Production

Pre-Production: TV Writer/Producer Shonda Rhimes

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Shonda Rhimes is an American showrunner – an executive producer, head writer, and creator of television shows (Mittel, 2015:90). She has typically made shows for the ABC network, working as the showrunner on Grey’s Anatomy (2005- ), Private Practice (2007-2013), and Scandal (2012-2018). However, she recently moved her production company to Netflix (Koblin, 2018).
Originally Rhimes had aimed to be a novelist, until deciding to attend film school, where she learnt about and found her love for telling serialised stories (Rhimes, 2015:80). Rhimes then went on to become a freelance screenwriter, writing films such as Crossroads (2002) and The Princess Diaries 2 (2004), before creating Grey’s Anatomy in 2005, which has surpassed 300 episodes over more than 15 seasons, and is still airing – from this Rhimes created her own production company, Shondaland (Mangan, 2019).
Since Rhimes believes that there is a need for people to gather together and exchange their stories and to talk about the things that feel universal,…that tell each one of us that we are not alone in the world” (The future of storytelling | Shonda Rhimes and Cyndi Stivers, 2017), the main aim of Shondaland is to produce content which tells a wide range of different stories from various viewpoints so everyone has a chance to see their own story (Rhimes, s.d). This makes diversity a trademark of her work – yet, Rhimes prefers to use the word “normalizing”, since she aims for her shows to reflect the real world (Bacle, 2015).
In 2016, Rhimes was serving as producer on four shows, all of which aired Thursday nights on ABC (My year of saying yes to everything | Shonda Rhimes, 2016). These shows attracted a new audience to, and created a new brand of shows for ABC since they focused on “smart, strong women” – something which is important to Rhimes (Koblin, 2018). Therefore, Rhimes approaches storytelling by thinking of “what characters would do and what characters need to do in order to make them move forward (The future of storytelling | Shonda Rhimes and Cyndi Stivers, 2017).
Yet, due to her shows typically being set in workplaces (a hospital in Grey’s Anatomy and the offices of a crisis manager in Scandal), Rhimes’ stories focus on women who work, effectively balancing their personal lives and their work (Bernstein, 2018). This is why I decided to research Rhimes for this unit, as this was something I was struggling with in my own writing. I have also been watching the videos from Rhimes’ class about writing for television on the online platform MasterClass throughout this unit to get tips on pitching, dialogue, building characters and developing effective writing habits.

Writing

Being a writer

To Rhimes anyone who writes regularly is a writer (Simon, 2017). However, to get into the habit of writing regularly Rhimes recommends writing to a schedule, encouraging yourself to adhere to it through rewards (MasterClass, 2019b). She believes regular writing is important since this can lead to a completed screenplay which can then help a writer to be hired in the industry, as this can be entered into writing contests – however, Rhimes has also said that becoming a production assistant can help on the way to becoming a writer, as it can lead to connections in the industry (Elber, 2017).
Whilst searching for something to write about, Rhimes suggests “eavesdropping on conversations, reading obituaries, and recording surroundings in a notebook”, since she has found that these can inspire story ideas (MasterClass, 2019b).
For example, when Rhimes couldn’t find an idea for a new show which she could write for Netflix, she read a magazine article about a young woman who tricked rich New Yorkers into funding her, and immediately could tell how she would adapt it into a TV show, thus encouraging her to buy the rights for the article from the magazine so she could begin writing (Koblin, 2018).
Yet, the best way to learn how to write is to read other scripts and break down other shows (or films) to see how their writers use structure, dialogue, and develop characters, something Rhimes did with the Aaron Sorkin show The West Wing (How to Write a TV Pilot with Shonda Rhimes | Discover MasterClass | MasterClass, 2019). Rhimes chose The West Wing because she liked the show, but she also recommends that writers break down shows they didn’t like to see what didn’t work within them (How to Write a TV Pilot with Shonda Rhimes | Discover MasterClass | MasterClass, 2019).
Overall, the aim of this is not to learn to imitate other writers, but to help with figuring out how to effectively use the fundamental elements of screenwriting or if any screenwriters use these in a way which could be considered unconventional, to understand what makes a show or film entertaining – this be can be seen from how Rhimes learnt from The West Wing that characters can come across as intelligent through dialogue, even if this makes them more intelligent than the show’s audience, since Rhimes thought this can help make dialogue original and thus more interesting (How to Write a TV Pilot with Shonda Rhimes | Discover MasterClass | MasterClass, 2019).

