Film & TV

Researching Your Story

Shonda Rhimes

Lesson time 16:14 min

Effective research can make your story come to life. Using case studies from Scandal and Grey's Anatomy, Shonda discusses her techniques and method for conducting research for her stories.

Shonda Rhimes
Teaches Writing for Television
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I am a firm believer in research when you're doing your pilot to tell an authentic story. And it depends. I mean, there are stories where doing a ton of research is really necessary, and there are stories where doing a very small amount of research is all that you need. But, it just depends on what kind of story you're telling. You have to really be clear on what kind of story you're telling, and be OK with your level of authenticity. I'm a big fan of the good, old-fashioned library, which, many people are not, but I absolutely love it. Books will tell you everything you need to know about what a profession is like. One of the things I want to say about doing research, that I think is very important, read all the books. Read every book. Find books. Read them. Do not steal people's work. It's an unwitting thing that can sometimes happen. You don't really even realize that you're doing it, but really be careful that when you're reading books and doing your research, that you didn't find one book and take that one book, and use it as all of your source material for something. You really want to understand that you are looking for how a job is done, and not how someone did their job. It's a fine line, but I think it's important, because unless you're going to buy their rights-- the way we did with Judy Smith-- you really want to make sure that you're being respectful of the fact that somebody else has an experience that is their own. The same way you wouldn't want somebody to suddenly take your story and make a show out of it, and then tell you, "Too bad, I kind of just was inspired", you want to make sure that you're being respectful of everybody else's stories, as well. [MUSIC PLAYING] I think researching a project is really specific to what the project is. Researching medicine-- surgery-- is very different than researching, say, what Judy Smith does-- you know, the inspiration for Scandal. Being a lawyer is very different than being a shrink, like the doctors were on Private Practice. So, sometimes, it's just about talking to somebody who does the job, or who's lived the life, which is really interesting. On Gray's, I did everything from talk to actual surgical residents. I talked to actual surgeons who performed certain surgeries. I talked to patients about what their lives were like. There are resources you can call up. There is a media place for people who are doing health stuff. You can call up the Television Academy, and ask a couple of questions, and see where they'll send you to. There are places that you can call, and, frankly-- honestly-- sometimes, if you just picked up the phone and, for instance, called the doctor's office and asked a bunch of questions, they'd probably be happy to help. It's very interesting how many people are happy to help you when you say, "I'm writing a television pilot"-- oddly enough-- just to give you...

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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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absolutely fantastic. I loved listening and in a strange way felt invited to believe in my creativity . I understood there is no right or wrong way but just a way. truly thank you

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I came in this class not knowing everything and now I'm leaving this class knowing more than ever. This was an experience for me.


Portia R.

I can relate with this episode so much! When interviewing some chosen characters for a movie we are making, they expected me to have questions, and I said I didn't have questions and wanted them to just tell me whatever they felt they needed to share about their individual stories (i.e. their own lives) and as I was listening I realized that I couldn't have asked "question that would have brought all these amazing facts out of the person. Once the person had felt that they had said most of it, I asked questions. And those questions were inspired by what he/she had actually told me. And that person was immediately helping writing the story for me... It cannot get more authentic than that...

Marcus M.

Listening is key. In every industry! I'm not even in to filmmaking or TV making, but this is so important!

Heather S.

Good- but I am way past this stage... researched for 3 years, and written novel, I am looking forward to the pitch!

Leisa J.

Awesome! What can I say Shonda’s effortless session is better than a whole of trouble I could be getting into. A premise seems to be the bulk of the story such as: The Who, what, when, where, and why; also the characters conflict.


I tend to disagree on the "'medical, medical' fill it in later" premise. If I write a series about a group of student nurses, naturally I want to explore their needs and desires, but I like the idea of being able to fill in the medical jargon myself. Perhaps because I did study nursing, I have as much passion for the subject matter as the characters themselves.


I have a tendency to research to the point where I use it as an excuse not to work on my story at times. Yet good research is necessary. For highly technical subject matter, research material can guide important parts of a story.

Eileen M.

Where is the sample of GREY's Bible outline mentioned in workbook? dont see that link anywhere.

Stephen P.

Does anyone have any feelings on if a whole first season should be written before you go into production for pilot? It maybe different because I’m a p.g.a. and Director so if I do something indie I can do it, but with that in mind any ideas on if I should write the first season completely or just the beat sheets after episode 2?

CeeJai J.

"Nothing has to be perfect; just write." That statement helps me push my perfectionism to the curb. And allowed me to BOL (breathe out loud)

Wenna P.

Her voice doesn't jive with me, its very nasal and monotone and I have a hard time taking in her lessons. Very unfortunate.