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19 Things We Learned Watching Shonda Rhimes’ TV Writing Masterclass

Shonda Rhimes — showrunner, executive producer, and writer behind the Shondaland family of ABC dramas — set up a 30-video online seminar with Masterclass to teach the art and business of television writing. The videos almost all feature Rhimes talking directly to the camera in a comfortable cardigan, which makes the class feel a little like hanging out in her living room. We don’t want to be TV writers, but we watched the 30 videos (which are about 10-15 minutes apiece) to hear what Rhimes had to say. The class uses scripts and other materials from Rhimes’ two most famous shows, “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal,” to teach aspiring writers about the nuts and bolts of the television writing process. What we learned, along the way, is that Rhimes has more willpower and ambition than everyone else we know, combined. Here’s some trivia about the shows and her process from her Masterclass.

1. Rhimes is so convinced of her own talents that she knows, if she decided to, she could do anything — including becoming an Olympic-level figure skater. “’The only limits to your success are your own imagination.’ My father said that to me so much I could say it in my sleep. I’m pretty sure that if I wanted to be an Olympic figure skater right now — if I started working, I could do it. And I’m not joking. I have that much belief — that if I believe I can do it, I can do it. Now I’d probably be terrible at it, but I believe that I’d probably make it.”

2. When Rhimes interviewed Judy Smith, the inspiration for Olivia Pope in “Scandal,” she asked her how to dispose of a body. Smith, speaking in hypotheticals, reportedly had an answer for her.

3. “As far as I’m concerned,” Rhimes says, “’Grey’s’ is a different show every season. I end the show, and I begin a different show every season. Otherwise it feels like it’s going to become sort of stale.” One thing that does stay constant, though, is that the doctors save or lose a life in every episode.

4. Rhimes is very firm about the fact that TV is a business — not a venue for instant gratification. “You don’t just get to write whatever you want and then somebody magically puts it on the air. We’re not princesses, we’re not wearing tiaras — it’s not the world. We all have to feed ourselves.”

5. Rhimes writes in Movie Magic Screenwriter (a software she thinks she might be “single-handedly keeping alive with my five shows”) on a Macbook Pro. She’s gone through a few laptops, because, she says, “I break them. I mean, it’s very interesting. I think I burned up one of my computers — literally, I finished a season, and my computer started to smoke.” And there’s always stuff on-the-go: The phrase “gladiator in a suit” first got written in the Notes app on Rhimes’ iPhone.

6. Rhimes wrote “Grey’s Anatomy” because she couldn’t get traction with a pilot she’d written about war correspondents. She attributes this partly to the fact that the country was at war at the time — it made it too real for an escapist show. (Also, the pilot was going to be expensive.) So she asked ABC what kind of show CEO Bob Iger was looking for. “They said, Bob Iger wants a medical show. And I said, ‘I like surgery.’” Then she wrote the pilot for “Grey’s.”

7. “Scandal” is an unplannable show. “There was no planning of that show. We sit in that room, we talk about everything, and it is a week-to-week situation.”

8. The “Grey’s Anatomy” staff uses “medical medical” as a dialogue placeholder for the procedural elements. Similarly, “Scandal” has “political political.” It makes for comical scripts where Meredith will say “I need to medical the medical! Hand me the medical!”

9. Rhimes originally had envisioned Dr. Bailey from “Grey’s Anatomy” as a petite blonde woman. Chandra Wilson surprised her by interpreting the character in a brilliant way, so Rhimes gave her the part. After that, she avoids detailed physical characteristics when she describes or introduces new characters. For Denny — the heart patient played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan in Season 2 of “Grey’s” — the character description note was simply, “he has a quality that makes you want to lick him.”

10. Addison and Olivia — the names she picked for her leads in “Private Practice” and “Scandal” — were names she’d wanted to use for her own children. “I pick great names because they always end up popular baby names, like Addison. And that’s lovely, but then it makes it harder later. I have given up many of my favorite baby names to characters — and then I can’t use them.”

11. One of Rhimes’ pitching tips is to keep in mind what executives are looking for — such as marketing strategies. “It’s nice to bring them an answer to that question right at the beginning.” When she was pitching “Grey’s Anatomy,” she called it “Sex in the Surgery” — framing it in comparison to “Sex and the City.” “Frankly, at the time, guys who were buying the show at the network.” Rhimes says it wasn’t her “favorite” way to sell the show. “But it worked.”

12. Rhimes uses headphones to stave off writing distractions — which, she says, include cake, candy, pictures of Idris Elba, phone calls, and pity. Objects on her desk include books she’s meaning to read, post-it reminders, and “a lot of paper, for some reason.”

13. How Rhimes writes a drama script: “I try to step into a drama knowing, from the very beginning, what the last scene is going to be.” She makes the case for why beat sheets and outlining are good strategies for new writers — but adds that she hasn’t written an outline since the pilot of “Grey’s Anatomy” — and that was only because she had to, for the development process. “That’s just how my brain works … it’s fine if I don’t write an outline,” she points out. “The only person who has to approve it is me.”

14. Rhimes loves the dialogue of “Breaking Bad.” She adds that the “I am the one who knocks” speech is the best thing she has seen on TV in “long long long long long. It’s lovely.”

15. The “Grey’s Anatomy” writers’ room is full of arts and crafts. Rhimes describes it like “kindergarten, or a day room in a nursing home.” There’s knitting, painting, crafting, and a treadmill.

16. Rhimes gets 2,500 emails a day. Because the deluge is so unsustainable — and because she “burned out” in the first few years of being a showrunner — she now only checks them once a day.

17. A snippet of wisdom for working mothers: Forget worrying about having it all. “Work/life balance is a lie that we are fed to make us feel bad about ourselves. It doesn’t exist. There are always going to be times where you feel terrible as a mother and always times where you feel terrible at your job. That is just how it goes.”

18. Rhimes didn’t know “Grey’s Anatomy” was a hit until the end of Season 2. The cast went to New York City and was planning to go out to dinner together. “We walked out of the hotel, and there were hundreds of people outside the hotel, and they were screaming our names — not just the actors’ names, but my name, too. Everybody got really scared, and we all ran back inside and looked at each other and said, ‘What do you think is happening?’and somebody said, ‘I think those people are here for us.’” It wasn’t until then that Rhimes realized her show had really made an impact. (By the way, they were so flummoxed by the crowds that they didn’t leave the hotel and just ordered room service.)

19. Rhimes recommends a bit of swagger — especially for women and people of color. She got used to rooms full of white guys at Dartmouth, which helped. “I belong in any room I enter,” she says in one of her last videos. “I’m a bada–.”

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