Character attributes

From this, it can be seen that dialogue can be used to show character (Ballon, 2005:106) – as, to Rhimes, dialogue in The West Wing showed the characters’ intelligence. Rhimes also uses dialogue in this way, as evident through Cristina Yang, a cardiac surgeon in Grey’s Anatomy.
Examples of Cristina’s dialogue show her personality, such as, “Pretty good is not enough, I wanna be great. Greatness, Meredith”; “Shepherd says I’m selfish and competitive. What the hell is wrong with that?”; and “I am married to cardio” – making evident that she is ambitious, stubborn, and slightly egotistical as she sees herself as more intelligent than others.
However, this was intended, because, to Rhimes, “most of the women I saw on TV didn’t seem like people I actually knew…They never got to be nasty or competitive” (Mangan, 2019).
Due to this, Rhimes often writes women who know what they want, and are determined to reach it (Karbo, 2018), being both intelligent, proactive, and at the same time complex (Simon, 2017).
This complexity comes from how these characters, although determined, can also be vulnerable – as J.J. Abrams has said of her work, this comes from the fact that Rhimes’ “characters are involved in situations which are shocking and stressful”, such as risky surgeries in Grey’s Anatomy and political hostage situations in Scandal, yet, to Abrams this complexity is what makes her characters relatable (Koblin, 2018), further backing up Rhimes’ intention to make her characters reflect real women she knows (Mangan, 2019).
Yet, Rhimes has also said that it is important to show the characters’ personalities, especially the main character’s, within the first ten pages of a screenplay to introduce them to the audience (Shonda Rhimes Teaches Writing for Television | Official Trailer | MasterClass, 2017).
This is evident in Olivia Pope’s introduction in Scandal, despite the fact that Olivia doesn’t appear in the opening scene. Yet during this first scene, other characters talk about her, helping to reveal who she is through her reputation, since when one of them states he works for Olivia, the other is shocked and also star struck (see fig. 1) – revealing that Olivia is well known and even somewhat idolised by others, implying she is good at her job.

Fig. 1 The first time Olivia Pope is mentioned in Scandal (2012)
The next scene furthers, and confirms this, by showing Olivia at work with Stephen, one of the employees from her crisis management firm, as they are on the way to negotiate with Ukrainian mobsters. Stephen is worried they are short millions of dollars for the hostage fee they have agreed upon, but Olivia tells him “don’t worry, they’ll take what we give them – did you at least buy the engagement ring?”. This sets Olivia up as headstrong – just like Cristina in Grey’s Anatomy, followed through when Olivia successfully negotiates with the mobsters because she has a plan.
However, the use of dialogue in this way also shows how Rhimes balances her characters’ personal and professional lives.

Workplace drama

This balance between the professional and personal lives of the characters is necessary in Rhimes’ shows, since they are typically set in workplaces, and centre on women who love their jobs – shown through Meredith in the pilot of Grey’s Anatomy when after her first surgery she states, “That was amazing. You practice…And you think you know what you are going to feel like standing over that table, but that was such a high. I don’t know why anybody does drugs!” (Bernstein, 2018).
Despite this focus, it is necessary for the characters to not only discuss work, but also their personal lives – with these intertwining as in the Scandal example above where Olivia is concerned about Stephen proposing to his girlfriend – since for the audience to relate to the story, it needs to be based on primal human instinct (Snyder, 2005:158). This is because not everyone can relate to being a surgeon, but everyone can relate to basic human struggles, such as relationship problems, or survival (Snyder, 2005:159). They are universal – furthering Rhimes’ belief that stories are needed to allow people to share things which feel universal, thus showing people they are not alone (The future of storytelling | Shonda Rhimes and Cyndi Stivers, 2017), the belief her production company is built on (Rhimes, s.d).
Rhimes does this with Olivia in Scandal by characterising her as a woman who loves her job, but has numerous relationship and emotional problems – it has been argued that other main characters have been based on this, such as Tony Soprano and Don Draper (Zoller Seitz, 2018). Yet, Rhimes believes that “a cliche is anything you’ve heard or seen before” and that writers should work to be original – even if the idea is not entirely new, it can still be interpreted in an original way (Shonda Rhimes: Seen It? Heard it? Don’t Do It | Masterclass Moments | MasterClass, 2018).
However, Rhimes often writes parts of herself into her shows’ characters, not intentionally, but because she relates to her characters’ love of work – having stated about Grey’s Anatomy that the love of work shown by the characters reflects the women, including herself, who work on the show (Rhimes, 2017).
For this reason, Rhimes’ characters can be seen as original due to this relation as they are influenced by her own real personal and professional life, and by that of those around her. This is how Rhimes makes her characters so relatable – their struggles are based in basic human instinct, but influenced by reality, such as observations or articles she takes inspiration from (as in the case of the example of her Netflix series above), or even drawn from her real life.

