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Writing Tips From Shonda Rhimes One of the Most Successful TV Writers

About Shonda Rhimes is an American producer, writer (fiction, film and TV scripts) and showrunner. Her shows include: ‘Grey’s Anatomy’, ‘Private Practice’, ‘Scandal’, and ‘How to Get Away with Murder’, just to name a few.

1. Learn how to source ideas for your stories from everything that surrounds you.

2. If your idea has an ending and you can envisage that ending, most likely your story will be perfect for a film. However, if your idea produces more ideas for the same characters, it might be more suitable for TV.

3. Before you start developing your idea, take a step back and see how your idea compares to the current shows (what is on TV or online).

4. Stick with developing ideas that stay with you the most, the longest. Also, originality is vital; which one of the ideas you are developing is the most original?

5. Be sure that you know the difference between an idea and a premise:

  • A premise should be specific and needs to detail your vision for the show. The premise must be clear enough that if you tell it to someone in a few sentences, that person won’t only be able to understand what you are talking about but also envision your show.
  • Be prepared to make a lot of hard decisions while developing your premise.
  • For Shonda, characters are the most important in her writing, as they drive the story.
  • To find the right structure for your show, it’s essential to understand the characters you are creating and the journey they are going to go on.
  • Shonda likes creating a story bible for her shows; she believes that the time of development is perfect timing to focus on creating the story bible.
  • Don’t get sidetracked with the title of your film or the names of the characters. Focus on developing strong and believable characters (Who are the characters? What is their journey? What is the best way to depict their story?).

6. How to write a story bible:

  •  Write a page describing your concept
  •  Create a character list
  • Sketch out initial episode ideas.
  •  You need to be very clear and authentic about the story you are trying to tell.
  •  If your story needs research, do it thoroughly. The authentic research will allow you to pull your audience into your show. However, remember that it’s always up to you how much research your story will need.
  • While interviewing experts, listen rather than talk.
  • To truly understand the people you are interviewing, you should come into this conversation with no preconceptions.
  • When talking to experts, look for details that could be added to your story to make it more authentic and realistic.

8. Creating characters:

  •  You need to find something interesting in each of the characters you are creating.
  • To define your characters, be very specific with them.
  • Always remember that the characters are in the heart of the story. Without them, there is no story.
  • To capture and resonate with your audience, try creating character-driven stories.
  • While creating your characters, start with the most basic information about them. This necessary information will allow you to gather the essential details about your characters’ lives and their personality.
  • Make sure your characters are three dimensional. If they need rethinking, you will need to go back to gathering the necessary information about them.
  • Think about how you will write characters of a different gender than you are.
  •  Well written characters are human and relatable, which allows the audience to forget that they aren’t real.
  • You really need to keep track of who your characters are.
  • TV shows allow many different characters to exist and interreact with each other over at least one season.
  • Create your characters in such a way that they can complement one another.
  • Be aware of how smaller characters relate and affect your main character.

Whenever possible, make sure your characters decide their own faith, instead of just reacting to what life has thrown at them.

  • Character development needs to accrue naturally, and it can either happen in one episode or can take place throughout the whole season.
  • Always consider what the natural step for the character to take is, instead of getting too wound up in the plot elements.
  • What your characters want and what they need may be very different. While answering these questions, you need to look at the characters’ journey and how the wants and needs will serve their story.
  • What visuals can you use to reveal something about your characters? How can you show visually who your characters are?
  • How other characters balance your main character?

7. Pitching

  • You need to learn how to pitch effectively to be successful and have your show picked up.

Well-constructed pitch is visual, quick and easy to portray the show’s central characters and the core concept.

  • Think about how you could describe your show to your listeners, so they could see saleable aspects of the show.

8. According to Shonda, a good pitch should:

  • Start with the premise of the show.
  • Explain the world of the show.
  •  Introduce the characters.
  • Explain what the pilot is about.
  • Be authentic and help your listeners connect emotionally with the characters.
  • You will have to talk about how many episodes you have planned.
  • Wrap it up and thank everyone for listening.
  • Your pitch shouldn’t be longer than 5–10 minutes

9. Structure of the script according to Shonda

  • One-hour TV drama typically has five acts, which last 11 pages each.
  • Act 1: Introduce your characters and present the problem
  • Act 2: Escalate the problem
  • Act 3: What is the worst that can happen?
  • Act 4: The clock starts ticking
  • Act 5: Characters reach their moment of victory
  • Knowing how your acts will end will help you layout the structure of each episode. If you work this out ahead of time, you will be able to create the right setup for them, instead of having a twist at the end of each act that won’t really move the story forward.
  • What is your A, B and C storyline?
  • A storyline — all about the main character, who is the core of the show.
  • B storyline — secondary and moves the narrative forward.
  • C storyline (sometimes referred to as “the runner”) — the smallest.
  •  Since streaming platforms entered the game reserved before for TV shows, structuring the story around commercial breaks is no longer vital, especially when you are working for a show for one of those platforms. How would that change your story structure?
  • Create a detailed outline and a beat sheet before you start writing the script.

