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.
Being a writer
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).
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).
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.
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
- 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).
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.
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
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).
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).