, then the antagonist must be smarter. Only then can you show the true genius of the heist's grand master, when their equally-brilliant, even-more-daring plan B must come into effect, or perhaps when they come up with something genius on the fly. Then and only then can the reader/watcher see the true power of the heroic team, overcoming a real, tangible obstacle that threatened real, tangible failure. 

Make it tough, and the readers will be scrabbling for more.

Six of Crows is not without faults. It suffers from a saggy, meandering middle between the first plot point and when the mischief actually begins. It's also bogged down, as many YA books are, by an overabundance of adolescent hormones. Worst of all, the much-anticipated sequel was, to put it mildly, a disappointment. But all that can be forgiven because the theft itself is so excellently constructed. The caper fits into the world, brings together all the pieces of the story, is compulsively readable, charming, and (almost entirely) satisfying. It's a fun book to enjoy and an important book to study for anyone brave enough to take on the mantle of such a twist-heavy genre.

So go forth and write crime! Who knows? You might find story gold along the way.

Or perhaps steal some...

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