Producing

Casting

Rhimes also drew how she cast her characters from real life, aiming to “normalize” TV by allowing it to reflect the diversity of the real world (Bacle, 2015).
When casting for the Grey’s Anatomy pilot, Rhimes auditioned a wide range of actors for each character, not being restricted by what they looked like, instead focusing on how they performed as the characters – for example, despite thinking of Dr. Bailey while writing as a “tiny, adorable blond person with lots of ringlets”, Rhimes cast Chandra Wilson because of what she brought to the character, despite not matching what Rhimes originally envisioned (Fogel, 2005).

Rhimes also ensures this normalization applies when casting extras (Fogel, 2005), making the hospital in Grey’s Anatomy more realistic since medicine is a profession that attracts all races, colors, genders, and sexual preferences” (Karbo, 2018).
With this, Rhimes’ aim is that “everyone should get to turn on the TV and see someone who looks like them and loves like them”, as well as see people who are not similar to them, so they can learn from, and begin to identify with them (Rhimes, 2015). This is important, since Rhimes wants everyone to have someone to relate to in her shows, so that they feel as if they are not alone (Bacle, 2015). This reflects her belief that this is what stories are needed for, so that everyone can share the universal elements of the human experience – shown by how her characters struggles are drawn from basic human instinct, such as survival – and thus feel less alone (The future of storytelling | Shonda Rhimes and Cyndi Stivers, 2017).

Pitching & communication

As the showrunner, Rhimes needs to convey these intentions to her colleagues – such as other writers in the writers’ room, or the casting director(s) – so that they are evident across all the elements of her shows. For this reason, Rhimes believes that, as the leader, honest communication is a valuable skill for showrunners, since “all people want is information” – thus, it is better to give an honest answer, such as when you don’t know something, or make a choice but confess you can’t justify it, than be silent, since not saying anything can give the impression that the leader is unsure of what they should be doing, possibly leading to uncertainty, which can be unproductive, among colleagues (MasterClass, 2019a).
Good communication is also needed when pitching, which can be achieved by practicing the pitch several times. Rhimes’ method for this is to take the pitch, and make it a speech for practice, turning on loud music and trying to perform the speech twice as fast as you would when pitching it – this is to “put yourself under the highest stress situation in practice so that you can prepare to do it in a less stressful situation”, allowing practice at delivering the pitch calmly even when under stress (Shonda Rhimes: Extremely Fast and Incredibly Loud | Masterclass Moments | MasterClass, 2018).
For a pitch to be effective, Rhimes advises that it should be visual, follow a clear structure, and describe the film/show’s premise and characters in a straightforward and quick way (Masterclass, 2019c).
According to Rhimes, for a pitch to have a clear structure, it should follow this order, and include:

  • The premise of the film/show
  • The world the story is set in (expansion of the premise)
  • Explanations of who the characters are
  • What will happen over the course of the story
  • What the tone will be
  • (Masterclass, 2019c).
Overall, it can be seen that in her writing Shonda Rhimes’ uses dialogue to show her characters’ attributes, with her shows focusing on characters who do what they need to in order to move forward and thus drive the story, and who love their jobs, typically women. Due to this, Rhimes also uses dialogue and story to balance the characters’ personal and professional lives, allowing her to base her characters’ struggles in basic human instinct – such as survival and protection of family – since not everyone can relate to being a surgeon, but every viewer can relate to struggles such as survival.
By doing this, Rhimes makes her characters relatable, furthered by how she also bases her characters, and her stories on real life – her own or that which she is inspired by through articles, conversations she overhears etc. Rhimes’ producing furthers these intentions through her casting process, as she aims for her shows to reflect real life by looking like the world does.

