7 Easy Ways To Write Grey’s Anatomy

I hope you guys had a vaguely interesting time reading my Grey’s Anatomy script, “Reprise”, which I threw up (internet-wise, not acid reflux-wise) on Monday and finally resolved the age-old question of zombies vs. doctors. A win for the zombies right now, but hints of our plucky medical crew making it to Level 2 of Zombieland.

Anyway, as I said when I launched this crazy thing we call blog (which is, oddly enough, the title of Diablo Cody’s new film) I’m also going to give a little bit of background on how I work as I writer – what my processes are script to script, the individual obstacles and opportunities that each show represents, and what I think works and doesn’t work and hate about my own writing. And lo, here we are.

1. Big Idea

You would think that this would be the main one, and the defining rule under which all writing flows, but for me numbers 1 and 2 here are pretty interchangeable. But in the case of Grey’s Anatomy, the “main idea” was all-encompassing from the get-go. The saucy cast of Grey’s Anatomy vs. the squelchy cast of 28 Days Laer. A simple idea, yes, but one with fairly infinite possibilities.

I chose Grey’s Anatomy more broadly because it’s a show I know relatively well, and respect to a certain extent (it comes in waves, mostly dependent on whether they’ve managed to stop having “they sleep together” as a plot point), so I felt it was as good a place to start as any for this project.

More specifically, Grey’s Anatomy is a show that suits a large scale zombie attack. The action is always limited to one large, dynamic location (as well-used in the show’s Season 6 gun-waving finale), and to a large extent so are the characters’. Everything they care about, bar a select couple of exemptions (which I’ll go into below) are confined to that hospital. So an attack there is an attack on everything these characters are, and guarantees a limited, familiar location for this story to play out in.

2. Moments & Images

I call this “Moments & Images”, but a more accurate term would be “triggers”. With this script I was limited to the “big idea” concept, but often things I work on won’t begin with something so concrete. Instead it will be an image of someone in a particular position, a snippet of dialogue, or just an overall feeling that will become hooked in my mind.

When I’m starting on something as free-form as a play (where I’ll just let my mind wander into whatever plot it’s going to wander into) I’ll just jot down these random triggers, sometimes over the course of months. I’ll be unsure if or how they could come together to form a coherent piece or plot, but most of the time they’ll cohere into something I can work with. Whether these images or whatever will actually make it into the final product is anybody’s guess (and clinging too tightly to them is, I’ve learned, a big mistake) but they do give me a place to work from.

In the case of this episode, even though I had a big idea I still had some moments in mind. Kepner’s dramatic arrival scalpelling Patient Zero out the back of the ambulance, Arizona’s sacrifice, Cristina’s sixty second break to grieve Owen (which originated as an entirely separate idea for another show but somehow wormed its way in here), and even Lexie’s bloody handprints on Mark’s back – this all came to me in the early stages of writing, even if I didn’t know exactly how they would fit into the overall story.

I don’t know if this is a traditional way of putting things together, but it works for me. And it tends to exert a more emotional and visceral pull on me than having a big idea – even if they don’t make it into the final product, the fact that they existed are a good reminder of why I wanted to write this particular piece in the first place.

3. Continuing Stories

This being the land of the spec, I was of course mindful that there is a hell of a lot more going on in Grey’s Anatomy than just a bunch of erotically charged medical staff waiting around for the apocalypse.

The tradition of the spec script is to be all standalone and non-continuity and “don’t mess with the big stuff” but since this was my first, and there were zombies, and I promise to be a good boy further down the line, I decided to pull in some existing story threads to my zombocalypse.

The most obvious was to draw heavily on the experience from the previous season’s finale – the shoot-out at the hospital. It had a similar, if much more drawn out and less frantic feel. People were trapped, blood was shed, fabulous hair was de-fabulousized and guns were aplenty. To a certain extent, this ep was like that but on some kind of coffee buzz. Or pep pills. Sweet, delicious pep pills.

The other main plot I pulled in, and one that will become more relevant down the line, was Callie’s pregnancy. As I was writing it, the character was a few months along (in the show, she’s since given birth) and I liked the dynamic this brought into play. This eventually progressed into something much more important – the immunity pregnant women enjoy from the virus. I’d already sketched out the idea of a sequel episode in Grey’s Anatomy’s sister show Private Practice – and since that show is set at a fertility clinic it didn’t take long for those dots to connect. But that’s a story for another time.

