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Arts & Entertainment

Case Study: Scandal Pilot - Act Three

Shonda Rhimes

Lesson time 16:28 min

Shonda discusses act three of the Scandal pilot and how to balance various story lines in a single episode.

Shonda Rhimes
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The top of act three, Olivia is getting ready to go to Camp David. And she's in her office, and she's walking out. And Abby and Steven are asking her a million questions. And they're a little bit jealous. And it's clear that they weren't part of her White House life, and they're not part of whatever story she's talking about now. And you understand that she's keeping a secret. Whatever is happening and whatever she is doing is going to be secret from them as well. It's not part of OPA. And so she's heading out. You can get a little glimpse, once again, as we're putting two stories together, that Abby likes Steven from the look on her face, which was really important. We did most of the Abby likes Steven by the way Abby looked at Steven. There's not a lot of conversation about it. And Steven's talking about whether or not he should propose, whether or not he should get married. That's pretty much what's happening in that scene. And she goes to Camp David. Regarding the proposal with Steven-- you mentioned earlier that with "Scandal," you really didn't think about the backgrounds of the characters because you didn't feel like it was important. So what made you decide on that story for Steven about proposing to his girlfriend? What was really important about Steven proposing to his girlfriend-- there were two things. One, I was really interested in Olivia having a work husband and no one feeling like, oh, something romantic is going to happen with them. That was very important because, for some reason, if you put a man and a woman in a story together, everyone's like, they're going to fall in love. And I'm tired of that cliche. And I really wanted to see what happened when two people were really, truly friends. And I loved that friendship together. So that was one. But two, more importantly, I wanted to watch her make somebody else have a normal, happy life that she felt she was never going to have. The idea that she would pick out an engagement ring and encourage him and then go to the restaurant and say, you can do this, get down on one knee and propose, that whole thing, and then watch him propose and be happy when she knew that that would never happen with Fitz felt very important. It felt like a great juxtaposition of her dreams versus her reality. She could fix anybody else's life. She could make it happen for anybody else, but she couldn't make it happen for herself. So that was why. And I think it's important, when you're writing your pilot, to try to think of those things. How am I going to illustrate her hopes and dreams without it being-- you don't want to hear your character say, I wish that somebody would marry me. I wish I could get an engagement ring, and I wish they'd get down on one knee. You never want to hear that. When somebody is saying what they want, directly speaking everything they feel, it ...

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.


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Thank you for offering Shonda Rhimes' class to MasterClass. The class was honest, informative, and inspirational and complete. She covered all the questions I wished I could ask her in person. MasterClass has excellent instructors who share and teach their crafts. Thanks for sharing, Ms. Shonda Rhimes.

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Only Shonda could deliver tips on building seasons of hit shows, and make you feel like you could do it yourself. So infectious! Love You Shonda!!


Joya O.

I love Everything about this master class! I especially love the beginning portion for Shonda is explaining cultural literacy :-) the eb and flow of her teaching or...not even teaching, but giving us us an inside view of how she’s able to creatively navigate into the phenomenal scenes is enjoyable! It’s enjoyable beyond measure!

Chava G.

The Pope Saga, is urban epic, and the ensemble pristine talent, easy to comprehend, the writing so unique, it shook politicians, lawyers and athletes all over America. We haven't seen the episode in almost 9 years and can remember each section with a smile, that is how it should be written.

Marcus M.

It is interesting gathering such insight into a show you never watched. I am, of course, a little familiar with the characters and story, but watching this with no context beyond that is very insightful...


I wasn't so interested in this exact story but how to structure any story. It is a much more detailed instruction base than a straight screenplay where as the actor has the rule of character and the director gives the green-light (or not) to the portrayal. Is it detrimental to the story to write the course (what the entire scene is) then allow the players to act? Will I always get the story I want? Or not? Please elaborate on your thoughts.

Graeme R.

Shonda provided great explanations, but I thought her portrayal of Olivia in the scene in which she threatens Amanda Tanner destroyed her credibility and essentially ruined the series, regardless of the presence of the new assistant. Olivia comes off as almost criminal, and her behavior is certainly contrary to Shonda's insistence that her behavior must not be threatening.

Michael O.

In addition to the excellent class materials, these breakdowns of acts in the Pilot are illuminations for the aspiring screenwriter as well as viewers. However, Shonda's claim that she carefully wrote the Olivia/whore scene to keep the suit from threatening (illegally) the whore with the full weight of D.C.'s own thunder, just doesn't pass muster. Olivia most assuredly abuses the power invested in her by POTUS.

Ryan L.

I was actually very turned off by the initial ads for Scandal, which really made it seem like the show was expecting us to unconditionally root for Olivia, so it was a big relief to see that someone like Quinn was actually put in to react to her darker stuff just like we would.

Cherise A. W.

I love when Shonda breaks down the pilot and use the word investigated beat, the fundamental building block of a script is the beat. When I read a script I read down the text until I have a dramatic thought to complete the moment. Then, the next beat starts the next amazing moment. I enjoyed how Shonda explained each characters purpose in Scandal, all characters are constantly in action working to fulfill their needs and or purpose. Especially, when she talks about how Quinn is the audience. All of the characters in Scandel flow together beautifully. You're Amazing Thank you, Cherise A. Williams

V M.

I've been so into the Act break down that I've forgotten to post a comment. It's quite interesting. Thankfully, I just re-watched the pilot episode of Scandal. This is priceless information.

Lisa S.

This act-by-act breakdown is super helpful to my writing process. Thank you!