A beat sheet is what comes before you start writing an outline. It tells you what needs to happen in each act of your episode.

An outline details all the scenes you are going to write for each act. An outline acts as a guide to writing your script.

  • Always use the beat sheet to begin writing your outline.

10. You should write every single day to develop your writing skills and ‘muscles’.

11. The most crucial part is that you are always making progress on your script. Designing deadlines can help you with your progress.

12. Writing the pilot:

  • You need a compelling pilot to have a TV show.
  • A pilot is supposed to hook your audience and set up the characters, and storyline for the whole season.
  • Shonda thinks that picking up a character that will guide the audience throughout the pilot will help to introduce the characters without throwing too much information at your audience at the same time.
  • All successful pilots have grand openings. You need to be sure what kind of effect you want to leave on your audience after they see your pilot.
  • After the end of the pilot, your audience should want more: the characters and the story.

13. Dialogue

  •  No piece of dialogue should be wasted.
  •  Take good care to craft your sentences carefully.

Dialogue always shows the audience who the character is.

  • Observe how people speak in real life. In actual life, sentences aren’t very well crafted; people forget what they were talking about, change subjects; they interrupt one another. Be authentic.
  • Try acting out your dialogue to see how it sounds.
  • What makes scenes without dialogue effective?
  • How would you structure your dialogue, if the characters already knew one another previously to the pilot?
  • How can you improve your dialogue to reveal the characters’ relationship or provide insight into the motivations of the character?

14. Come up with the most extreme things that can happen to your character and use it to develop them.

15. Ground story choices in your characters.

16. Even if you aren’t planning to reveal your character’s secret, you should know them before you start writing.

17. What motivates your characters to act?

18. Never waste a scene; each scene should move the plot forward.

19. Your most valuable assets are your writing skills and portfolio of work. 

20. Put your focus into writing original content.

21. Working in the writer’s room:

  •  It can be incredibly creative but also intimidating and daunting.
  • If you’re not quite sure what to do, be the person who volunteers to write things on the whiteboard.
  • Be ready to go with ideas and comments in every meeting; you want to present yourself as someone with valuable opinions.
  • Don’t throw out plot ideas just because they sound exciting. When pitching future plot points, ask yourself: “What is a natural next step for each character?”
  • The writers’ room doesn’t have to be a cutthroat place. Support your fellow writers and embrace the oddities of the group that bring everyone together.

22. Editing:

  • It’s important to remember that there is no one way to edit your script. Usually, each writer finds her own personal process that works for them.
  • The most important aspect of editing your script is to make sure that everything fits within the story (scenes resonate, the dialogue isn’t full of old clichés, the story is gripping until the end).
  • Don’t be afraid to remove elements from the story that do nothing to move the plot forward.

23. While working in a TV production relay on the experts around you.

24. While describing actions in the script, you need to be as clear as possible, so your cast and crew understand what you had in mind.

25. When hiring actors for your show, remember that you may end up working together for years. Make smart choices and work with people you feel comfortable with.

26. Being a showrunner:

  • A showrunner is a person who has the creative authority and management responsibility for an entire television series (script, production decisions, final edit, being the face of the show).
  •  The best way to learn how to be a showrunner is on the job.
  • Essential skills of a showrunner: negotiation, time management, communication, and learning how to work with people in positions of authority (something you can work on before you become the showrunner).

 

  • 27. Celebrate your accomplishments, regardless of how small you think they are.

28. Keep moving and seize opportunities, even if you have to work non-writing jobs; keep moving and telling stories.

29. Listen for what the readers don’t understand in your script and try to solve your problems from there, instead of defending your choices.

30. Shonda says that to make an engaging series, you should:

  • Don’t veer from the course. Your second episode should be like your pilot all over again.
  • Similarly, you’ve made a promise to the audience about your story in the pilot. Stick to it, and only move beyond it once you’ve earned your audience’s trust.
  • Get creative and wild with your ideas. This may be your only chance to use them. Don’t assume you have several seasons in the future to utilize them.

Don’t add elements to your show unless they have a payoff.

  • Ground your plot lines around what is natural for your character to do next.

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