How Rhimes’ uses character, dialogue and story in this way can be seen in Grey’s Anatomy when the main character, Meredith finally allows the other surgeons to become her housemates and move in with her at the end of the episode. Meredith deciding this comes from the cases she has dealt with in the hospital during the episode, all of which deal with the theme of boundaries. The main case Meredith deals with is a baby which seems to have a birth defect, which many of the other doctors think will go away with age. Unconvinced, Meredith crosses these doctors – she does what she has to in order to move the story forward – and takes this to a senior doctor, proving she was right to be unconvinced as this senior doctor decides to act to save the baby. This shows Meredith is headstrong – as are many of Rhimes’ other characters – because she loves, and is thus good at, her job.
Using the cases to help Meredith make a decision in her personal life allows Rhimes to intertwine her personal and professional lives. Yet, the cases and Meredith’s decision are both based in survival – Meredith doesn’t want her housemates to get in her way because she has so much work, and crosses the other doctors because she wants the baby to survive.
Therefore, Rhimes’ writing and producing highlight her belief that stories fulfil the need for people to talk about things that feel universal, which is why they need to be shared.

Influence

Writing

Rhimes mainly inspired my writing through how her characters are determined and love their work. At first, I was struggling with Vera’s motivation, other than being exhausted, for not thinking Roni is real because I felt that even if Vera was exhausted she would love science so much she would want it to be and travel with Roni to other universes because her curiosity would get the better of her.
However, seeing how Rhimes’ characters love their work made me concentrate on how Vera loves her work, which helped me see that her main motivation for believing Roni is a hallucination is her overworking, not only due to the exhaustion from this, but because she wants to do the work she loves and gain her own success, knowing that she has earned it.
I found that this helped me to create more conflict within the story as it gives Vera a stronger reason to not want to travel with Roni to other universes, even though this is all Roni is trying to persuade her to do throughout the film.

Producing

Rhimes influenced my own pitch, since I tried her method to practice, as well as roughly followed the structure she suggests. I found that practicing my pitch in this way made pitching in front of an audience on the day less daunting and also helped me memorise the pitch more effectively. Following this structure allowed my pitch to flow better, since each idea followed on from and built on the previous one, such as setting up who the characters were, and then explaining the story, since knowing the characters’ personalities helped me convey why they would move the story forward in the way I was explaining.

List of Illustrations

Figure 1. The first time Olivia Pope is mentioned in Scandal (2012) [Television still, DVD] In: Scandal: Season 1. New York: ABC Studios.

References

Bacle, A. (2015) ‘Shonda Rhimes: I’m normalizing, not diversifying, TV.’ In: Entertainment Weekly 16/3/15. At: https://ew.com/article/2015/03/16/shonda-rhimes-hrc-gala-speech/ (Accessed on 21 December 2019).

Ballon, R. (2005) Blueprint for Screenwriting: A Complete Writer’s Guide to Story Structure and Character Development. Oxfordshire: Routledge.

Bernstein, A. (2018) ‘Women who work: how Shonda Rhimes’ TV shows excel in the workplace.’ In: The Guardian 14/3/18. At: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2018/mar/14/women-who-work-how-shonda-rhimes-tv-shows-excel-in-the-workplace (Accessed on 21 December 2019).

Elber, L. (2017) ‘Shonda Rhimes tells all about how to be a screenwriter.’ In: Business Insider 21/4/17. At: https://www.businessinsider.com/ap-shonda-rhimes-tells-all-about-how-to-be-a-screenwriter-2017-4?r=US&IR=T (Accessed on 21 December 2019).

Fogel, M. (2008) ”Grey’s Anatomy’ Goes Colorblind.’ In: The New York Times 8/5/05. At: https://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/08/arts/television/greys-anatomy-goes-colorblind.html (Accessed on 21 December 2019).

How to Write a TV Pilot with Shonda Rhimes | Discover MasterClass | Masterclass (2019) [online video] At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z6vvoXzjVQY&list=PLc9QYgv46S0PqaESmTLhM9Cji18I9PpR1&index=41&t (Accessed on 21 December 2019).

Karbo, K. (2018) ‘The unstoppable force that is Shonda Rhimes.’ In: National Geographic 29/11/18. At: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/2018/11/shonda-rhimes-producer-greys-anatomy-scandal-praise-difficult-women/ (Accessed on 21 December 2019).

