Countdown to BREAKOUT: Evil plots, master plans, and comics (or, the importance of humor)

Countdown to Breakout is a 23-day blog series about the three-year writing process for BREAKOUT, which earned starred reviews from both School Library Journal and Publishers Weekly. It’s about a small-town prison break and manhunt that change the way three kids see their neighbors and the place they call home. Why a 23-day series? Because this book was inspired by the 2015 Clinton Correctional Facility prison break that led to a 23-day manhunt in June of 2015. 

Evil plots, master plans, and comics (or, the importance of humor)

The real-life prison break in Northern NY was still going on when I started writing BREAKOUT, which provided me with a unique opportunity for research. In addition to spending time in the area around the prison in Dannemora, I paid attention to social media posts, many under the hashtag #PrisonBreakNY, which offered so many different perspectives on the manhunt.

That last tweet – the notion of group of kids forming their own search party – resonated with me, and I immediately thought of Nora’s little brother, Owen. What if Owen kept a notebook with plans for defeating the inmates? He likes to draw, so it could be a series of graphic novel panels, another way to diversify the kinds of documents included in the story.

Creating these pages required a different kind of writing – with captions, narration, and illustration notes for each panel. It looked like this in the manuscript:

POST IT: Sunday, June 16 – From Owen’s plots/plans notebook


Illus: Tree fort

List of supplies:


Catapult supplies


Stretchy things (giant rubber bands?)


Cell phone



SCENE 1: Wide shot of yard, Lizzie, Elidee, Nora running w/ batons, Owen & Noah in tree fort

SCENE 2: Medium shot of tree fort – Owen & Noah looking out at woods with binoculars

SCENE 3: Seen through binoculars – Close-up Inmate faces, hiding in trees

SCENE 4: (series of smaller panels…)

Owen & Noah load big rock into catapult

Ready! Aim! FIRE!!!

Schwwwwwwingggg! (Rock goes flying)

Again! FIRE!!!!!

Schwwwwwwingggg! Zzzzzinggg! (Rock goes flying)

SCENE 5: Wide shot of trees w/ rocks hitting inmates


SCENE 6: Medium shot: Inmates on ground, knocked out, Owen standing over them holding wand.

                  “Stoppia Inmatia!!”

SCENE 7: Owen & Noah in tree fort, Owen on cell phone

“Don’t worry, officer. We immobilized them with a spell. They’re not going anywhere.”

SCENE 8: Police leading dazed inmates away in handcuffs

SCENE 9: Owen & Noah in tree fort eating brownies, girls running in background

And here’s how those pages turned out in the final version of BREAKOUT.

Owen’s graphic novel panels are an important part of the story, not only because they provide a younger person’s perspective, but also because they offer something every story needs: humor. We don’t often think of thrillers or books with serious themes as being funny, but I’d argue that humor is just as essential in these stories as it is in a comedy. No reader can stand being on edge for 400 pages, and even readers who love pondering big ideas need a break from those ideas sometimes.

Sometimes that break comes in the form of graphic novel panels, and sometimes it comes in the form of musical theater. We’ll talk about “The Hamilton Effect” in BREAKOUT tomorrow. Here’s today’s prompt:

Your Assignment: Write about a sad or serious moment in your life when humor played an important role. If you’d like, try writing it as a series of graphic novel panels.

Thanks for joining me on this part of the Breakout writing-process journey! If you’d like to read the other posts in this series once they’re all posted, you can find them here.  

Breakout cover image


3 Replies on “Countdown to BREAKOUT: Evil plots, master plans, and comics (or, the importance of humor)

  1. Loving these posts. Did you do the drawings for those pages? Just curious how that worked.

    1. No – I just wrote the script with illustration notes that’s included here, and Bloomsbury’s illustrator created all of Owen’s art.