Chapter 22 of 30 from Shonda Rhimes

Beyond the Pilot: Writing a Series


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.

Topics include: Episode 2 and Beyond • Evolving Your Show • Planting and Paying Off

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.

Topics include: Episode 2 and Beyond • Evolving Your Show • Planting and Paying Off

Shonda Rhimes

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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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 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.

Watch, listen, and learn as Shonda teaches you how to write, pitch, and create a hit TV show.

A downloadable workbook accompanies the class with lesson recaps and supplemental materials.

Upload videos to get feedback from the class. Shonda will also respond to select student questions.


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

I think the hardest thing between shifting from a screenwriting model to a pilot model is that, in television, you want your stories and your characters to have a long future down a winding road. Rhonda really laid out how to format a script, not just for the pilot, but for every episode and I will refer back to that repeatedly with every pilot I write. Thank you!

I think I have a better understanding of how the world of television works and what is necessary to develop a show. Shonda's insights are invaluable and I am sure I will be referring to them again and again in the future.

Introduced to me invaluable tools and approaches - such as beat sheats, outlines, breaking a show into 5 acts, and developing authentic dialogue. Great work!

Amazing, brilliant, thank you so much, Shonda Rhimes! Brief and concise, very detailed, super informative!


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.

Alex I.

1st, leave everything in the current season as you may not get a next season 2nd, you can payoff what you've planted four seasons ago? I mean... what? I think that's so contradictory


The planting and the payoff made me scream out loud. It makes it all make sense. You can't build an expectation and not deliver. It's so very much a harvest in storytelling. You're going to reap from the crops you've planted.

Xavier L.

This was extremely important and it's one of the reasons why i love films, movies,t.v. shows and it's makes it great! it gives it a climax! it makes it the.....awww shit moments of the films!!

Steffanie B.

Planting and Payoff. Yes! I am so excited. All these little details are coming to me at once. I can't wait to go back to my novel and rearrange and find what is not needed. This is definitely the best way for me to kill my darlings. EIther take them out or utilize them for a pay off at different moments in my story. Thank you for cleaning up my book! You are amazing. I feel so lucky, I want to share you with the world!

Ryan L.

Jonathan Nolan is an especially interesting figure for this kind of thing. For both Person of Interest and Westworld, he's openly said that he considers the entire first season as just the prologue for the kind of show he really wanted to make, turned into something that would be easier to sell to a network and then slowly changed into what he wanted them to be. Regarding putting character first, I'm very much reminded of Lost, where after the first season the crew seemed to completely give up on making any of the characters recognizable human beings, and they were all just pods who did whatever the script needed, regardless of whether it made any sense with their previous characterization. Thus, what would usually be the insane move of adding four new major characters four seasons in was a relief, since they were all instantly more engaging and human than any of the people we'd been following so far.


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....