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Writing for TV: Prison Break Pilot

Writing for TV is arguably the most challenging effort in the screenwriting world. Whether it’s coming up with more premises beyond the pilot or simply selling a pilot, all of it is an onerous task that most screenwriters have a hard time pursuing. Fortunately enough, plenty of great television pilots can be analyzed for why they were picked up and what makes them unique.

Prison Break (2003) is a television serial drama by Paul Scheuring that tells the story of Michael Scofield (Wentworth Miller), a structural engineer who plans to get himself incarcerated in order to save his brother from being sentenced to death. So, what made this prison break (no pun intended) such an enticing story? Let’s take a look at our analysis of the Prison Break pilot in our Writing for TV blog series.

Photo credit: IMDb

Leading With a Memorable Moment

Upon someone’s first introduction to screenwriting, they most likely will come across the importance of beginning with a memorable moment. Seeing as Prison Break tells the story of a literal prison break, one can see how many opportunities there’d be to develop a high-conflict intro.

However, the prison break genre can be easily cliche and tiresome for people to watch or read yet another story of someone in prison and escaping. Been there, done that. Instead, Scheuring chooses to lead with Michael Scofield getting a mysterious tattoo, causing the audience to wonder what the scene’s purpose was.

The audience might initially view the scene as a simple introduction to Scofield as a character. However, shortly after is the high-conflict bank robbery scene that ends up sentencing Scofield to prison.

It’s an enticing conflict-oriented portion of scenes that keeps the audience along. But again, why lead with the tattoo? Well, the ending of the pilot demonstrates that the tattoo was actually a map of the prison for Scofield to look at in order to break his brother out of prison. Memorability and wow-factors are vital for great scripts.

Complex Plot-points Need Some Explanation

The surface of Prison Break may appear like a straightforward story: a guy goes to prison and tries to escape. Instead of being a modern rendition of Shawshank Redemption, the story takes a much more complicated route involving a brother purposely sending himself to prison to break his brother out.

Although the pilot of Prison Break isn’t as complicated as the rest of the series, some ambiguity points require some level of explanation throughout it. As already discussed, the tattoo example is the primary one. Still, there are other points of wonder having to do with Fibonacci, etc.

This doesn’t mean you need to spoon-feed your audience because that’s certainly not what Scheuring did with the Prison Break pilot. The script is written where not everything is explained. Still, some essential points are quickly revealed, so you’re not totally lost in the story. Some scriptwriters prefer the ambiguous avant-garde style, but it doesn’t fit every genre.

Thinking Outside The Box

Part of the excitement and praise towards Prison Break has to do with the story’s ability to be shown outside the box. This doesn’t mean the show is so truly original that it’s borderline controversial from being so odd. All it means is the show took a familiar story but gave it its own twist.

No matter what someone’s interest is with film and television, most people have an understanding of the prison break genre. Still, Prison Break chose to discuss a telling story of someone set up for murder and a brother who purposely goes to jail to break him out by using the tattoo on his body. It’s exciting all the way through.

Making the Audience Want More

Making the audience want more is arguably the most fundamental part attached to writing an excellent television script. Throughout Prison Break, many wonder what the significance of Scofield’s tattoo is, only to see it be revealed at the end to be a map of the prison. Once revealed, the audience desperately wants to see what next—an example of excellent writing.

Turning a Traditional Concept Into An Original Idea

Going back to the notion of the Prison Break genre, it’s already been discussed that the show turned a traditional concept into an original idea. In this day age, it’s practically impossible to develop a story that’s told in a completely new fashion without any comparison to other works. What’s more important is to develop an original idea that’s inspired by other great works.

Don’t Write Yourself in a Corner

The actual writing style of Prison Break is simple: to the point and move the story forward. There aren’t too many odd scenes that don’t have anything to do with the story, nor is there any unnecessary writing that’s solely there to make the writer feel good about their writing. It tells a great story, and that’s the point of screenwriting. Don’t write yourself in a corner by being too perfect with every little detail.


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