Sometime last year, I saw an ad for a new website called MasterClass where you could learn from leaders in various industries (such as film, fashion, and music) through online courses. I was instantly intrigued because obviously, the concept is brilliant. We’ve all wished, at some point or another, that we could get inside the heads of the artists and creators we admire most in our fields of interest.
When it first launched, there were only a few classes available and none of them were my thing, so I signed up to be notified when new instructors were added. The moment I found out Shonda Rhimes would be instructing a course on television writing, I freaked out. Like, you would have thought I’d just found out *NSYNC would be reuniting at my next birthday party for a special performance. (I’m still holding out for that to happen, too, by the way.)
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the name, Shonda is the queen of Thursday nights on ABC. She’s the creator and showrunner of both Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal. I’ve been wishing for years that she would write a book on writing. I’ve admired her craft since I began watching Grey’s Anatomy in 2005 and my love for her grew with the premiere of Scandal. To someone who’s always loved the serial format of television and the soap opera genre, Shonda is a big deal.
What I love most about Shonda is her intuitive ability to create compelling, multi-layered characters. Her stories are rooted in character. They’re raw, passionate, moving, and (often) pretty sexy. While I haven’t agreed with every decision she’s ever made with her storytelling, I have a deep respect for her skills nonetheless. The woman knows her stuff.
Now that you know a bit about Shonda and my
obsession with admiration for her, let’s talk about the course because obviously, I had some pretty big expectations. So, did her class live up to them? Spoiler: yes.
First off, is it only for TV writers? And people who like her TV shows?
Nope. While she does offer a lot of insight into how to the structure of television series and how the business operates, the majority of the lessons are applicable to any type of fiction. She puts a lot of focus on story and character which is a goldmine for any writing style or genre.
Her teaching style
Shonda is not only a gifted writer, she’s also a gifted speaker and instructor. It came as no surprise to me when she shared in Lesson 29: Shonda’s Journey that her parents were both educators, because teaching clearly comes naturally to her. She also seems to have a genuine passion for sharing knowledge. You can feel her passion for the craft, as well as her desire to share what she knows with anyone who shares that enthusiasm.
What I also loved was how clear and concise she was while offering so much detail. She’s incredibly eloquent and has a gift for expressing the most basic of concepts and ideas in a way that makes them feel fresh. Her unique perspective and way of communicating them often added depth to things I’d already learned or personally experienced before, but her take on them made my understanding of them even richer.
One great example was when she spoke on getting into the creative zone or the “vortex.” She compared it to a long hallway in which you enter through one door and at the opposite end is another. That second door leads you to “the zone,” where you are fully focused and immersed in your project. It’s where all the magic happens.
When you first start writing, or don’t write on a regular basis, the hallway is filled with a multitude of distractions like laundry, social media, snacking, and other things that steal your attention. It takes a while to get to the second door. However, the more you write, the shorter that hallway gets until eventually, you open the first door and step right through to the second.
That’s why, she says, that it’s so important to write every day so that hallway gets shorter, faster.
The curriculum is meaty and wonderful. If you’re a beginner, you won’t feel overwhelmed. She covers a lot of the basics first. If you’ve been writing for a while, you may still find her lessons on the basics enlightening (the way I did) because of her gift for pulling out details in a way that provides you a new way of looking at them.
One of my favorite parts of the course is when she breaks down the five acts of the pilot for Scandal in a classroom setting with four students, who were able to ask her various questions about it. Each act is covered in a separate lesson so you get a lot of great information and insight into why the pilot worked so well. Even if don’t desire to write for television, there is a lot of insight here that will help you write anything. The lessons can be applied to any form of fiction writing.
The workbooks that accompany each lesson are sometimes helpful, but mostly underwhelming. That’s one area I’d like to see improved upon in future courses. However, the class itself is well worth the investment.
I’m adding this to my list of “musts” for any writer who wants to expand their knowledge of the craft at any stage of the game, whether you’re a complete amateur or a seasoned profession. There’s something to be gained from it for any storyteller.
Next, I’ll be taking Aaron Sorkin’s MasterClass on television writing, my other writer-crush. I. Can’t. Wait. Stay tuned for my review on that one.
If you have any questions about this class, feel free to ask in the comments!