Film & TV

Beyond the Pilot: Writing a Series

Shonda Rhimes

Lesson time 13:28 min

Shonda has never had a TV show last for less than six seasons. In this chapter, Shonda discusses what keeps people watching a show beyond the pilot.

Shonda Rhimes
Teaches Writing for Television
In 6+ hours of video lessons, Shonda teaches you her playbook for writing and creating hit television.
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The thing about your pilot and when you're planning a series, the thing that you really need to understand and know is that in the first season of your show you made this pilot, and then you get to episode two, and a lot of people don't understand what episode two is. Episode two is just episode one all over again. You don't make some completely different show. You basically need to reiterate what episode one was in a new way, but it's still episode one all over again. Don't veer off course. Don't go in a whole new direction. Don't tell us-- wait a minute it's not a show about scandals, it's a show about race tracks. It's the same show all over again. Olivia Pope-- she's got scandals, she's having an affair with the president, it's a secret, Quinn's knew. There's a case of the week. Literally same show. You need to do that so that people understand what they're watching and so they feel like they can trust what they've seen and that they want to come back. [MUSIC PLAYING] When you make a show, you promise the audience something. You promise the audience that they're going to see a show about a DC fixer who is involved in a scandalous relationship with the President of the United States. You need to fulfill the promise of that show every week. You can't take that away from them. You can't deny them that. You can't suddenly not show them that show. If you're going to change what the premise of that show is and the promise of that show is, you have to do it in a very smart way and you have to do it over time. You have to give them what they've asked for and then changed the story, maybe in the next season. You can't just do it suddenly. Grey's same thing-- you have to give them what you've promised. People get very disappointed in you if you say, I'm going to give you a show about the Queen of England-- the crown-- and then you give them a show about the guy that works in the basement of the castle. That's not what they signed up for. People want their promise fulfilled. So if you know that the promise of your show is she's a DC fixer who's engaged in an illicit affair with the President of the United States, that's the promise of our show. You just have to check in with yourself every episode as you break story-- are we talking about a DC fixer who's engaged in an illicit relationship, yes or no. If you're veering off course-- which is easy to do-- you either have to be doing so consciously or you need to fix it. We didn't do it at all, I think, in the first season of Scandal until we got to the end, when we veered off the course of fixing somebody else's scandal in order to flashback to show you what had happened between Fitz and Liv. And that was purposeful, because we knew that it was time to tell that story to catch everybody up to where we were emotionally. But that was a conscious choice and we had earned that right by then....

Make Great Television

When Shonda Rhimes pitched Grey’s Anatomy she got so nervous she had to start over. Twice. Since then, she has created and produced TV’s biggest hits. In her screenwriting class, Shonda teaches you how to create compelling characters, write a pilot, pitch your idea, and stand out in the writers’ room. You’ll also get original pilot scripts, pitch notes, and series bibles from her shows. Welcome to Shondaland.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

This course is a game changer. Shonda Rhimes tells you everything you need to learn about writing for series television and how to approach life.

Excellent!! Great advice. Learned things that I never would have thought of on my own.

I feel like I have learned the anatomy of how to write a pilot/script for television. Thank you for creating the Masterclass. I have learned so much information I now feel empowered to create memorable characters and how to structure a script for television. I now have a creative place to come to for support as I walk on this journey and for that, I am truly grateful.

Where do I begin? I've learned to go deeper with my characters, talk to people for research and what should be in each act for a one hour TV drama. I learned more about pitching and how to improve mine. I loved the class discussions and getting and giving feedback to classmates. Great course and I will return! Thanks a million!


Jayton S.

I agree with changing up the formula every season. I grew bored watching some of my favorite shows because they never did anything new. That's what'll keep your audiences interested.

Marcus M.

Episode 2 is the pilot again. Such great advice. It is interesting how her insight into story parallels what Hans Zimmer says in his MasterClass....

Jessica T.

This was so enlightening because I used to be under the impression (Lord knows why) that they would have all these seasons planned out in advance, and they knew where they wanted to go up front. But when she said "Leave it all on the table at the end of the season, because you might not get a next one," and that they ended one season with a question that they had no idea at the time how to answer, it made so much sense. And made creating a series that much less daunting.


This makes sense, the idea of keeping the promise/premise of the show. People like what they saw the first time, that’s why they tune in again. That’s not to say we can’t change up what happens with the characters every week; the audience wants to journey with them.


The two most valuable points I got from this lesson are; Season 1 episode as a repeat of the pilot and placing emphasis on the characters' needs as individuals rather than using them as plot devices. I am sure I have always known this, but I am not sure I have given it a lot of thought until this lesson.

Jonathan S.

If you want an example of a movie where the writers, Frank A. Cappello* and Derrick DeMarney, put the plot ahead of character, watch "No Way Back" starring Russell Crowe. I recall at least three times where Russell's character, Zack Grants, did things so stupid (in order to move the plot along) that I thought "He deserves whatever he gets." Go ahead and watch it. It's not terrible. More than 2,000 viewers gave it an average rating of 5.2 out of 10. Watching problem movies are good for your education, because you'll learn what not to do. You can write a plot-driven story, but you absolutely must craft it carefully so that everything flows from the characters' wants. If you find the plot taking over and making them act stupidly, you have to change it. (It's okay for people to act stupid, but it must be because of what drives them—and it had better not be the plot.) *Frank Cappello also a writer on "Timeline," which has the same plot-driven issues.

Donna S.

I liked this lesson. I like her points about writing a series. Making sure episode one is just the pilot all over again. I never thought of it that way before, but it makes a lot of sense. I also like her points about not changing the plot. If you have already promised your audience one thing, you can't change it. You can only move beyond it once you have earned the audience's trust.

TyRah J.

This lesson has by far the best one for me personally. I had script idea but had no idea how I wanted to execute and all of sudden while watching this lesson it just clicked! Thanks Shonda! Off to my story bible I go!

Phil H.

Being true to the character was also what Stephen Cannell said caused Writer's Block. Trying to force a character to do something that goes against his or her truth. Pretty much... And if you suceed, in forcing them, you'll lose the audience. Excellent lesson all around.


I like the idea of putting everything in the first season as if you would never have the chance to get a 2nd, but I also like to keep a clear vision of what the next few seasons could be.