Lessons Learned from Shonda Rhime’s Masterclass Session on Writing for Television

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It’s not like there’s a science to being creative. Just do what works for you and keep going forward.

I am a super fan of two of Shonda Rhime’s Hit TV Series, How to get away with murder (with Viola Davis) and Scandals (with Kerry Washington). While watching these series, I was always amazed by the suspense in the show, and I wondered how they wrote the plot and how it is even possible to write a script that good with the twist and turns in every episode. If you have not seen both shows check them out, they are outstanding. When I subscribed to Masterclass, Shonda Rhime’s session was one of the first I had to see, and she did not disappoint.

Shonda Rhimes was born in 1970 and raised in Chicago, Illinois. The daughter of intellectual and supportive parents, Shonda grew up telling stories. She strove to become a novelist but turned her focus to film and television writing later in life. Shonda majored in English and film studies at Dartmouth College and earned a Master of Fine Arts degree from the USC School of Cinematic Arts. She wrote the HBO television movie, Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999), her first professional credit, and penned two feature films thereafter, including The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement (2004).

Go write. Prove yourself to be a writer. Nobody has to pay you in order to write. You have to just find the time and do it.

Following a career in film, Shonda returned to television and created her smash hit series Grey’s Anatomy (2005-Present), overseeing the production of nearly 300 episodes as showrunner. Shonda subsequently created the Grey’s Anatomy spin-off series, Private Practice (2007-2013), and the cultural phenomenon, Scandal (2012-Present).

Here are my favorite take aways from viewing

Developing the Idea

The Premise

  • A premise is essentially your idea fleshed out and specified, and clearly details your vision for the show. You should be able to state it in a few sentences and have another person fully understand exactly what your show is about.

Shonda shares this example from Grey’s Anatomy

  • Idea: I want to do a show about surgical interns.
  • Premise: This is a show about female surgical interns, at the center of which is Meredith Grey. The story focuses on their friendship, competition, and the idea of living up to their potential. 

Researching your Story

  • Effective research is key to bringing your story to life and pulling your audience into your show’s world. It can provide the details to realistically portray a profession or rarefied world, and provide ideas for the visual setting, future episodes, and character development.
  • When speaking with subject-matter experts, be more of a listener than a talker. You should aim to leave your preconceptions and ideas at the door so you can begin to understand what their world feels like from their perspective. 

Find something really interesting and specific for your characters. The more specific you are with your characters, the more defined they become.

Create Memorable Characters

  • When you have compelling, memorable characters driving your story, your show has a greater chance of resonating with an audience.
  • Your characters aren’t stick figures walking around plot points on screen. Well-written characters feel human and relatable enough to make viewers forget that they aren’t real.
  • Don’t create your ensemble characters in a vacuum. Instead, ask yourself how each one harmonizes with the others. How does each ensemble character relate to, or affect your main character?

Pithing your Show

If you want truly see your TV show on air, you have to learn how to pitch it effectively. A great pitch is well-structured, visual, and quickly and easily conveys your show’s concept and central characters. Here’s a simplified guide to a good pitch: 

  • Start with the premise of your show
  • Explain the world of your show
  • Introduce your characters
  • Explain what happens in the pilot
  • Say it’s going to be funny, moving, or romantic
  • Talk about how many episodes you have planned
  • Wrap it up and thank your listeners
  • A great pitch should incorporate all of these steps, and last no longer than 5-10 minutes.

Shonda warns against pitching specific actors or songs, because you never know the relationship the producer, the studio, or the network may have with that actor or musician. Maybe the artist you want to use in your pilot is too expensive. Maybe the studio has a bad impression of that particular actor. These thoughts may pull your listeners away from the main part of your pitch: your story. It never hurts to put yourself in the network or studio’s position. 


Typically on network television, there are about five acts roughly lasting about 11 pages each. Here is how Shonda views the structure of each of the acts:

  • Act 1: Introduce your characters and present the problem
  • Act 2: Escalate the problem
  • Act 3: Worst case scenario happens
  • Act 4: Begin the ticking clock
  • Act 5: Characters reach their moment of victory


Before you start the physical act of writing it, Shonda highly recommendeds you write a beat sheet and an outline first.

  • A beat sheet is the precursor to an outline. It lays out the important moments in an episode, and what needs to happen in each of your acts.
  • An outline stems from your beat sheet, and details the specific scenes you are going to write for each act. An outline gives you a guide that you can follow when you begin writing your script.
  • Like a runner who must run every day to keep their muscles strong, a writer should write every day. There’s no perfect method for creating this type of discipline, but you can start by trying to find the creature comforts or rituals that help the process along, whether they take the form of a particular type of drink, a well-worn chair, or your favorite music.


  • A writer writes every day. Period. This is the tradeoff necessary if you want to identify yourself as a writer. It doesn’t need to be much, and it doesn’t need to be great, but write something. By doing even this, you will be miles ahead of other “writers” who haven’t penned a word in several weeks.


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Shonda Rhimes Teaches Writing For Television

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All the best in your quest to get better. Don’t Settle: Live with Passion.

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