Beyond the above, I tried to touch on relevant relationships, even down to minor details that probably flew under most people’s radars – Lexie saying to Mark that she would “teach him” (the reverse is how they first consummated their relationship), Teddy’s friend she lost in 9/11 (which lead to her joining the army) and even the hiccoughs Lexie experiences in the opening hark back to the fact that her mother died of same. Again, all inconsequential to a large extent, but the kind of layering I’d savour were I ever let loose on a show of my own.

4. Nature Of The Z

Fast or slow? 28 Days Later of Dawn Of The Dead? Shuffle-shuffle-moan or “Oh my–” *neck bite*?

It was a toss-up, but I had to make them fast. The length of the episode alone would have made a shuffle zombie attack draw out too long, plus I wanted to be clear – this was the end of the world, and there was no going back.

5. Who To Kill

Ah yes. This was a toughie. Not that I find it difficult to off characters – it makes for some
lovely drama and frankly blood splatter is an art form all of its own. It was more a “how much is too much?” mentality. If you don’t kill anyone, then why the hell have zombies at all? Whereas if you kill too many people you find all of the characters weighed down by grief, which would suck the joy right out of the script.

So the way the deaths progressed was something I tried my best to be delicate about. The first major character death was the Chief’s, but that happened in such a flurry and – crucially – out of sight of many of those who truly care for him (Bailey, Meredith etc.). The second, Arizona’s, was a slower and more implied death – she was sacrificing herself, and it really put Callie out of action as far as “fun” goes for the rest of the episode. The final double whammy was deliberately left until the end – Derek and Owen, the loves of our female leads, taken down in their prime. I thought it would be interesting to see how these women would cope without their men (plus it gave that interesting dynamic between Teddy and Cristina some life). Advice for killing loads of people in drama? Save your best until to the point where you only want to watch your characters grieve, because death really sucks the fun out of things.

6. How To Get Them All There

Obviously, these people spend a lot of time in hospital. And I’m sure on occasion Grey’s Anatomy has stuck all its characters at work at the same time, even though that doesn’t really make sense from a work schedule viewpoint.

That said, I wanted to find an organic way to get them all there. So while some were at work…

– Lexie and Jackson were drunkenly bitching across the street
– Callie, Mark and Arizona were getting an ultrasound
– Meredith was picking up a pregnancy test on her day off
– Kepner picked up an ambulance (and a zombie) while going out to get milk

The only other issue was, in many ways, related to 5. Stupid, stupid grief. Namely, that any characters with family members OUTSIDE the hospital would be terribly caught up in that side of things. Luckily enough, the Grey’s cast are a sad bunch and have little to no lives outside the hospital. Except, of course, Miranda Bailey – whose son, Tuck, miraculously comes to work with her the day of the outbreak. What are the odds?

This “how to get them all there” attitude is something that might seem like mindless chore-ing but often plays hell with television scripts, especially one with the huge ensemble casts you have nowadays. Bearing in mind the multiple inter-personal relationships at play here, it was nigh on impossible to have every important pairing and grouping of characters interact through the plot (especially as all were intent on some form of escape), but I did the best I could to keep the number of groups – and the number in each group – at a managable level.

These are the annoying parts of writing.

7. Themes

It might seem odd that this one would come last, the idea of having an overarching “message” or “theme” – but really, I don’t always have one. And if I do, it generally becomes evident to me in how or what I write, rather than informing everything I do.

And I wouldn’t say that this is the most high-minded piece of art in the world, but one thing did recur throughout that I found interesting: the ability to not care. Summated in Teddy’s toilet advice to Kepner, but really broadly used throughout is the idea that if you can just bring yourself to not panic, not grieve, not be shocked and not feel for the duration of something like this, you just might make it. Embodied by Kepner’s almost commentary-like detachment, but generally the people who got things done were the
ones who didn’t care so damn much.

And that, my good friends, is how you (or rather, I) write an episode of Grey’s Anatomy. I’ll probably go into more detail about television writing and structure as I continue this series, but for now I hope that gives some window into my twisted mind.

Allons-y!

P.S. Whistle While You Work

For anyone interested on any music I associate with the script – I always like to have songs to both spur me on emotionally and, down the line, remind me how I felt when I started – I was mainly listening to “Winter Song” by Sara Bareilles and Ingrid Michaelson. CHOON.

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About alfla

Playwright, screenwriter, sometime improv enthusiast and full-time television lover. You know, in THAT way.
This entry was posted in Grey's Anatomy, How I Write, Research, Shows and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to 7 Easy Ways To Write Grey’s Anatomy

  1. Luke says:

    You’re a mad genius Alan! I love that you laid out your writing process for us. I can’t wait to see more.

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