Koblin, J. (2018) ‘Shonda Rhimes Describes Her Grand Netflix Ambitions.’ In: The New York Times 20/7/18. At: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/20/business/media/shonda-rhimes-netflix-series.html (Accessed on 21 December 2019).

Mangan, L. (2019) ‘Screen queens: the funny, fearless women who revolutionised TV.’ In: The Guardian 3/3/19. At: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2019/mar/03/screen-queens-funny-fearless-women-who-revolutionised-tv (Accessed on 21 December 2019).

Masterclass (2019a) What Is a Showrunner: Shonda Rhimes‘s Advice for Showrunners. At: https://www.masterclass.com/articles/what-is-a-showrunner-shonda-rhimess-advice-for-showrunners#how-is-a-showrunner-different-from-a-creator-a-director-and-an-executive-producer (Accessed on 21 December 2019).

Masterclass (2019b) How to Become a Screenwriter: 10 Tips for Screenwriting and the 6 Habits of Successful Screenwriters With Spike Lee, Shonda Rhimes, and Judd Apatow. At: https://www.masterclass.com/articles/how-to-become-a-screenwriter-10-tips-for-screenwriting-and-the-6-habits-of-successful-screenwriters-with-spike-lee-shonda-rhimes-and-judd-apatow#what-is-screenwriting  (Accessed on 21 December 2019).

Masterclass (2019c) How to Pitch a Television Show: Tips from Judd Apatow and Shonda Rhimes. At: https://www.masterclass.com/articles/how-to-pitch-a-television-show#what-is-a-television-show-pitch (Accessed on 21 December 2019).

Mittel, J. (2015) Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling. London: New York University Press.

My year of saying yes to everything | Shonda Rhimes (2016) [online video] At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gmj-azFbpkA (Accessed on 21 December 2019).

Rhimes, S. (2017) ‘Three Hundred Episodes Later…’ In: Shondaland 9/11/17. At: https://www.shondaland.com/inspire/by-shonda/a13455587/greys-anatomy-three-hundred-episodes-shonda-rhimes/ (Accessed on 21 December 2019).

Rhimes, S. (2015) ‘”You Are Not Alone.” In: Medium 16/3/15. At: https://medium.com/thelist/you-are-not-alone-69c1a10515ab?  (Accessed on 21 December 2019).

Rhimes, S. (s.d) What We Do. At: https://www.shondaland.com/about/a12258145/who-we-are/ (Accessed on 21 December 2019).

Shonda Rhimes: Extremely Fast and Incredibly Loud | Masterclass Moments | MasterClass (2018) [online video] At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CiC8scS_o-E&list=PLc9QYgv46S0PqaESmTLhM9Cji18I9PpR1&index=40&t= (Accessed on 21 December 2019).

Shonda Rhimes: Seen It? Heard it? Don’t Do It | Masterclass Moments | MasterClass (2018) [online video] At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sM3ol7joKSo&list=PLc9QYgv46S0PqaESmTLhM9Cji18I9PpR1&index=42 (Accessed on 21 December 2019).

Shonda Rhimes Teaches Writing for Television | Official Trailer | MasterClass (2017) [online video] At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lGMC6WjhldM&list=PLc9QYgv46S0PqaESmTLhM9Cji18I9PpR1&index=43 (Accessed on 21 December 2019).

Simon, R. (2017) ‘The Piece Of Advice Shonda Rhimes Wants All Writers To Know.’ In: Bustle 13/4/17. At: https://www.bustle.com/p/the-piece-of-advice-shonda-rhimes-wants-all-writers-to-know-50210 (Accessed on 21 December 2019).

Snyder, B. (2005) Save The Cat! California: Michael Wiese Productions.

The future of storytelling | Shonda Rhimes and Cyndi Stivers (2017) [online video] At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DJGreSgaOTc&list=PLc9QYgv46S0PqaESmTLhM9Cji18I9PpR1&index=41 (Accessed on 21 December 2019).

Zoller Seitz, M. (2018) ‘Scandal Was a Show That Broke Ground With Ease.’ In: Vulture 18/4/18. At: https://www.vulture.com/2018/04/scandal-the-legacy-of-the-shonda-rhimes-series.html (Accessed on 21 December 2019).

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