Film & TV

Case Study: Grey's Anatomy Pilot - Part 2

Shonda Rhimes

Lesson time 14:29 min

Shonda continues to break down the Grey's Anatomy pilot act-by-act.

Shonda Rhimes
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These twists-- the mom reveal, Derek picking Meredith to work with them, George's patient dies-- do you put a mandatory amount of twists into it, or do you think ahead of the twists, or do you just try to let them come naturally when you're writing a pilot, or even writing any episode of the show? I think the reason why I think about act breaks is because it allows you to think something big needs to happen at the end of every act. It allows you to not get stale. It allows you to think I have to be building towards some piece of story turn every act break. That way you're not staying steady, stable, nothing's really going on. And I've seen a lot of people try to make something exciting happen at the end of an act just for excitement's sake, and you can't do that. It has to actually have been placed, planted, and build from there. You need to plant something and then pay it off. You can't just have, ooh, suddenly the hospital explodes for no reason. You really need to plant things so that when these things happen we are watching character growth. And if it's built in character, you can get away with almost anything. Trust me, we have, at the hospital. But if you really build it in character, if you make it about character, you'll buy a lot of goodwill, and people will buy anything. Going back to the characters' back stories, because we see Meredith's secret at the end, that her home life is-- her mom has Alzheimer's and she visits her in the nursing home, do you have an idea for the other characters about what their home life is when you write the pilot? So for Grey's, I really did. For Grey's, I did a lot of work. It was my first time out doing this kind of thing, and I really wanted to know as much as I could. And so for Grey's, I knew who George was. I knew that he came from this big family. I knew that he was from Seattle. Cristina, I knew that she was from Beverly Hills, and I knew that her mother had married this guy and she had a sister. I knew that Izzie was from a trailer park. I knew everything about these people, and I'd worked really hard at it. I remember when Burke finally says, "My mother owns a restaurant in Alabama." It's a big line for us on the show, because I had been walking around saying that for, like, a year and a half. And people were like, "Why do you keep saying that?" And I was like, I don't know. It's just very important. Burke's mother owns a restaurant in Alabama. It's stuff like that. Those details were very important for me, and they were very internalized. I noticed when I was reading through the pilot of Grey's Anatomy that there were several omitted scenes. And I was just curious, which scenes do you find get cut the most? Is it that kind of back story, things that feel needless once you start to go into breaking the actual story? And it might be different from Grey's Anatomy from other...

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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.


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

I have been told I write like you. It's a good thing I am compared to an icon. I enjoyed the lesson and will keep going back to learn more. Thanks :)

Shonda's lessons have taken my writing up many, many levels. I am confident about my ideas and am excited to understand television structure. Incredible class - thank you!

Inspired by Shona's glee and generosity about writing!

I was able to glean some perspective on how other writers work and their mindset. Shonda is a dynamic, positive instructor.


Kimberly M.

I loved it. The introduction, act breaks information is helpful. Also, the build up, planting things to happen, not just making things happen.


It was wonderful. I liked her framing of not copying something that has been done. Create your own dilemma or secrets about your character.

Magdaline F.

Character growth and story turns with act breaks. GREAT lesson!!!!! Got it. Thanks Shonda.


Good questions by the on-screen participants. They ask questions in a way that the listener gets the point of the discussion without having to go back and review the show, although reviewing episodes and putting them in the context of the conversation is interesting as well.


Great session. Looking forward to catching up on some episodes for context.

Mark C.

This really is amazing stuff. I have a few ideas on various topics and while this may not be on direct point, there are so many things that you can pull out of this that is just great.


I’m so much more confident that I have this road map of breaking down acts. I’m not flopping around in the sand now. I’m standing on solid ground with tools I can use to create and build a pilot with practical knowledge as my guide. That’s big and freeing for me.

Tabitha F.

How brilliant how Shonda went from war journalists to science and the medical world. I have drawn inspiration and realized how having a show based off of airports and life that goes on around that atmosphere. Seems like a lot of story lines could be created.


So amazing how much thought goes into this and how enlightening it is to hear her talk about it!

Kathryn M.

Shonda, THANK YOU so much for your beautifully articulate, lucid and concise presentations, and for sharing so much of your rich material and creative process. I loved when you said you draw your inspiration from all the smart, strong women you know -- because (of course) you don't know any dumb weak ones. Touche! I'm devouring these lessons and shows and especially appreciate your emphasis on compassion for each character, your nuance, sensitivity, kindness, and authenticity. Absolutely, setting is crucial , and so much fun to explore; another character. I love that you're a busy mom, too, and are so generously sharing your knowledge, after so many successes. Your class is a revelation of genius and big-heartedness in an often venial business. I've finished two features -- one soon to be a TV movie -- and a TV pilot. Two of the projects are set in my hometown, San Francisco -- a dream setting -- love that fog! -- though I avoid the obvious locations. Now to write the pilot's Story Bible! And to begin a new project, my first comedy. Never a dull moment in the Writer's Room.... and with your class, I have a true compass. So grateful!