Film & TV

Case Study: Grey's Anatomy Pilot - Part 1

Shonda Rhimes

Lesson time 14:00 min

Shonda breaks down the Grey's Anatomy pilot act-by-act and shares why she made certain story decisions.

Shonda Rhimes
Teaches Writing for Television
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So, looking at the pilot of Grey's and thinking about the structure. Interestingly enough, it feels like it's a good example of how to lay something out. So if you think about there are five acts in a pilot, and every act is roughly 11 pages. Although, it could be a little bit longer. Or could be a little bit shorter. So, act one is really the introduction of the characters. The introduction of the world. I've said that you really want to start your pilot out with an exciting opening. And by exciting I don't mean everything has to blow up. I mean exciting in that you want an opening that makes someone lean in. And I often say this because I feel like people don't get this, a cliche is anything you've heard or seen before. So, don't do it. Any line of dialogue that you've ever heard anybody say before, is already a cliche. So don't write it down. It shouldn't be done. Any scene-- don't do, like, oh, I've seen this scene before, so it's a really cool idea. I'm going to just do something like that. Do something original. If you've seen it before, why would you do it again. Someone's already done it. Granted, there's almost nothing new under the sun. But there are different interpretations. And different ways of thinking of things that are new. Your goal isn't to copy somebody that you admire. Your goal is to be the thing that other people would admire themselves. If you think about act one, act one is really all about finding-- is setting up a world, introducing your characters, and then having your inciting incident. What's your pilot going to be about? What's your inciting incident? In Grey's it's Meredith finds out-- there's two things, actually. Meredith finds out that Derek Shepard, the guy she slept with at the very beginning of the pilot, is one of her bosses and one of her doctors at her hospital. And she's horrified because she's very interested in being professional, and being a surgeon is her biggest hope. The second thing that happens is, and it's a smaller one because it goes with our b-story, George O'Malley tells a patient that the patient is going to be fine. And he, basically, gets under Dr. Burke's skin. And Burke basically declares, you're going to be my guy. And you realize that George is in trouble. So those two things have happened. And once those two things had happened, the pilot is on its path. Everything is set up. One of the things I like to say to my writers when we're making scenes happen, is you have to think of the worst thing that can happen to your characters. Make it happen, and then go from there. And I don't necessarily mean always just the worst, but I mean the most extreme. What's your worst case scenario? If George is going to tell a patient the patient's going to be fine. Well, the worst case scenario is if the patient dies on the table. ...

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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.


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An experience that I'll never forget. I have a collection of master classes, Ive taken 5 so far and it has been a learning lesson with key point advice from top professionals. The best part is that the price is low and affordable. I Love Masterclass.

A great guide for learning how to write from a pro. A great class on helping you feel confident about trying to write and about the dos and don'ts in the business

Like my scripts and completing them I am a process and this class has helped so much. To have a class lead by someone I respect, like, and hope to emulate is priceless. Thank you Ms. Rhimes and MasterClass.

Thank you, Shonda. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to you and learning from you and will definitely refer back to this class time and time again when I need it. My immense gratitude to you for taking the time to share your world of creativity with us.


Millie J.

It's so cool to listen to Shonda explain her script *and* to see clips from the pilot! I've never seen Grey's Anatomy before, so it's really cool to listen *and to see!* Shonda's process. :D

Purity R.

Does the fact that I have an infinite amount of show ideas mean anything? Can it mean I might be on to something and can succeed , or does it just mean i have a lot of ideas? lol

Angela T.

There is a horrible thing going on in procedural right now. Everyone is doing the same storylines. For example, The A storyline is Domestic Violence. It’s that issue on Grey,s, The Resident, New Amsterdam, and Chicago Med. I hate this trend. Because it’s like watch one show.

Graeme R.

I watched the pilot again last night (after 14 years), and was just as excited. Going it through it with Shonda was incredibly helpful.


Shonda is right, of course, but many medical shows do the same situations. it is still the writing and a particular actor's interpretation of a role that makes the difference. Great example, New Amsterdam. I am really enjoying the show, but they haven't aired one episode that I haven't seen on another medical show. I was a big fan of ER. New Amsterdam has that same vibe.

Jaime H.

I am thoroughly enjoying your course. I already know I will need to watch and read repeatedly, and I look forward to it. I am hoping to adapt many of your lessons to a half hour comedic series I am writing/developing. It's amazing to be able to learn from you. You are very generous to share your knowledge and I for one very much appreciate it. All the best. And thank you.

Toni H.

Having started with these characters from the Pilot, my investment in them hasn't waned. Thank you, Shonda, for creating a story which gave me a ticket on their roller coaster ride into becoming human beings while becoming surgeons, and now, teaching me how to see my own story/pilot anew. I'm so appreciative that you're so approachable, Shonda, in giving back to so many writers. This is one of my favorite lessons. The reveals in Act II and Act III set up the characters' weaknesses and failures shadowing them going forward in the story.

Jonathan S.

I'm in a number of writers' groups. The members often want to know the reasons for things that are happening and what the characters are saying. But sometimes (most of the time) those reasons will come out later. It's a good idea to keep track of the things the readers or watchers will want to know so that you can deliver on those "promises" later. Otherwise your audience will feel gypped. You don't have to deliver everything, but you do have to deliver most everything.

Paisley B.

Appreciate the professional perspective on the current state of...character affairs, I guess. I leaned in when Shonda discussed the importance of allowing our characters to have some dark imperfection, and absolutely agree that we've creatively gone overboard trying to make everyone Walter White or every series as dark as Game of Thrones. (both brilliant, BTW, but brilliantly bloody and brilliantly dramatic) I think it's a sign of the times we're living in, which was something discussed earlier during this seminar. The audience either is or isn't ready for content we create, and right now dark, dramatic and messy is selling. I'm also still wrapping my mind around the last lesson re: dialogue. I've been complimented on my ability to write good, believable dialogue. (pat on the back) The discussion touched on leaving things unsaid and allowing subtext to communicate something important - what's happening, but not said out loud. I know this is so, so important so content will ring with authenticity and truth. What I'm most surprised about is the fear that comes with doing something seemingly fundamental. I've come at this "subtext" communication topic as an acting student and dedicated myself to understanding and making good on delivering what the author intended - helped by the director, of course. As a writer, I definitely see "letting go" and trusting it's on the page as something I'll need to work on. The pitfall of explaining too much or over explaining in dialogue seems to come directly back to trusting myself as a writer, as well as trusting the process - the director, show runner, EP's, creative departments, and chosen talent will do the material justice if it's on the page. (I should write this last bit 1,000 times on a chalk board to make sure it sticks with me.)

Shelly H.

I agree with Debi. This was one of my favorite lessons so far. It planted so many seeds in my head for my own pilot/characters, that I had to pause the lesson several times and download my ideas. Very helpful stuff.