Film & TV

Case Study: Scandal Pilot - Act One

Shonda Rhimes

Lesson time 14:43 min

Shonda breaks down the first act of the Scandal pilot, revealing why she structured the opening scene the way she did.

Shonda Rhimes
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So we're talking about the script of "Scandal"-- the pilot script of "Scandal." And one of the things I think is helpful for anybody who's thinking about writing a pilot script is to take a pilot that you know well-- for me it was the "West Wing" script-- and break it down, and figure out what the beats of it were. And just examine it and you dissect it, so then you can understand how it was made in a lot of ways, how it was put together. And it's something that-- it's sort of reverse, unwriting a script, in a weird way. And it helps you when you're trying to figure out how to write your own script, because then you can see why things happened the way they did and how something was built. It's almost like taking a house apart piece by piece to see how they put it together. And so, I thought we would do that with the "Scandal" pilot, because I thought that would make for a nice example of how things are done. Because I know how it was done. So looking at it, interestingly enough, if you look at the-- we have a board here. And I think using a board is always the best way to do this, because it's a nice, big visual, and it helps you. So we divide it into five sections. And each section represents an act of the script-- five acts. And you write each one of your beats going down. Who's going to write on the board? I'll do it. Perfect. Let's do it. We only really have-- this story really only has-- it has three storylines, I suppose. So we'll give each of the storylines a color. Does anybody know what the three storylines are? Really, do you--when you look at it-- what do you think the three storylines really are, the threads of the stories are? Well, I think there's the storyline with Amanda-- finding out about Amanda, which then leads into the storyline and the reveal of Olivia's relationship with the president. Mhm. That's one. That's one. And then I would say the other one is probably the Sully, the Captain Sully storyline, which is Olivia and her team investigating-- or rather trying to handle his issue, as far as what happened with his crime that was committed. Yes. And I feel like more of a C story would be Stephen proposing to Georgia. Yeah, I really always say the C story is life at the shop-- in a weird way-- which is Quinn's entry into the world, how Quinn feels about the world, the Stephen stuff, the fact that Abby has feelings for him, those small beats. So those are exactly right. So let's give each one a color. You can choose whichever color makes you happy. Oh, perfect. Interestingly, enough act one only has three scenes in it, really. If you look at-- if you think about the scene that takes place inside Olivia Pope & Associates-- which we call OPA-- it's just one big flowing scene. The camera never stops moving. OK, so looking at this, you have the opening scene-- which I feel like, oddly enough, while...

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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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Learned better writing habits. Learned how to get into a creative space. Learned about writing story around characters and their development. I'm so inspired by Shonda and her journey.

Amazing class. Shonda is truly an inspiration.

It gave me confidence to start my own script instead of sitting on my old and unused ideas!

Fantastic info! Shonda was amazing and hope to listen to it again. Incredibly useful information to help me stay on track to become a writer in TV!


Catherine H.

I can't seem to download these PDFs. It says Access Denied Request has expired.

Heather S.

Lordy, I have written all my tv series and pilots in a 4-act- structure, plus a teaser! Is this going to trip me up in selling, and should I restructure them into a 5- Act structure?


When i download the case study i keep getting the material from the last lesson instead.

Graeme R.

Unlike Grey's Anatomy, my first reaction to this act was disbelief. I recoiled from the packaged American slickness, self-importance, and reality distortion. I was ready to dislike this show intensely. I am probably not in the target audience, as an old male, and though I live in the United States I am Australian. Did anyone else respond in this way?


It was interesting to see Ms. Rhimes present her "beat" process in such detail. Final Draft has a great beat sheet for film scripts that doesn't really work well for television scripts.

ernest C.

the framing of the scenic descriptions for each act is v. helpful. i need to show this element to my brain. my eyes see it but my brain is going to be SURPRISED STRATEGICALLY!

Hector V.

Speaking of 'Easter Eggs', it's only mentioned in one line that Olivia Pope once workd in the White House. That allowed the pilot to go in that direction in the future once the audience has accepted what it is Olivia and her firm does.

Hector V.

Wow! Ms. Rhimes said there should be a baby in every pilot. Subconsciously, I wrote a woman with a baby into the introductory scene! It's the first 'Easter Egg' in my show.

TyRah J.

This lesson is exactly what I needed. The character introductions are intriguing and that's what I'm going for. I want, need, got to have an glued eye to Act One of my pilot. Shonda is so amazing, I swear

Ryan L.

What really struck me about the first act of the pilot is that there isn't a single second of dead air. You're constantly barraged by dialogue, almost to a Robert Altman level, which is a huge risk if it's not good dialogue, though luckily Shonda's a good enough writer that it actually works here.